HBO’s Stunning Examination of Rape and Toxic Masculinity

Nick Schager
·5 min read

On the heels of the wildly entertaining 30 Coins, HBO Europe continues to deliver solid early-year dramas with Beartown, a five-part Swedish adaptation of author Fredrik Backman’s novel of the same name about a small town whose infatuation with youth hockey is put to the test when a horrific crime takes place, and everyone in the community is forced to take sides. Icy and enraged, it’s a sobering portrait of tragedy wrought from not only toxic masculinity, but from the equally noxious—and potentially more deadly—systems that nurture, amplify, and protect it.

Directed by Peter Grönlund and written by Anders Weidemann, Antonia Pyk and Linn Gottfridsson, Beartown (premiering Feb. 22 on HBO) teases a mystery from the outset, via a prologue in which an indistinct figure chases another through the snowy forest outside Beartown, culminating with the pursuer aiming a gun at the fallen-to-their-knees target. The question of who these individuals are is answered at the end of the first chapter. However, finding out why they’re in this situation isn’t revealed until the climactic moments of episode two, at which point the story comes into total focus. Yet even if clarity isn’t immediately forthcoming, the series proves instantly gripping, thanks to vivid storytelling that lays out the interpersonal dynamics of its many players.

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At the forefront of the action is Peter Andersson (Ulf Stenberg), a former NHL star who returns to his frostbitten hometown to coach the local adult team. Recognizing that they’re all washed-up “geriatrics,” he swiftly opts to take the reins of the more promising youth club led by star-in-the-making Kevin Erdahl (Oliver Dufåker). This ruffles the feathers of prior coach David (Tomas Bergström), who’s relegated to working as Peter’s assistant, as well as grates on Kevin’s businessman-father Mats (Tobias Zilliacus), a former teammate of Peter’s who holds a grudge for having his own playing days cut short by an adolescent prank pulled by Peter and his friends. Complicating matters further, Peter is still grappling with alcoholism and the death of his young son, not to mention the pressure of having to win right away with his new team, since the entire future of the club—and the town—hinges on their success this season.

Peter is a mess, and he’s smartly portrayed by Stenberg as a man whose blunt, no-nonsense approach to coaching is both warranted by the circumstances (and effective), and also more than a bit unpleasant. Just because Peter is right doesn’t mean he’s always in the right. The refusal to cast him as merely a noble tough-love savior is central to Beartown, especially as his clan settles in and his lawyer-wife Mira (Aliette Opheim) decides, without discussing it with her husband, to turn down a new job because she knows—after years of being an NHL star’s wife, and shouldering the burden of familial grief over their deceased son—that she comes second to her spouse. Even as the show goes through routine plot motions, most of them having to do with the one-dimensional Mats, Grönlund and company lay a foundation of ubiquitous male privilege that will soon become its guiding concern.

[Inevitable spoilers follow]

While Peter’s efforts on behalf of the club take early center ice, Beartown soon divides its attention between the coach and his teenage daughter Maya (Miriam Ingrid), who can see next-door-neighbor Kevin practicing hockey outside from her window, and who soon develops a reciprocated crush on the athlete. At a post-win party at Kevin’s house, they’re set to consummate their feelings for each other, but Kevin violently oversteps his boundaries, perpetrating an assault that’s witnessed by Amat (Najdat Rustom), a speedy young team recruit whose mother is the janitor at the arena in which they all practice. On the eve of the championship game, this horrible incident comes to public light, and things just about explode in Beartown, given that everyone—players, coaches, officials, and parents—all have a vested interest in protecting the hockey squad and, by extension, Kevin.

Beartown’s subplot about Amat’s uneasy attempt to curry favor with his boorish, intolerant white comrades is complemented by a secondary thread involving Kevin’s teammate/friend Benji (Otto Fahlgren), who secretly pines for Kevin and is carrying on a clandestine romance with a boy in a nearby town. The corrupting consequences of power structures like Beartown’s hockey program—which teaches boys that they’re all-important, that winning is everything, and that being big, tough, profane, and mean is the way to accomplish one’s goals—are visible everywhere, including in Kevin. To its credit, the series sharply taps into the mixture of entitlement, embarrassment, egotism, and anger that Kevin has been imbued with by his father, all while refusing to let him off the hook for his heinous conduct.

In its later installments, Beartown takes a few contrived melodramatic turns designed to set up its neat-and-tidy conclusion. Still, it’s hard to quibble too much about that comforting wrap-up in light of the fact that the material so perceptively gets to the real heart of the sexual-assault issue. With blood-boiling accuracy, it takes direct aim at the sorts of environments that cultivate and embolden ugly male ideas about their own preeminent self-worth, and the inferiority of those not like them. The bros in this sordid and anguished tale are a familiar bunch, yet Weidemann, Pyk, and Gottfridsson are less interested in critiquing one particular type of abusive cretin than in censuring the world order that lets them operate with reckless abandon and little fear of repercussion.

In that regard, Grönlund’s series only appears standard-issue on its surface. Courtesy of touches big and small, as well as sturdy performances from its leads (especially Stenberg and Ingrid), it damns intertwined social, economic, and legal systems for their warped priorities, which beget crimes, allow for victim-shaming, and persuade everyone to let culprits off the hook. “Can you tell the difference between predator and prey?” Maya’s friend Ana (Sanna Niemi) asks her early on, and Beartown poses this query not as an invitation to guess the identity of its story’s Big Bad, but to encourage viewers to see just how many potential monsters are in our midst.

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