HBO Europe delivers another stellar entry with its latest series Beartown, a bleak, crucial deep-dive into rape culture and its prevalence in the world of sports, in this case, ice hockey. The series is based on the book of the same name by Fredrik Backman.
The five-part Swedish-language limited series begins with a tense scene showing two blurry figures sprinting through the woods. One of them is holding a gun and chases the other onto a frozen lake where they fall to their knees. The hunter then fires a shot. Don’t worry, the identities of these two will be revealed by the end of the hour.
Beartown follows a former professional NHL player Peter as he returns to his old stomping grounds in Beartown with his wife Mira and their kids Leo and Mira in tow. Peter has only returned home because his friend promised that he would be in charge of coaching an elite team of players.
In Beartown, hockey is a huge deal. The town’s central factory, one of its main sources of employment, is dwindling, and the hockey team hasn’t won a game in ages. The town’s morale is at an all-time low. If they lose one more game, they’ll lose their sponsors. Everyone’s hopes are pinned on Peter’s shoulders.
The problem is, the team he’s been entrusted is far from the “elite” group of players Peter anticipated. He’s far more interested in the junior ice hockey team with its star player, Kevin. But their team already has a coach. No problem. Peter isn’t above bullying and manipulation to get what he wants. He gets the current coach fired to take over and start molding Kevin into the breakout player everyone in town expects him to be. He’s Peter’s second coming.
Adding to the drama is the bad blood between Kevin’s father Mats and Peter. When they were younger, Peter and Mats got into a scrap on the ice that resulted in Mats quitting hockey forever. He still resents Peter for the incident and blames him for the end of his hockey career.
Beartown recap: Mira is the one aiming a gun at Kevin
The first hour of Beartown focuses mostly on the set-up for what’s to come later in the season, as evidenced by that shocking opening scene. Based on the show’s grim tone, muted color palette, and episode descriptions, we know that a horrific act of violence will tear this town apart sooner rather than later. In the final moments of the first episode, it’s revealed that the two figures running through the woods are Kevin and Mira.
Kevin is two years older than Mira but immediately takes an interest in her, and Mira returns the feeling. They spend the first hour flirting and getting to know each other as Mira adapts to her new school and setting. Through her, we get to see the teenage perspective, which contrasts intensely with the adult drama.
Considering Beartown wastes no time examining the culture of toxic masculinity instilled in these young men from the moment they step on the ice — from the way they chat about women to their harassment of a group of female skaters –- it’s evident that the series has a vested interest in dissecting rape culture and the consequences of how children are raised. Kevin is consistently told to “take what he wants” and “claim his prize.” He’s also living with an emotionally abusive father and a domineering coach who gets under his skin in different ways.
As The Daily Beast wrote in their review of the series, “Icy and enraged, it’s a sobering portrait of tragedy wrought from not only toxic masculinity, but from the equally noxious—and potentially more deadly—systems that nurture, amplify, and protect it.”
Beartown will not be an easy show to watch, but it is an important and vital story told with unflinching realness, perhaps too unflinching at times.
Beartown Episode 1 is now available to stream on HBO Max. The five-part series will air subsequent episodes weekly on Monday nights at 9 p.m. ET/PT.