Welsh crime drama Hinterland is one of the best things I’ve ever seen, on TV or elsewhere. I found it (on Netflix Instant) when I was having a mild existential crisis on a Thursday night, and it proved to be the perfect remedy. Spending time in this quiet part of Wales is much better than staring at the wall or lying on the floor with a bottle of whiskey for a pillow.
Hinterland cultivates a very distinct mood. Often that mood is loneliness. The show takes place in beautiful Aberystwyth, Wales, which I know from writer Caitlyn Moran’s description as “The only place my heart does not want.” The experiences she chronicles in her book Moranthology describing Aber as her own personal Happiest Place on Earth contrast greatly with how Aberystwyth is portrayed on Hinterland.
Dominant themes are grief, isolation, and estrangement, which are echoed in the desolate Welsh landscape. A country road winds into the distance with no cars in sight. An entire neighborhood is rendered a lifeless island. The boardwalk of Aberystwyth is perpetually deserted. There’s a feeling that deep at the heart of everything lies an eternal winter.
The stories are full of loners, outsiders, and people who’ve been kicked around by life. The main character, DCI Tom Mathias, lives alone in the middle of nowhere. The only hints of civilization near his trailer are the ruins of a stone house. “Prefer your own company?” asks his nearest neighbor. “Don’t you?” deflects Mathias, unwilling to let anyone get close. But it soon becomes clear that this existence is alien to him.
What I love about Hinterland is that we don’t get any of Mathias’s backstory. He’s a closed-off person and wants to keep his relationships to the minimum–and that includes the audience.
It’s rare to have a protagonist we know so little about. We see what kind of man he is only in the moment. We have to form opinions about him based solely on his actions.
What we do learn about Mathias can only be gathered by observation. He runs. He lives in a bare trailer on a cliff. He doesn’t smile much. He changes the subject if someone asks even the smallest detail about his personal life. He’s relentless when pursuing an answer. He would risk his life to get to the truth.
Richard Harrington, the actor who plays Mathias, is amazing. Even when he’s sitting still, he’s not still. He bristles with energy, always moving. Like a shark in the body of a hobbit.
I find Mathias fascinating because even though he’s closed himself off, he treats people with compassion and empathy. He wants to uncover the truth at all costs, but he’s motivated by a desire to alleviate the grief and anguish he sees daily as a homicide detective.
The world could do with more portrayals of compassionate men.
Mathias’s backstory is less interesting to me than seeing him interact with people. I love the ballsy way he, unarmed as British cops are, confronts a guy who’s just shot a crossbow at him for trespassing. And the scene where he subdues a hysterical suspect and then comforts the man as he grieves the loss of his child. When Mathias’s partner, DI Rhys, worries that investigating a cold case might cause pain to an unconnected party, Mathias orders it be done, but you can tell from his expression that he agrees with her.
As dark as it can be at times, Hinterland carries an undertone of perverse humor. Like the priceless scene where Rhys investigates a suspect’s one-night-stand alibi, which she later relates to her boss. “And how did you find her?” asks Mathias. Meaningful pause, “Slow.” Or the way Mathias repeatedly approaches the police station’s archaic vending machine, sees that it’s covered in full cups of discarded coffee, gets a cup anyway, and places it atop the machine after one disappointing sip.
Mathias himself is not without humor. Waiting in the car for a flock of sheep to cross the road, Rhys questions how sheep shit got somewhere relevant to the case they’re working. Mathias deadpans, “Got a lot of that around here.”
I think my favorite moment in the whole series is when Mathias is about to break into a suspect’s home and Rhys asks if they should wait for backup. Mathias nods at her gleefully, then kicks the door in anyway.
I can’t wait for the next season of Hinterland and the eventual unraveling of DCI Mathias’s story. He is the most complex and interesting character I’ve come across in a long time.