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‘The Investigation’: HBO’s Danish Drama Is as Unglamorous as TV True Crime Gets

Right until the end, Tobias Lindholm's six-part search for the truth behind journalist Kim Wall's death is TV designed to work against the genre's usual rhythms.

The Investigation HBO Team

“The Investigation”

Per Arnesen/HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for “The Investigation,” including the ending.]

There’s something conspicuously absent from a large portion of “The Investigation,” Tobias Lindholm’s dramatic retelling of the 2017 death of investigative journalist Kim Wall. It’s hard to imagine another treatment of this story that would span six episodes while omitting any onscreen depiction of eventual convicted murderer Peter Madsen.

Some audiences may balk at the ways the HBO show (now available in full on HBO Max) removes some of these standard elements of biographical crime stories. In staying as close to its title as possible, though, “The Investigation” managed to address a recent tragedy in a surprisingly clear-headed way.

Much of that stems from the way that “The Investigation” handles the passage of time. Though the season spans months, writer/director Lindholm resists putting down easy markers to wring tension out of breaks in the case. There’s a sameness to the way it unfolds, the kind where a whiteboard sits with words and diagrams written on it that no one’s bothered to erase because there’s nothing new to add, either from detective Jens Møller Jensen (Søren Malling) or prosecutor Jakob Buch-Jepsen (Pilou Asbæk). Finding Wall’s body becomes the overwhelming part of their pursuit — if the show returns to the details of the retrieval process and an item-by-item timeline of everything that happened on the submarine, it underlines how singular their pursuit is.

One of the early indications of how this show takes a different approach is the way the main people in this side of the story talk to each other. In some ways, it’s an artifact of a moment right before a pre-Zoomified world. Developments are delivered in grainy car bluetooth phone calls. There are no fancy conference call speakers, just a phone with a charger on the middle of a table in the middle of a sterile room.

The Investigation HBO Laura Christensen

“The Investigation”

Per Arnesen/HBO

Even over the span of six episodes, there are no giant outbursts, no passionate exhorting of colleagues to “do what’s right” or give overwrought inspirational speeches. The team spends the better part of half a year unpacking a violent, seemingly inexplicable act. Rather than try to artificially manufacture some other interoffice drama, “The Investigation” presents an idea that working to solve homicide cases is not a job designed to provide easy catharsis. Jens staring at the accused’s laptop may get him closer to understanding the motive behind the killing, but it doesn’t make the act itself any easier to rationalize.

Lindholm is no stranger to process-oriented stories inspired by real-life events. His 2012 film “A Hijacking,” which stars Asbæk and features an incredible performance from Malling, organizes most of its runtime around a hostage negotiation. It’s a similarly straightforward and unvarnished look that’s just as disorienting in how it approaches the passing of days and weeks. There’s a fascination with (and understanding of) monotony in his work that goes against a lot of standard TV/film impulses.

In “The Investigation,” Lindholm is combining those incremental advancements with the idea that they don’t simply come from the ether. Understanding some of the finer points of deepwater exploratory diving may not feel necessary in the moment, but it pays off when you see how it wears on those actually doing the daily searches and the people who insist they keep going. There are arguably other ways to make the specifics of the investigation more concrete and less abstract. Doing so in a way that matches some of those individual’s grueling, frustrated strain is a fascinating antidote to the tidier, more artificially propulsive narratives that usually populate dramatized true crime.

The closest “The Investigation” comes to introducing a subplot is showing the tension that the case’s all-consuming nature exerts on Jens’ family life. That part starts to feel lost in the churn of the day-to-day grind of analyzing communication records and making calculations about current speeds. Whether the thinness of those sections is by design or by accident, it almost ends up serving a purpose. “The Investigation” isn’t making the argument that cases like this necessarily require the effort that makes alienating your family members inevitable. There’s still a feeling of the psychological toll of the case slowly compressing each of the people who work on it.

Investigation HBO Soren Malling Pernilla August

“The Investigation”

Per Arnesen/HBO

“The Investigation” is more slow crime than true crime. As a counterbalance to the breakneck parade of surprises that these shows usually put forth, it hits a very particular mood that many shows reach for but never have the tools or breathing room to fully embrace. The eventual breaks in the case don’t come about via easy “Eureka!” moments. If there are revelations to be had, they’re the product of methodically rehashing the details in question.

As the show arrives at its ending, “The Investigation” shows that its characters are not immune to the same frustrations about progress that some viewers might have. What is Jens confronting the coroner outside his office if not a kind of angry audience member, unsatisfied with how quickly something is playing out? The entire series hinging on the interpretation of a single word — and the word being “immediately,” no less — is a quintessential Lindholm touch.

The season’s final moments show how the emotional ribbons running through “The Investigation” were more repressed than absent. “I wish you’d never met me” is the darkest of possible consolations that Jens can give to the Wall family, but by that point in the six-episode arc, it’s a sentiment you truly believe that he means. As the main conference room is stripped bare of all the timeline reconstruction and documents that were pinned to the walls, it’s surprising to see how empty it feels. For a room that never seemed particularly warm or busy or inviting to begin with, it’s almost a retroactive reminder of how much progress and breadth the team was able to cover, despite few moments along the way that felt like genuine advancements. When Maibritt (Laura Christensen) exits the vacated room, there’s a mix of all the frustration and disappointment and success that happened inside it. And yes, maybe a tiny bit of triumph, but one that never came easy.

“The Investigation” is now available to stream in its entirety on HBO Max.

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