Crime drama thrives on hidden agendas, concealed truths and humans acting on their worst impulses. The six part Nordic Noir series Eyewitness is no exception, but by rooting itself in a coming-of-age, coming out story, it’s able to tell a larger story that explores ideas of family and abuses of power.
The show opens in the small town of Mysen, where young lovers Philip and Henning witness a multiple shooting, barely escaping with their lives. What they’ve seen could be central in unraveling not only the murders, but a larger mystery engulfing the country, and help end an escalating gang war. However Henning, still struggling with his sexuality and fearful of his father, swears Philip to silence.
In many ways, Eyewitness is a family drama first, and crime drama second. While the police investigation continues and the situation escalates, the toll of keeping his and Henning’s secret causes Philip’s life with his foster parents to disintegrate. It’s a situation made all the worse as his adoptive mother, Helen, sheriff of Mysen, takes over leading the murder investigation.
It’s in the relationship between Helen and Philip that the show lays the foundation for the unconventional family dynamics it explores through the rest of its cast, from violently overprotective crime boss fathers, to sisters divided by the law. In fact it’s often traditional families that come off the most dysfunctional, divided by personal agendas and prejudices. And while Philip and his biological mother truly love each other, she’s also a prescription drug addict who keeps escaping from her rehab program to see him - that’s what passes for the healthiest conventional family in Eyewitness.
Really though, it’s the contrast of Philip’s life with his adoptive family, and the familial bond holding together the Sixers biker gang, where the show most clearly makes it statement about family: it’s a construct built on trust. In Eyewitness, biology has very little to do with the bonds that hold us together socially.
However all relationships are built off some sort of power dynamic, and much of Eyewitness revolves around the abuse of this power in one way or another. Philip is completely devoted to Henning, who is struggling with both his sexuality, and the trauma of the crime they witnessed. As his mental state deteriorates, he lashes out at Philip, verbally abusing him, but also twisting Philip’s devotion to serve his own agenda whether this is covering up their romance, hiding evidence of their involvement in the murders, or attempting to exploit Philip’s past illegally buying prescription drugs for his mother.
Other times we see a far darker take on this type of abuse: the exploitative relationship between a paedophile and the young girl he has preyed on. It’s hard to think of a worse abuse of power than adult men preying on vulnerable girls online, so it’s little surprise to find an act so terrible at the centre of the many mysteries and dramas that drive Eyewitness.
The investigation of these mysteries also offers a chance to comment on institutional abuses of power, from a compromised police force to the influence the media can wield over high-profile, public cases. Personal agendas are all furthered by individuals who have the power to twist these organisations to serve their goals, be that something as petty as revenge against a sibling, or something far more sinister.
This might all paint the picture of a relentlessly bleak program, best avoided lest you lose all faith in humanity, but there’s a warmth at the centre of Eyewitness that sometimes lets the best in people bubble to the surface. Much of this is driven by Helen’s flawed attempts to build a family with her adoptive son, and Phillip’s own innate kindness and devotion to those he loves. Though whether this results in a redemptive arc for any of the characters, that’s a mystery best solved by watching the show.
Eyewitness is streaming now on SBS On Demand: