On Television

Final frontiers

Adam LeBor on two TV series that are set in border regions, that feature engaging female characters and that are beautifully filmed

This article is taken from the November 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Far too much of the crime fiction industry is still powered by dead women. They are shot, bludgeoned, beaten, stabbed and dismembered. Sometimes their corpses are fetishised in strange rituals that are supposed to bring a veneer of mystery to their fate.

The only mystery is why so many crime writers cannot think up other storylines. This endemic portrayal of female victimhood is surely intertwined with the astonishing levels of public misogyny in contemporary Britain.

This endemic portrayal of female victimhood is surely intertwined with the astonishing levels of public misogyny in contemporary Britain

Thankfully, television drama is often different, bringing us a legion of strong female protagonists with courage and agency. As usual, some of the most enthralling series are half-hidden away on Walter Presents, Channel 4’s sub-channel for foreign crime and thrillers. The Devil’s Throat and Floodland are two of the current best.

Both are set in border regions; the first in the Rhodope mountains of southern Bulgaria, not far from Greece, while Floodland unfolds in the moody landscape on the Dutch and Belgian frontier. Both feature engaging female characters despatched from the big city to the provinces. There they are regarded with suspicion if not hostility by the locals — and their slick urban survival skills are not always much use.

Each is haunted by their recent past and their catastrophic misjudgements. These are all common enough plot devices, but the two series carry their stories off not just with verve, but passion and humanity.

Both are beautifully filmed, full of lingering panoramic shots. The Devil’s Throat unfolds in the lands explored so evocatively by the Bulgarian-born writer Kapka Kassabova in her award-winning travelogue, Border. This is a place of magic and folk rituals, of blind seers and fortune tellers, of misty dawns and blood-red sunsets and soaring mountains where crystal rivers flow through thick forests.

In Floodlands there is less to work with, a land of flat plains that stretch to the horizon, but skilful cinematography brings vistas that are sometimes menacing and at others full of poignant longing as distant lights glimmer.

The Devil’s Throat has two protagonists: detective Filip Chanov, played by Vladimir Karamazov, and Mia Nedelcheva, an officer in the state security service, played by Teodora Duhovnikova. The series opens with a dead man found on the edge of a lake. He has been stabbed, his eyeballs have been removed and he has been circumcised. The body is identified as that of a retired border policeman.

These are all common enough plot devices, but the two series carry their stories off not just with verve, but passion and humanity

These are the frontier lands, where migrants trek from Turkey, through Bulgaria towards western Europe, and where violent people-smuggling gangs outwit patchy law enforcement. This is a promising enough storyline, but the 12-part series then takes a deeper turn into the grimmest era of modern Bulgarian history: the expulsion in 1989 of more than 300,000 members of the Turkish minority.

Ethnic cleansing brings lucrative opportunities for those who remain, especially in small provincial towns. The plot twists and turns, each episode digging deeper into the dark back story behind the supposed pastoral idyll.

Mia is tough and resilient — except where her wayward teenage daughter is concerned. The police officers are fiercely loyal to each other, and the on-off romance between Mia and Filip is raw and intense. Mia is relentless in her drive to uncover the truth, but how far will Filip go when the trail turns uncomfortably close to home?

The Devil’s Throat is a fine drama, and a deserved hit in Bulgaria. Its nuanced, courageous exploration of highly sensitive contemporary history deserves a much wider audience.

In Floodland, detective Tara Dessel, played by Jasmine Sendar, is also digging into a people-smuggling ring, one connected to a sinister outlaw brotherhood that reaches back centuries.

It also skilfully explores the power relationships in a small, insular community that for centuries has been home to smugglers and outlaws, where the rule of law often counts for little.

Tara is a complex, layered character haunted by a terrible mistake she made on a case in Rotterdam. She has been exiled to a small provincial town, where the locals are deeply suspicious of outsiders, especially a tall black woman with an eye-catching Afro and an excellent line in 1970-style clothes that makes Tara look like she has just walked off the set of a Shaft film.

The casual racism she encounters is shocking, but she seems barely bothered. Her focus is solving the case, where she is trying to make amends for what happened in Rotterdam. The tension steadily ramps up as she is drawn deeper into a web of corruption and criminality linking fellow police officers and the local customs officials. Nobody, it seems, can be trusted. Especially the sinister but macabrely fascinating criminal matriarch.

The brutality and profiteering of the people-trafficking business is graphically shown, as groups of terrified children and teenagers are shunted around at gunpoint. But when the local gangsters try and team up with a Chinese gang they too are soon out of their depth. Those wide sandy beaches may look welcoming, but the water is full of treacherous and perilous currents.

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