One of them wears leather trousers and drives a classic green Porsche, the other prefers jogging bottoms and tends to take the bus. Brilliant, mysterious and blunter-than-a-bag-of-hammers Malmö police detective Saga Norén is in most ways the polar opposite of Sofia Helin, the loungewear and public transport-favouring actor who plays her. Now that they’re parting ways as the final season of Scandi crime drama supreme The Bridge airs on BBC Two, it’s as much with a sense of release as it is grief for the Swede.
“I’m actually relieved,” admits Helin over the phone from her home in central Stockholm, in a voice that elicits a much more natural warmth than that of the icily-spoken Saga, whose Asperger’s-like condition renders social etiquette difficult. “I’m so happy and proud over the last season,” she continues. “People ask me if I miss her and I can’t. I mean, if I missed her I would just start being her,” Helin laughs. “I can’t leave her because I am her.”
I can’t leave her because I am her
Over seven years and four seasons of Saga’s journey through the violent, sinister, seedy underbelly of Swedish-Danish relations at either end of the Øresund Bridge connecting the two countries, Helin’s character – one of the most affectionately drawn and performed in recent TV history – has, she admits, “infected my way of behaving”. To have entered the mind of a person with Asperger’s, and routinely experienced what it’s like to live in oblivion of the unspoken nuances of everyday interactions, is to have peered down a deep well of loneliness in her own soul. Often clenched of body and furrowed of brow, Saga bore a heavy physical as well as psychological burden on Helin.
In a suitably sinister beginning to the final season, we first meet her locked up in prison awaiting a verdict after being framed for murdering her own abusive mother. As she wards off the threats of cop-hating fellow inmates, her Danish professional and romantic partner Henrik Sabroe on the outside begins investigating the case of a migration official who has been buried up to her neck and stoned to death.
Hardly hygge stuff, then – to borrow a Danish word for “cosiness” that’s recently enjoyed a lot of popularity in the English-speaking world. And yet, amid all the darkness of playing Saga, there was the illumination of self-discovery and adventure for Helin too. “To do the forbidden thing,” she responds without hesitation, when I ask her what the best thing was about playing the character. “I love that. Breaking taboos.” Such as what specifically? “Oh, for instance when she’s masturbating when her mother-in-law is in the same room.”
Brave, impulsive, dedicated, beholden to none and espousing a functional attitude to sex that would make the average deadbeat boyfriend look like a regular Romeo (Saga’s not a fan of taking off her T-shirt during intercourse, and at one point offers Henrik the memorably blunt ultimatum: “sex or alone”), she’s a thoroughly unique and in some ways groundbreaking role model to all kinds of viewers.
Does Helin think that Saga would identify as a feminist? “I’ve been thinking about it,” she ponders, slipping intentionally or otherwise into the character’s staccato speech patterns for a moment. “I think she would say ‘yes, I’m a feminist, but I’m also a humanist, and I believe in everybody’s rights, and there’s nothing special about being a woman, other than in history you have women suppressed very badly, and that’s not how it should be, and let’s stop doing that.’ I think she would say something like that.”
Helin often has people with Asperger’s approaching her to express their love for Saga. “I’ve had people travelling from quite far away just to see me to tell me how much it means to them that this role model exists,” she says. “I recently had a screening where a woman came up to me and said ‘I have Asperger’s syndrome and I was diagnosed and my life is so much easier now and you’re the first person in the world that I tell this to’. I was so moved.”
Get past Saga’s more indelicate character traits – which can be refreshing and funny in their own right – and she quickly proves a complex, vulnerable and loveable human just like anybody else. A human who sometimes just needs a hug – albeit just make sure you warn her first before you do. “I quite early on realised the thing she lacks is love in her life,” Helin muses, as to what makes Saga so special. “I think the combination with the humour and the loneliness and that she’s so good at what she does, it makes you feel for her. And I think we can all identify ourselves in her, because that loneliness that she has is something that we all carry around. But we carry it not so much on the outside as she is carrying it. And also she says what she thinks. That’s also something that can be a release to look at and to watch.”
As we bid farewell to Saga and to The Bridge, it’s worth considering how much the crossing that gives the show its name has changed since the show first began. Once a powerful symbol of Scandinavian unity and ingenuity which could be traversed with ease passport free, since 2016 amid the European migrant crisis, it’s become a barrier to many where ID checks are mandatory for all and crudely improvised steel fences divide train station platforms at the Malmö end. It’s a situation that Helin laments deeply. “I think it’s so sad that it’s changed like that, and what was previously a symbol for unity and for possibilities for freedom is now the control station,” she says. It’s one of the reasons why themes of migration and identity loom large in The Bridge’s final season. “Who are we to judge and say that some people can be let in and some people cannot?” questions Helin. “Who are we to say who is good and who is bad now? That’s a very important thing to keep talking about I think.”
Working with the global charity Water Aid, which has seen her travel to Cambodia with her two kids to observe how taps and toilets can create lasting change for villagers along the Mekong River, is just one way that Helin is keeping busy as she enters the post-Saga phase of her career. She’s also just had her first commission as a TV writer and producer, is set to star in a still under-wraps Scandinavian historical drama, and will appear opposite the late John Hurt in his final leading film role in That Good Night. Rumours that Saga and The Bridge might return for a movie one day are already circulating, but she won’t be drawn on them.
It’s also important to be able to stay proud of what you do and to feel that this painting is complete
“In this format it is complete, and it’s fantastic the way it is,” Helin insists. “Of course we could continue – the Americans have said during the production “Are you crazy! You can’t stop now, you have to continue and take everything you can out of it!” But it’s also important to be able to stay proud of what you do and to feel that this painting is complete, leave it.”
“In this format…” can I read anything into that particular choice of words? “No you can’t!” she laughs. “That’s the first time I use that. But you never know what happens in life.”
The final season of The Bridge airs on BBC Two on Friday evenings at 9pm; all previous seasons are available on iPlayer now. Sofia is also supporting WaterAid’s Water Effect campaign – visit wateraid.org for more