Early in HBO’s Swedish-language adaptation “Beartown,” two people are running desperately through the snow. One is carrying a rifle, and the other is doing their best to avoid getting shot. Their faces are obscured, any telling identification avoided, but the chase ends with the hunter and prey isolated on a frozen lake, the latter kneeling in front of the former, before the image cuts to black just before a shot rings out.
Considering the audience learns both identities before the end of the second episode, this intense introductory scene isn’t meant to tease a mystery. “Beartown” is a blunt story, stocked with direct lessons. Still, it’s patient about revealing its thesis, and the life-or-death stakes set up from the get-go help to prepare the audience for when normal life in a small Swedish town turns very, very ugly. For a while, it may seem like “Beartown” will be little more than a clichéd sports story, but those typically don’t involve impromptu executions.
Flashing back to what led to such drastic measures, Peter Andersson (Ulf Stenberg) and his family return to his titular hometown in Sweden, where he’s accepted a job to coach the local ice hockey team. While this may sound like a rather mundane life development for a former professional hockey player, Beartown is obsessed with its hockey club. Parents scream profanities at the refs — and young players — from the stands. They do the same at practices, which they attend religiously. They hold meetings over the coaching decisions, get drunk in the bar talking about upcoming games, and generally do whatever is necessary to produce a winning team.
This kind of player empowerment translates time and time again to entitlement. There’s a silent, haunting scene where a group of young girls are practicing figure skating, when a whistle suddenly blows and the older hockey players burst off the bench and skate circles around the class, both as a warning to clear the ice and as a thoughtless act, like those little girls don’t even exist. Director Peter Grönlund and writers Anders Weidemann, Antonia Pyk, and Linn Gottfridsson take the necessary time to show how sports culture envelops the town. They even manage to get you caught up in the stakes of individual games, while simultaneously emphasizing how a fixation on wins and losses defines the young lives of current players and resulted in the man Peter, among others in town, has become.
And Peter is no saint. He bullies his way into getting the team he wants to coach. He pushes players beyond reasonable limits based purely on his own belief they can do better. He lives by the ethos of winning at all costs, and “Beartown” soon shows exactly what it costs him.
Peter is the focal adult character, and his journey is an often-uncomfortable journey of self-discovery, but his daughter, Maya (Miriam Ingrid), is one of our key gateways into teen life, and her story keeps us hooked into the present. The new girl in school, Maya latches on quickly with Ana (Sanna Niemi), a kind girl with a locker nearby, but she also innocently flirts with the star hockey player on her dad’s team, Kevin (Oliver Dufåker). Not only is Kevin already idolized as the second-coming of Peter — a once-in-a-lifetime talent destined to represent Beartown in the NHL — but he’s the son of Peter’s old teammate, new neighbor, and enduring nemesis, Mats (Tobias Zilliacus). Psychologically and physically abusive, Mats applies the same win-at-all-costs ethos Peter has, only with a more villainous conviction. The two parents quickly represent two sides of the same coin, and Kevin is the one flipping allegiances between his father and his coach.
Soon, the two families find themselves entwined in a traumatizing act of violence. Loyalties to each other, to the town, and to the team are tested, with the resulting choices affecting just about every person in Beartown. To say more would verge into spoiler territory, but “Beartown” isn’t dependent on surprises. The five episodes are often bleak and hard to watch, but the tangled cultures they’re trying to tear down demand a certain level of starkness. Rape culture and sports culture shouldn’t connect, but they do, and far too often. These are problems painfully familiar to too many towns and too many families. These are obsessions encouraged by too many institutions and too many parents. Power is too often given to those who aren’t ready to handle it.
Perhaps “Beartown” is too blunt in its execution, too familiar in its narrative arcs, but it’s also wise enough to acknowledge those traits are also part of its tragedy. If you recognize these people, or yourself, over the course of this story, try not to shy away. Admitting the flaws in something you love isn’t as easy as glossing over them, but it’s often the only way to avoid exacerbating those mistakes.
“Beartown” premieres Monday, February 22 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. The five-episode limited series will air new episodes weekly.