Television

The Investigation Is the Next Evolution of True Crime

The series about the gruesome murder of Kim Wall steers away from the genre’s tendency to treat women’s deaths as entertainment.

Pilou Asbaek and Søren Malling in The Investigation.
Pilou Asbaek and Søren Malling in The Investigation. Henrik Ohsten/HBO

True crime has been booming for the last several years, with the popularity of Serial and The Jinx and fictional shows like True Detective and the Danish series The Killing (remade for American TV in 2011) further enflaming the public’s fascination with murder. The Investigation should ostensibly fall into the same category. Directed by Tobias Lindholm and premiering on HBO February 1, the six-part series is a dramatization of the criminal investigation of the 2017 murder of journalist Kim Wall. The show is immediately notable for tackling such recent history (the case came to a close in 2018), but truly distinguishes itself in one key way: Per its director, The Investigation isn’t a “true crime” series. Rather, it’s “true investigation.”

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Throughout the series, Kim Wall’s murderer is never mentioned by name, nor does he ever appear as a character, and though violent acts are often discussed, they’re never shown. Even the recovery of Wall’s dismembered body, which is a major part of the series, is handled with discretion. Wall’s name, however, is used, making her present in a way that her killer is not. (Contrast that with HBO’s marketing for The Jinx, which featured Robert Durst front and center.) Every choice Lindholm makes steers away from true crime’s weakness for exploiting women’s deaths as entertainment. The show’s center is not the gruesome details of Wall’s murder but the process of investigation itself. It’s a procedural in the truest sense of the word.

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The Investigation’s main character, as such, is chief inspector Jens Moller Jensen (Søren Malling), whose dogged work ethic and sense of obligation to Wall’s parents, Joachim and Ingrid (portrayed by Rolf Lassgard and Pernilla August), take a toll on his personal life. (As noted in the last episode, Møller retired soon after the events depicted.) But unlike most TV detectives, Møller’s domestic issues are fairly mundane—his daughter, who is about to have her first child, feels neglected, as he is constantly called away for work. Lindholm isn’t loading up his police officers with personal difficulties in order make them seem grittier or more supernaturally heroic. He just paints them as ordinary people, which is precisely what makes their incredible efforts not just to uncover the truth but to return Wall to her parents so extraordinary.

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Though Wall’s parents and the primary detectives are played by actors and the events are entirely recreated, Lindholm has filled the show with people and objects that were involved in the actual case, from a specific boat to the actual diving crew who scoured Køge Bay during the investigation. (The Wall family dog, a Bernese mountain dog named Iso, also plays himself.) While that authenticity may not be immediately evident without looking up details on how the series was made, the care taken signals to a new perspective for a genre that has usually fixated on criminals, nameless victims (hence the “dead girl trope”), and tortured detectives, i.e. the thing that sets The Investigation apart from the other true crime (and crime-centric) shows and movies that have come and gone in the last handful of years. There’s no element of sensationalism to it, and the dry nature of the proceedings is offset by the fact that the search for Wall is also a search for evidence to use against her killer. In that way, The Investigation serves as an interesting companion to Promising Young Woman; the latter suggests that death is the only thing that would result in real consequences for violence against women, while the former suggests that, up to a certain point, even that may not be enough.

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At least from an American perspective, the so-called “submarine case” was an easy one to gawk at and perceive of as something far removed from the bounds of reality. The details, as they came out, seemed too awful to be believed. Through Lindholm’s telling, the story of Kim Wall becomes less remote; she is not merely a victim but the reason the story matters at all. As the investigation progresses, the series takes the time to discuss Wall’s work—as a journalist, she wrote about everything from pop culture to social justice and foreign policy—almost serving as a eulogy. “She was just curious—trusting and happy and brave,” Møller says. “She was exactly as we want our children to be.” Her death is now inextricably a part of her story, and The Investigation doesn’t soften or tame any of the details. But Lindholm’s approach, in focusing on all of the people and all of the effort that had to go into the case, brings things back down to earth—and marks a next step in the evolution of the true crime genre. There are so many more people involved in such cases than just killer and victim, and the stories of the killers have been told countless times already. Lindholm may make the distinction between “true crime” and “true investigation,” but the truth is that “true crime” serves as an umbrella for both. It’s just that, for too long, we’ve been preoccupied with just a single part of the story.

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