Just to state some facts: This a show called Copenhagen Cowboy, made by the guy who directed the famous vigilante movie Drive, and the episode is titled “Vengeance Is My Name.” Should it come as any surprise that the name of the game is righteous, redemptive violence against the wicked?
Honestly, I think the answer is yes. Nicolas Winding Refn gave us an antihero for the ages in Ryan Gosling’s Driver, yes. But he used his subsequent projects — Only God Forgives, The Neon Demon, and Too Old to Die Young — to present a more gimlet-eyed take on the nature of the habitually violent, i.e. that they’re terrifying at best and morally cretinous monsters more often than not.
I don’t think it’s fair to describe Miu, who at this point appears to be the show’s title character, in either fashion. She’s quietly intimidating in her own way, with that flat affect and thousand-yard stare and, of course, magical powers. But you don’t recoil from Miu when she takes her revenge on Rosella, the sadistic pimp, by burning her up along with her whole house of horrors. (Did her brother André, last seen celebrating the shotgun wedding of his daughter Flora (Dafina Zeqiri) to her errand-boy boyfriend Dardan (Daniel Sami Strandet) thanks to Miu ratting the relationship out to him, also get caught up in the inferno? We don’t know.)
It’s important to note here that by this point in the story, Miu had already freed her fellow sexual slaves (she’d been relegated to this new job after a psychic friend of Rosella’s called her a demon) by leading them in a Caesar-like stabbing attack against the hulking guard assigned to keep them from escaping. Not that they gave her so much as a thank-you for it! But jerks though they may have been to her, it’s hard to blame them given their ordeal, and it’s an unmitigated good that Miu set them free.
It’s also important to note that in the process, she saved herself from a “date” with Nicklas, the man who murdered her only friend Cimona and who took an interest in André’s ad for Miu (hyping up her virginity) the moment he saw it.
Anyway, during her escape she comes across a Chinese restaurant. The dining room is closed for the evening and she gets booted out by the owner, Jang (Li li Zhang). But when a woman in labor staggers to the front door, Miu discovers that the owner also goes by the sobriquet Mother Hulda and serves as a midwife, or perhaps an all-around wise woman given her maternal honorific. (A fellow witch?) Miu literally breathes life into the woman’s baby with her magical powers, and is welcomed into an apartment in Mother Hulda’s building in return. But she has a date with Rosella first, hence the vengeance of the title.
I’m of two minds about the seemingly back-to-basics genre-thrills nature of NWR’s project with writer Sara Isabella Jønsson here. Do I personally prefer work in which vigilantism is depicted as hideous, as it was in Too Old to Die Young? Yes. Is it still fun to watch movies about vigilantes, since after all it’s only a movie? Also yes! Like, The Revenant didn’t have a whole lot to say philosophically, but damn it was fun watching Leo go to hell and back to get at Tom Hardy. In a much less bombastic sense, the same is true of Miu and Rosella here.
And meanwhile, there are just so many wonderful flourishes in the writing and filmmaking to liven things up. Like, not in a million years did I predict Miu reassuring Mother Hulda that she’s not actually a ghost by meowing at her like a black cat; that’s a great moment of infinitesimal release on the part of actor Angela Bundalsvic as Miu, anticipated in a way when she cleverly flirted with Sven in order to get him in trouble with his wife Rosella. I was similarly impressed by Zegiri as Flora; when confronted about her relationship by her father, you can practically see her stomach drop and her heart speed up, even if she’s ultimately relieved to have it out in the open.
I also remain delighted and repulsed in equal measure by the decision to have Sven speak solely in actual, literal pig sounds. And man, look at how Refn and cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck use a simple shift the standard NWR 3AM-eternal color palette to suggest Miu’s saintly nature:
The bottom line is that Copenhagen Cowboy is cool and confident television, made by an artist secure in his aesthetic and obsessions and intent on transmitting them to the audience. It’s how TV should be.
Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, The New York Times, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.