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Review: Time travel and murder combine in HBO’s riveting Beforeigners series

Beforeigners trailer.

Two police detectives from wildly different time periods must learn to work together to solve a murder in Beforeigners, a riveting blend of science fiction and police procedural from HBO Europe that is already poised to become one of the standout shows of the year. Like Netflix’s Ragnarok, it is a Norwegian TV series that draws heavily on the history and mythology of the region. But Beforeigners eschews the supernatural, and the campier teen soap elements, to deliver a thoughtful, moving, and often quite ribald and funny tale of various worlds colliding.

(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)

Series creators Eilif Skodvin and Anne Bjørnstad wanted to follow up their successful series Lilyhammer with a science fiction story built around the idea of refugees arriving from different historical periods rather than different countries, and they combined the concept with a hard-boiled murder mystery. They’ve cited District 9 and The Leftovers among their influences, along with classic novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984.

Set in Oslo, Norway, the pilot opens with detective Lars Haaland (Nicolai Cleve Broch) and his wife Marie (Agnes Kittelsen) purchasing a condo in the heart of the city’s posh Barcode financial district. A sudden series of flashing blue lights in the nearby ocean, accompanied by a power outage, is followed by the equally sudden appearance of people calling for help in the water. Lars helps fish them out, only to find they hail from another time.

Five years later, the blue flashes have become a common occurrence, with some 13,000 “temporal refugees” (known as the titular “beforeigners”) arriving in Norway each year. All hail from three periods: the prehistoric Stone Age, the Viking era, and the 19th century. None can remember anything about their passage through time, and as they struggle to assimilate in this confusing new world, modern residents are divided between those who encourage “temporal diversity” and those who exhibit strong anti-refugee sentiments.

Lars is now divorced and addicted to temproxat, a drug administered via eyedrops routinely given to the refugees to ease their sensory overload. His posh neighborhood is now a beforeigner ghetto, his ex-wife has remarried a 19th century beforeigner named Gregers (Kyrre Haugen Sydness), and his teenaged daughter Ingrid (Ylva Bjørkås Thedin) is preparing for her russefeiring (a Norwegian tradition akin to senior spring break).

Then a female body with Stone Age tattoos washes up on the beach, showing evidence of strangulation. Lars must solve the case with his new partner, Alfhildr (Krista Kosonen), the first Viking beforeigner to join the police force straight out of the academy. Their investigation brings them into contact with a sex club operated by a gang of Bohemians, a community of “trans-temporal” people (modern residents who join beforeigner communities and adopt the dress and customs of their chosen period), a Stone Age crime lord named Navn (Oddgeir Thune), anti-technology “neo-Luddites,” and a beforeigner who just might be the great Norse pagan warrior Thorir Hund (Stig Henrik Hoff), among others.

Skodvin and Bjørnstad have created an eminently believable futuristic world, blending modern-day Norway with historical elements from the relevant time periods, complete with its own slang. (HBO has even set up a handy website with definitions for the most commonly used vocabulary on the series, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the show, since those meanings are easily gleaned from context.) And they’ve peopled this world with a rich array of complex, imperfect characters that capture our hearts and imaginations as they struggle to live and work with others from very different time periods and cultures.

At the center are Lars and Alfhildr, a drug addict on the verge of hitting bottom, and a former Viking shieldmaiden with some poorly controlled rage issues. Their partnership starts out a bit rocky, given his distrust of beforeigners and her bluntly matter-of-fact nature. For instance, he is nonplussed when the menstruating Alfhildr stops to collect some moss off a rock and stuffs it down her jeans in lieu of sanitary pads (which she can’t afford due to student loan debts). But when he gifts her a package of pads, she is delighted (“It’s like having a soft kitty in your underwear!”) and they slowly become friends. The statuesque Kosonen is Finnish and had to learn both Norwegian and Old Norse to play Alfhildr, but it’s hard to imagine any other actress in the role.

HBO has a well-deserved reputation for including a lot of sex, violence, and nudity in its prestige dramas. While that element certainly exists in Beforeigners, it’s relatively tame by cable television standards, approaching those elements with the matter-of-factness of Alfhildr negotiating an assignation with harbor cop Jeppe. Sure, Navn is usually nude, proudly displaying his genitalia in a blatant show of cave man aggressiveness that he knows will effectively cow the more prudishly inclined. Alfhildr, naturally, is unfazed by the display; in her culture, it’s just not that shocking. Similarly, Lars is shocked to find that his Stone Age neighbor lets his grade school son watch Game of Thrones, because who doesn’t like violence and naked women?

Precisely how the temporal refugees are transported to modern-day Oslo—and why they only come from three distinct historical periods—is an over-arching mystery that is not explained in-depth in S1, although the last few episodes offer strong hints that there is more to the global phenomenon than mere coincidence. We’re told that there are various “time holes” in the ocean—the series’ version of a wormhole—that transport people through some kind of dimension where time moves infinitely slower than it does in our own dimensional world. Via a flashback, we learn that those time holes also appear in the Old Norse era, in the “lake of a thousand lights.”

We are also told that time travel is a one-way street, from the past to the future, although once again, in the final episodes there are hints that this might not be the case. And given the heavy emphasis on the legendary conflict between Thorir Hund and Olaf the Stout, plus the finale’s final twist, it’s a fair bet that the battle of Stiklestad is a significant factor that will play a major role in S2. That’s assuming Beforeigners gets approved for a second season, of course, but a show this good certainly deserves renewal.

Beforeigners is currently streaming on HBO GO, HBO Now, and partner streaming platforms. In Norwegian with English subtitles. Fair warning: you’re going to want to binge this one.

Listing image by YouTube/HBO

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