There is something sinister lurking beneath everything, and everyone, in the Welsh crime drama, “Hinterland.” The series, structured similarly to other mystery-per-episode procedural, sets itself apart by endowing its world with an unshakable sense of quiet evil, exploring human suffering and pain through its murders and the detectives who try and piece them together.
“Hinterland” follows DCI Tom Mathias (Richard Harrington), a London detective isolating himself in the Welsh countryside town of Aberystwyth. With his baleful, perpetually troubled stare, and persistent grimace, there is clearly something hanging over his head, but he speaks very little about anything not concerning the case at hand, and everything the viewer learns about him is communicated through his solitary scenes. Mathias lives in a trailer by the sea, where his sole decoration is a picture of two little girls, and his main activities are sleeping and going on runs.
At his side is DI Mared Rhys (Mali Harries), a sharp and observant detective who holds her chin up high. She, like many of the characters in “Hinterland,” is also fairly quiet. As a single mother who feels most comfortable when working, but achingly wants to connect with her teenage daughter, she appears always silently torn. She and Mathias are close and comfortable with one another in an outwardly professional sense, easily staying on one another’s wavelengths, their methods of deduction are highly compatible. It is clear they trust and understand one another, but most of this is shown nonverbally, with understanding, pointed glances and the rare half smile.
“Hinterland” is not a happy show, nor a cheerful one. There is little comic relief, and not much warmth. There is rarely a moment in the show where the viewer feels the characters are safe and secure. Even the police station, where the main characters work together to solve whatever’s happened, feels inescapably monitored by the icy and strange presence of the Chief Superintendent, Brian Prosser—a straight-backed and impenetrable older man with coal-like eyes who seems to always to be watching—but for what reason is crucially unclear.
Yet “Hinterland” doesn’t stray into overly grim territory, where many shows go in an attempt to perpetually shock their audience with how much frightening and gory material they’re willing to put their characters through. “Hinterland” is haunting and patient, taking the time to explore the atmosphere of each case.
The best example of the show’s skill in avoiding this pitfall is its pilot episode, “Devil’s Bridge.” A former headmaster of the Devil’s Bridge children’s home is found dead, and soon all the available leads tangle around the former children’s home located above a deep ravine and the difficult lives of the children who lived there. The children’s home and the land around it slowly feels more and more malicious, the gnarled branches of the trees that forest the slick rocks beneath the bridge all feel as if they’re reaching out like fingers, and Mathias and Rhys move through their investigation warily, as if watched perpetually by some wider presence.
Indeed, each of the mysteries infects the mood of the entire episode, and skillfully intertwine with the personal lives of the detectives. The plots are intricate and very rarely predictable, and are given ample time to breathe. Each episode is an hour and a half, roughly the same runtime as the hit-series “Sherlock,” but where the hit series leaps, bounds and somersaults through its plot points, “Hinterland” swells larger and larger, building the mystery outward and slowly cranking up the tension before peaking at nail-biting crescendos, each with a proportionate and palpable weight because of the patience with which each story has been constructed.
“Hinterland” is beautifully shot, and the Welsh countryside is as much a character as Mathias or Rhys. The cinematography does an excellent job at capturing the variance of the sweeping landscape, filled with orange-brown grass, muddy ravines, yellow fields, claustrophobic forests and peopled by small country houses, cabins, trailers and ship-yards. With ease, the camera-work tacks from gloomily beautiful to intrinsically frightening. Anyone who watches the show can expect some truly nail-biting house-exploration scenes, in which the suspense is built so masterfully, with the subtlest of motions and focuses, that just watching Mathias walk through a doorway makes your heart pound frantically against your chest.
Indeed, the crowning attribute of “Hinterland” is its stamina. Where other shows would have surely shown their hands as reward for a viewer’s patience, “Hinterland” holds back and takes its sweet time. The overarching drama surrounding the lives of Mathias, Rhys and the icy Prosser stretches three entire seasons. This, while at times frustrating, forces the viewer to concentrate on the mystery at hand and make their own deductions and suppositions about the central characters. When you are finally shown any crucial information, it is immensely satisfying and feels properly earned. “Hinterland” rewards the patience of its viewers by providing them with a rich tapestry of horror, suspense and intrigue.
“Hinterland” succeeds also in the demonstration of human suffering. By dissecting the tangled reasoning behind each killed person, discovering attributes of their character, and the personalities of those around them before their death, the show dives deep into the nature of human relationships and morality. The quiet and rarely-conversational presentation of the troubled detectives is a realistic portrayal of how people carry on with the weight of their own lives on their shoulders. Most people rarely go around telling others what’s happened to them, and some will only ever reveal what hangs above their head at all hours if pushed to the brink.
At four episodes each, all three seasons of “Hinterland” are currently available on Netflix. The brilliantly constructed and incredibly acted show is perfect for anyone who enjoys losing themselves in the eerie gloom of murder mystery, and will enthrall and hypnotize anyone new to the genre.