Fortitude might have flown under your radar last year when it premiered in the U.S. on Pivot (which has since folded — Season 2 of the show was then picked up by Amazon). A Sky Atlantic production from the UK, the slow-burn arctic-set series seemed at first like just another small-town murder show. The fictional town of Fortitude is located in Svalbard and belongs to Norway, though there is a very international community there, many of whom are involved in researching the icy climates. Season 1 unfolded at a glacial pace (I make no apologies for that pun). But it was also spooky and atmospheric, and built up some great character moments that were punctuated by brutal violence, even though it didn’t truly reveal itself until its final episodes.
What I mean is — and skip the rest of the this paragraph if you want to remain free of Season 1 spoilers — the show postulated what kind of abject horror we may be in for as a result of climate change. Over the course of Season 1 we saw how a thawed out mammoth carcass unleashed a prehistoric parasitic wasp that was ultimately the cause of the town’s grisly murders, as it changed its human victim’s brain behavior to seek out the entrails of their neighbors. In a terrifying scene near the finale, one infected woman, who was unknowingly filled with wasp eggs, vomited out a plague of new wasps that had been feeding on her body in a room that had to be set on fire with a young scientist trapped inside, fighting them off. Egads, egads, egads. While other TV show twists and reveals quickly fade from my memory, that reveal — and the show’s ultimate implications — has haunted me ever since.
In its new season, Fortitude continues to mix science with local superstition, as the advent of a rare blood aurora seems to be unleashing an untold evil on the town. Now there is cannibalism as well as beheadings, and reindeer killing and eating polar bears in a bizarre inversion of the food chain. Four episodes in to the eventual ten, I don’t yet know what the scientific cause of this and the zombie-ism that seems to accompany it will be, but now I know this time around that a more grounded truth will likely ultimately be revealed — a valuable thing to know going in, since that trajectory can get buried in the show’s swirling plots. (Fortitude examines the crisis from all levels: government, the police, scientists, commercial fishermen, teenagers, housewives).
Many of Season 1’s major characters perished, but the survivors range from the seriously traumatized (like Luke Treadaway‘s Vince — and rightfully so) or strengthened by the knowledge of what came before (like Sofie Gråbøl‘s excellent Governor Hildur). The mix of accents and the variety of cultures coming together is still charming, even though the represented international governments are still more concerned with being roadblocks than actually working together to mitigate the growing crises in their snowy towns.
Amazon has, probably wisely, put Dennis Quaid‘s name front and center for Season 2, even though his story is just one of a great ensemble which also includes Michelle Fairley, as well as returning actors such as Alexandra Moen, Sienna Guillory, and Richard Dormer. Once again, Fortutide‘s narrative is completely packed with what seem like disparate stories, but they do connect. And to its credit this year, things begin to flesh out more quickly, with details and twists being revealed earlier to help keep up a better narrative pace.
Despite the show’s gore (the opening scene is like something out of Game of Thrones, complete with hangings and babies being eaten alive), there’s also something sterile about the severed heads with sewn-up eyes occasionally bouncing around. Because of the frozen landscape, things are fairly well-preserved and seemingly bloodless. Peering at a corpse where it’s loudly declared “the spine has been removed!” makes one thoughtful instead of recoiling in abject horror. It becomes clinical, like we’re part of the research team — why was the spine removed? Is it related to that other missing head?
Fortitude is a weird series, but it’s also unexpectedly easy to get pulled into. Appearing on Amazon means that the show can be binged, which suits it — it’s both a horror mystery and an engrossing character drama. The pace is still very slow, with casual conversations lingering on, and the narrative can be a little difficult to keep track of with so many characters living such separate lives. But there’s always a fantastic amount of acting talent on display in the series, and at its core it’s really just about a small town. This town just happens to be on the edge of the world, bearing witness, first hand, to the damage that climate change could wreak upon us. It’s a fiction one hopes doesn’t turn into a documentary.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Wintry weirdness
Fortitude Season 2 premieres April 14th on Amazon.