Dark, brilliant mysteries emerge from Scandinavia and the U.K. on a regular basis these days, so it only makes sense those regions would join forces. Even during this era of great TV, Fortitude stand outs from the crowd, a complex and utterly gripping blend of Nordic noir and existential horror that builds fascinating intrigue around an unforgettable backdrop.
Fortitude is a remote Arctic island north of Norway, colonized by a mix of rugged international settlers, most of them British and Norwegian. It’s a peaceful place of magnificent vistas, but it’s also dangerous, thanks to subzero temperatures and predatory wildlife. As Fortitude’s mining industry dies, the governor of the island, Hildur Odegard (Sofie Gråbøl), plans to reorient the economy around tourism by launching a resort hotel project. Meanwhile, local sheriff Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer) runs a tiny police force that keeps the peace…or they would, if there were ever any strife.
Anderssen is about to be tested, though, when the small community experiences its first murder — a brutal attack that leaves a man dead in his living room. Murder is uncharted territory for Fortitude, but not for DCI Eugene Morton (Stanley Tucci), an inspector from the British government who comes out to the island to crack the case. Outwardly Morton is there to solve the murder, but secretly he’s working another angle: investigating the death of a visiting British geologist, allegedly mauled by a polar bear on Fortitude three months earlier. As it turns out, though, Morton’s not the only person on the island with a hidden agenda, as ambitions, conspiracies, and infidelities abound underneath the community’s placid surface. The murder is about to expose them all.
Fortitude does so many things well it’s difficult to know where to start. I think I’ll lead with its stunning cinematography and visual scope. Filmed largely in Iceland, the show takes full advantage of the glorious, unspoiled landscape at its disposal to enhance the scenario’s sense of isolation. Wide, panning shots of mountains and glaciers and bodies of water accentuate the tenuous hold humanity has on such harsh terrain, contributing to a subtly unsettling tone.
Then there’s the stellar cast, an appealing mix of distinctive characters who collectively make up a mysterious and troubled community full of complex, soap opera intricacy. Tucci is a standout, unsurprisingly, but the acting firepower is rampant up and down the roster. There are no throwaway characters; once introduced, each new persona is integrated into the story inextricably, and contributes to the community’s singular mystique, which builds over the first half of the season in a suspenseful, unnerving slow-build.
The ingeniously crafted narrative takes even darker turns in the second half, when the show veers from noir into more horrific territory. I found this stretch slightly less engrossing, if only because it peels away — satisfyingly, I should point out — many of the mysteries that have been built. And yet, by shifting into bloodier, more suspenseful material in its latter half, it still manages a compelling artistic message. As Fortitude is more unraveled by events, it serves more and more effectively as a symbolic representation of Earth itself: an unspoiled, beautiful wilderness ultimately tainted by the plague of humanity on its surface. It’s a bleak message, to be sure, and one it takes considerable fortitude from the viewer to withstand, but it’s also haunting, thought-provoking, and chillingly powerful.
Fans of dark stories about small-town mayhem in the vein of Fargo and Twin Peaks will find much to love in Fortitude, which frankly makes those places look like Mayberry. It is, perhaps, a descendant of those shows, but far superior, a unique masterpiece full of escalating intrigue, terrifying suspense, ambitious themes, and spectacular visuals. I haven’t been this wrapped up in a show in years.