HBO Max’s The Thaw Is What Happens When Bleakness Is Your Only VirtuePhoto Courtesy of HBO Max TV Reviews The Thaw
Clichés exist for a reason. How many modern noir detective shows, particularly those out of northern Europe (or aspiring to that aesthetic), feature one or more of the following elements: A morose detective who has suffered the loss of a close family member; a detective who tries but fails to spend enough time with his or her children; a kindly grandfather (usually an ex-cop with a sad story himself) who lightly chides the protagonist; a stern boss who is nevertheless tolerant due to the protagonist’s genius; a murderer who can’t resist employing either religious or deer antler imagery; a young female victim held captive; a harsh, unforgiving locale (or winter in general); a theme song with a breathy female vocalist; people who never smile and rarely talk but often stare; and, of course, the dark societal underbelly, often fueled by a local businessman, driving the heinous misdeeds?
It would be easy to fault HBO Max’s new Polish detective show The Thaw for ticking several of these boxes—some of them immediately—but the truth is that I have no quarrel with these clichés. For those who like noir, they exist for a reason. They are almost comforting, and can be a foundation from which a good drama grows. For the same reason that many viewers enjoy Hallmark Christmas movies with a flawed but beautiful protagonist who marries an unlikely rich person, the noir stan can settle into these clichés like a familiar blanket. The emotional palette is very different, but equally familiar.
The problem is, the clichés cannot be everything. And if the clichés are everything, it cannot be just one cliché dominating all the others into submission. With The Thaw, the overwhelming cliché is simple bleakness. Natural bleakness, with a color palette of dark blues and grays, and emotional bleakness, with characters who are utterly deprived of any and all joy. Chief Inspector Katarzyna Zawieja, played by Katarzyna Wajda, is the driving force behind the show, and while Wajda has an arresting presence (pun only slightly intended), it’s restrained past reason. With hair pulled back so tightly that it must be painful, Wajda is largely limited to an emotional register that includes “pensive,” “angry,” and “frustrated,” but not much else. Her character has a husband who died under mysterious circumstances, a father-in-law ex-cop who minds the house while she works, and a daughter she continually disappoints.
As for the mystery, it moves slower than the icebreakers that run through the opening credits (yes, a breathy female vocalist, in this case Billie Eilish). A pregnant woman is kidnapped and murdered, and the whereabouts of her infant are unknown, though a discarded can of formula hints that he or she may be alive. We are forced to look at a human placenta in a dumpster very early in the proceedings, but after this, the usual noir pacing takes over and it’s a long time before we know where any of the pieces fit, from the distraught husband to a renowned prosecutor.
It almost doesn’t matter, because there’s simply no appeal here. I was going to write “no joy,” but again, a distinct lack of happiness is a feature of many noirs, many of them very good. The Thaw just has nothing going for it to recommend it, and it’s hard to pinpoint why. Wajda is up to the task assigned her, so you certainly can’t blame the lead, and there are no characters you can point to and say, “this person is a bad actor.” The script isn’t even very offensive, despite the early onslaught of clichés.
Since it’s my job to explain what I didn’t like, I can only settle on the general soullessness of the narrative and the landscape. The setting here darts between an industrial city and the water, but both are so washed-out and dismal that it paints the entire world as hostile territory. If I had to guess at the intentions of the director, I’d wager that this is meant to simulate the emotional distance and underlying grief experienced by Zawieja, but the metaphor is not effective in drawing us in, nor rendering the drama interesting. Instead, it’s alienating, and by the tenth minute of the second episode, I could tell that finishing my due diligence in order to write this review would be a slog. When it was over, I wanted to shake this story, this world, out of my bones.
Perhaps that soullessness was part of the point, building to the catharsis: the literal and figurative “thaw” of the title. If so, I still call this a failure, inasmuch as the ultimate goal here is to create an appealing work of art that people will want to watch, regardless of emotional tone. The hint of redemption, whether actualized or not, is a key facet of slow noir, but this is just brutalist cosplay, the story is frankly not good enough to overcome the over-reliance on sheer bleakness as a storytelling technique.
In short, The Thaw is a one-trick pony, and though the trick is performed well, it’s not a sufficiently effective trick to justify snuffing out its rival elements. By creating a stifling, unpleasant atmosphere, the creators guarantee that the tentacles will reach their way into plot and subplot and character and dialogue, stifling each one in turn until all that’s left is a claustrophobic melange from which the viewer, just as badly as the victim, wants to escape.
The Thaw is now streaming on HBO Max.
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