Given the clairvoyant accuracy of J. G. Ballard’s assertion in the 1990s that ‘The 21st century will be the century of the psychopath’ it is not surprising that over the last couple of decades these largely male, white and profoundly disturbed figures have come to populate a significant and steadily increasing portion of TV and film thrillers and high finance dramas.
In the second season of the Danish psychological thriller series ‘Those Who Kill’, titled ‘Blinded’, we see an emerging variant of the ‘high-functioning’ psychopath who has already become prominent in such finance dramas as ‘Billions’ and ‘Devils’. In these latter are found ruthless businessmen (and some women) for whom betrayal is routine and there is no such person as the colleague who cannot be professionally destroyed if the full realisation of scruple-free schemes is to be achieved.
These financiers are charismatic, well groomed and dressed, have nice families whom they love and sometimes a dog. At this level of analysis they could pass for ordinary bankers and fund managers. Importantly, they don’t look mad or bad, their faces are handsome and unscarred and they are often seen being pleasant to people who are not their employees.
In ‘Blinded’ the variant in the high-functioning class of psychopaths features a family man whose low status job is cutting timber in a sawmill. His high-flying wife wants a divorce and he is left to care for his son. Despite the domestic setbacks he has a relaxed, low-key manner and is liked by his friends. He does, however, capture men and torture them at length before killing them. So in terms of variance, he largely eschews the women and children first template for TV psychokillers and, importantly, he doesn’t look like a bad man.
It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a screen psychopath is goodlooking and amiable, of course, but when he chats to his son, or his male chums or his boss or does the school run, there isn’t a hint of the currently most fashionable of evils in either his general demeanour or his micro-expressions. This is meticulously controlled throughout the series, with the actor (Tobias Santelmann) only facialising derangement when he is actually torturing his victims. Even when the net closes in on him he registers only a stern determination – a nice man experiencing some pressure.
Nevertheless and as we would expect, his days are numbered. Karina (Helle Fagralid), the police chief in Odense, meets Louise (Natalie Madueno), a criminal profiler, and asks for her support in tracking down the serial killer who, after a five year break, is on the prowl again. We are relieved of the need to endure the tiresome trope of ‘Cop resents sharing her case with an outsider’ because Karina and Louise get on well and respect each other’s skills. This seems to signal the production’s acknowledgement that women are capable of working relationships based on trust rather than competition.
There’s a key scene in Episode 2 when a forensic pathologist shows Karina and Louise the deep cuts that have been made on the soles of the feet of the killer’s latest victim. The women leave the lab and walk slowly down a corridor.
LOUISE He cuts Ricky’s feet and unties him. His escape wasn’t an accident.
KARINA Did he want to hunt him? Why take that risk?
LOUISE I don’t know. We might be wrong about the motive.
KARINA So it isn’t sexual?
LOUISE It’s always about control and dominance. This guy also punishes his victims.
KARINA For what?
LOUISE I don’t know, but when we find the common denominator we’ll find the motive.
Somehow a relatively procedural scene, one that has to take place, acquires a much wider frame of reference. The corridor removes the women from the investigative environment and briefly becomes a liminal space in which the lifting of plot and genre constraints elevates their discussion to a measured analysis of a pandemic toxic masculinity that underlies the totality of social experience and consigns women to a leached and wearying game of pathologised whack-a-mole.