Well, that was uncomfortable. Those of us who had thought that Gunvald Larsson would have the chance to retire from the Beck series with grace and dignity were to be massively disappointed. Yet grace and dignity were never really words you would associate with Mikael Persbrandt’s character. Beck’s producers had a tough call to make once Persbrandt had decided that the passing of time and alternative acting opportunities would lead to Gunvald’s exit from the series.
We fans can overthink these things. There were the red herrings suggesting a possible spin off series (though how on earth that could have possibly worked is beyond me). There was the knowledge that having bumped off commissioner Margareta Oberg in the episode In the Name of God it would be a cliché to walk that way again so soon. But In the Name of God was actually made in 2007. And I suspect that one of the causes of grief for British fans comes from the way in which Beck has made it to our screens.
The first episode of the film series was broadcast to its home audience back in 1997. Peter Haber (Beck himself) was in his early forties and Persbrandt in his early thirties. Indeed, for a while Gunvald’s role was as the over-excited rookie – a position that Oskar has since taken up and also graduated from. Viewers who have been able to watch the series in real time will have watched the characters mature and age. For those of us in the UK who have seen the films over a year or so the experience is quite different. How could Gunvald be old? We saw him beating up ne’er-do-wells only a few weeks ago. The ageing process has been telescoped, in a way not of the film-makers’ doing. I think we were also blind-sided by the end of the previous episode, The Hospital Murders, in which the producers allow Beck and Gunvald the chance to be ordinary middle-aged men, and made us feel that perhaps Gunvald would have the chance to bow out quite happily.
Difficult viewing it may be but I think that in the end the producers made the right decision to have Gunvald fatally shot. There is scarcely an episode in which Gunvald is not facing down the barrel of a criminal’s gun. Despite the heavy penalties for shooting a Swedish detective, are we really to believe that Gunvald is indestructible? After 30 films it is entirely reasonable that his luck may just run out.
Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking of Gunvald as some Swedish policing national treasure. He is, especially in the early episodes (admittedly, not yet broadcast on BBC FOUR) a misogynist and a bully, swift to anger and slow of brain. No one would have blamed Martin Beck for cutting him loose on one of the many occasions when Beck’s bosses suggest it. How the Helvete has he killed only one pedestrian when driving as he does?
Persbrandt has commented that there could never be a huge amount of room to develop Gunvald’s character but that isn’t to say we’ve seen no growth. He finds mutual respect with Alice Levander. He attempts to build bridges with his sister after years estranged. But the relationship with his ‘surprise’ son is not developed, nor is the friendship with Beck’s daughter Inger. The memorial service, very sparsely attended for a policeman shot in service, raises in itself many questions about the life of Gunvald Larsson, and its meaning.
We can think all these things, and know the shooting probably makes sense, and although Persbrandt was hardly on set for this episode it’s hidden quite well, and the actual crime story isn’t too bad. But it’s a mark of the acting of Mikael Persbrandt and Peter Haber that none of those things matter today. Gunvald is dead, and for the moment we are inconsolable.