I almost missed out on Love and Anarchy. The trailer, as trailers often do, strips the series of its depth and pacing, which left me thinking it would be a lot of awkward angles and sucker punches. But I was wrong. So wrong. I’ve seen the series described in a lot of ways—workplace comedy, dramedy, flirtatious rom-com—and it’s a bit of all those things, but what makes it stand out from its peers is how it manages to embody those genres while turning them on their heads. The series is about facing and rejecting the limits society still puts on women in order to succeed and be seen. There’s a lot going on in only eight thirty-minute episodes, so it’s a wonder that the show still manages to be funny, tender, romantic, and witty. At this point I’ve watched it twice (a rarity for me), and I might watch it again.
Sofie Rydman (Ida Engvoll) is an independent consultant specializing in future strategies who is at the height of her career. She has two children with her handsome husband(Johannes Kuhnke) — he’s a cinematographer for advertisements—and they live in a spacious house that’s mostly remodeled in a sleek, modern, extremely uncluttered design. Sofie’s latest job is with a small publishing house that, as she dispassionately tells the publishing house’s extremely conflict-averse Director, Ronny Johannson (Björn Kjellman), has to “go digital now, or in five years, [will] be history.” Sofie dresses in loose fitting, nonchalant looking clothing that clearly costs a small fortune. Her blonde hair, pale blue eyes, and smooth peaches and cream complexion contrasts sharply with the bright red, perfectly applied, never fading lipstick that she wears to work. She appears to only be able to access a limited number of facial expressions and her eyes rarely betray even a hint of the emotions that might be simmering below the surface.
Even her first small act of rebellion, a morning masturbation session while her family eats breakfast downstairs, is done with such control that it seems more a needed release—like letting steam off a pressure cooker—than a sexual act. She shuts herself in the bathroom, pops in her earbuds, puts on a video (which we don’t see) with a woman moaning aggressively, and unbuttons her pants. She even pauses mid-session to answer a question from her son. The orgasm has barely registered on her face before she’s put herself back together, applied lipstick, and moved on with her day.
It’s this same act, this time performed in what she believes is an empty office, that sets off the life-changing events to which we are witness. Earlier in the day, Sofie’s patience is already worn thin–she’s annoyed with the “clutter” left behind by her office’s previous inhabitant (actually stacks and stacks of books and manuscripts) as well as with the utter lack of digital records in the publishing house–when Max (Björn Mosten ), the temp IT guy, starts drilling holes in the walls. Sofie insists that Caroline (Carla Sehn), the wide-eyed, eager-to-please receptionist, who very much notices the perfect bone structure of Max’s face, make him stop immediately and return when no one is working. Max grudgingly does as he’s told and, when he returns after everyone but Sofie has left, he finds her with her pants down. He then, of course, snaps a photo.
The next morning he shows her the photo, and we learn that Sofie does indeed have more emotions, including primal fear. He lets her stew for much of the day while happily going about his drilling and deciding what he’ll ask of her in exchange for the photo, until finally settling on lunch at a fast food place—where he allows her to delete the photo from his phone and reminds her to delete it from the “recently deleted” folder as well. A chivalrous act of sorts, I suppose. The blackmail is over and Sofie could return to her ordered and controlled life, but instead she keeps his phone and insists that he do something to get it back. Thus begins their steeply escalating exchange of dares and an intensifying attraction between the two, which disrupts not only their lives, but those of everyone around them.
Sofie and Max are both outsiders at the publishing house. She, a consultant, was brought in to effect a change that absolutely no one is convinced they want. Max, a temporary employee, works in an area that no one else at the publishing house really understands or wants to understand. When he posts the “clit pic,” he tells the others that it was likely Russian hackers, which they believe so easily you wonder if any of them are still in possession of their online identities. Max lives in the suburbs of Stockholm in a shared apartment where the shower is in the hallway and rooms are created by hanging blankets and rough particle board. He grows plants in his room, tending to them with a deep tenderness, and scolding his roommate for picking things before they’re ripe. Where Sofie’s sexual relationship with her husband has mostly cooled to tepid, we see Max out having energetic one-night stands with older women where he seems as thrilled with their pleasure as his own.
Max and Sofie also share difficult relationships with their respective parents. Max’s mother withholds love but doesn’t spare him insults, and he struggles to stand up to her. On the other hand, during much of her childhood Sofie’s father was in and out of a mental institution due, at least in part, to his obsessive focus on anti-capitalism. It would be glib to say that he loves too much, but he is desperate to find a way to connect with Sofie’s children, even while her husband is determined to keep him at least at arm’s length. Sofie’s current life is a direct response to her chaotic childhood spent watching her father repeatedly unravel. It turns out that Sofie’s handsome husband is an absolute twit who not only wants to keep her separated from her father, but also takes emotional swipes at her, especially when he feels slighted. At a party when he’s snubbed by other film-types, he jovially encourages her to share details of the novel she was writing before he “made her go to business school.” (Blech.) Her story is about a girl who discovers she’s a seed, who grows into a bluebell, then a rose, then a tree, then a whole forest. The friends at the party laugh at her idea that “everything contains something that contains something else,” but, when she later tells Max about it, he only responds that it’s beautiful.
Now, as Sofie treads deeper into the chasm that her exchanges with Max have cracked open, she is faced with the terror of not only becoming like her father, but also of rejecting everything that society has told her to value and makes her valuable: beauty, money, prestige, career, the perfect red lipstick. At one point Max tells her that he loves her insanity, and I like to think that what he means is (in addition to accepting any mental illness) that he loves all the ways that she expresses herself that society (and her increasingly horrendous husband) would consider insane. Think of all the ways across history that women have been dubbed histrionic and unstable. By choosing to express her belief that she is part of something greater, larger, stronger, rooted in a deep pervading system; by choosing to find joy in rebellious acts; by choosing to possibly extract herself from a system that values her ability to conform the most, Sofie is acting out what women have been told again and again is dangerous, insane behavior that will only lead to trouble. The alternative is to stay the course and return to the woman we met at the beginning who seems only to have the essence of emotion at her disposal. At one point Sofie’s friend tells her that she too was struggling with feeling unwell, but that she “learned to stop thinking and feeling so much all the time…and [she] hardly feels anything now.” (She offers the name of the therapist who helped her achieve this level of numb nirvana, but Sofie, thankfully, politely demurs.)
Look, I feel a bit like I’m just babbling to you. And I haven’t even really broached the whole work aspect of the series, where there are very imperfect characters who are so terribly busy worrying about artistic integrity and arguing over which authors are more deserving of contracts and which paths the better way forward for the publishing house that they all fail to give any attention the soft spoken young woman who shows up again and again with her manuscript in hand, trying desperately to get it read. And Ronny, who is constantly getting the women he works with to do his confrontational dirty work. And, not surprisingly, there is so much about how women get snookered and swindled by the system, even when it purports to be putting their interests first.
Of course, the series is imperfect—anything worth your time probably is. I could almost always do without any scene where people accidentally ingest marijuana. It has mostly been done to death, and it crosses so many boundaries of consent that it really can’t be played for laughs. Maybe the characters could do with more depth, which is why we absolutely need that second season to drop into our Netflix queues immediately, thank you very much. Oh my goodness. Some 1,500 words later and what’s clear is that this review is absolute anarchy, but I hope it conveys how much I love the series and will inspire you to watch the heck out of it.