I suppose I didn’t expect a television show about the Swedish bank robbery hostage crisis in 1973 that gave rise to the term Stockholm syndrome to begin with a zoom shot going inside a woman’s vagina to reveal Bill Skarsgård’s head superimposed on a foetus. But Clark, a new series on Netflix following the life of Clark Olofsson, a Swedish celebrity criminal who was involved in the robbery, does indeed start that way. As the midwife tries to pull the baby Clark from his mother, adult Clark says in a voiceover, “They yelled at me to come out, but I’ve always hated it when people tell me what to do.”
A cut screen tells us that the show is based on “truth and lies”, loosely adapted from Olofsson’s autobiography, in which he details a life spent on the run from the police, escaping from various prisons, bank robbing, smuggling, attempting murder, committing fraud, drinking, seducing women and generally being awful to everyone he meets. Clark charts his life from petty thief to celebrity criminal, loved and hated for his litany of bad behaviour, with particular focus on the infamous Norrmalmstorg robbery.
If you don’t already know the story: in 1973 Jan-Erik Olsson held up a bank in central Stockholm and took four hostages. At Olsson’s request, because the two had once shared a jail cell, Olofsson was brought from prison by police to “negotiate” with Olsson, although many thought the two men were in league. After five days the hostages were released following a tear gas attack by police. The unusual way the hostages were said to have bonded with their captors came to be known as Stockholm syndrome.
This guy has done it all. Clark should, therefore, be fun. The Sixties and Seventies music is a jolly journey through Swedish classics of the era, everything except ABBA. The costuming — all bright swing coats and sunglasses — and the baroquely disgusting Swedish food, such as shrimp in aspic, all make for scenes that look vibrant even on a small screen. Skarsgård is the perfect actor for Olofsson: handsome and charismatic, but a little evil with it. We see everything through Clark’s eyes, accompanied by his voiceover, but any Stockholm syndrome we might initially feel as Clark’s captive audience wanes after the first few episodes. Clark is a narcissist, arrogant, casually cruel, manipulative, sociopathic and childish, and the show, for all Skarsgård’s good looks, tries and fails to make him a loveable rogue. Clark’s is not the kind of mind that is enjoyable to live inside for the thick end of six hours.
It’s aiming for a classic picaresque — a charming antihero wends his way around the world doing various misdeeds — but the breakneck pacing and tonal shifts make it an unpleasant one. Clark drives around Europe fleeing and seducing and drinking and stealing and being sick and masturbating in front of his friend’s ferret, and you feel like you’re stuck in the back seat of his car leaning your head out the window for some air.
Jonas Åkerlund, the director, is best known for making music videos for the likes of Madonna and the Prodigy, and perhaps that explains why the series seems like a string of admittedly stylish set pieces rather than a unified narrative: saturated colour palettes, heavy use of music and snappy editing — but no emotions to speak of. We don’t linger long enough on any of Clark’s friends, collaborators, lovers or enemies to care about them, which perhaps makes sense given that we are trapped so decidedly in Clark’s perspective, and he doesn’t care about them either.
Clark has a notional antagonist in the form of the underdrawn police officer Tommy Lindstrom, but this is no Catch Me If You Can: less a cat and mouse story, more like watching a horny dog hump its way around the legs of a social gathering. Clark’s unreliability as a narrator is bludgeoned home repeatedly. We know to be suspicious of whether what we are seeing really happened, but by the third or fourth time Clark is robbing a bank that suspicion turns to boredom. Who cares what really happened, when so much of it is happening?
The show attempts a self-aware commentary on how mythologising criminals for entertainment is problematic, but does so half-heartedly. There are some obligatory childhood trauma flashbacks in black and white showing Clark’s tough upbringing by erratic parents, but cutting them in with scenes where Clark gives a wedgie to a police officer and tries to shove rolls of banknotes up an accomplice’s arsehole does somewhat lessen their impact. And in the dying minutes of the final episode, an author trying to write a biography of Clark confronts the now middle-aged criminal in prison about all the people he’s used and abused over the years, whose solemn faces appear on the screen, but it feels tacked on rather than an earned conclusion to the series.
In recent years sociologists have reconsidered the term Stockholm syndrome. Arguably, the very concept was rooted in misogyny towards the female hostages at Norrmalmstorg. One woman in particular, a 23-year-old called Kristin Enmark, who pleaded to the Swedish prime minister that they felt safe with their captors and that the police should allow them to go free, was portrayed by the press as having fallen for the two men. In fact, in Enmark’s version of events, she thought the police were so incompetent that she decided this was the best way to ensure her own survival. She has called the whole notion of Stockholm syndrome “bulls***” that was invented to discredit her and diminish legitimate criticism of how the police and government handled the hostage situation.
Clark doesn’t even bother taking a whack at these ideas. Fine. The clues were there in the very first scene that this is plainly just supposed to be Åustin Powersson: a bawdy Scandinavian romp and nothing more. But it’s a grating and exhausting one.