TV: Katla (Season 1)

If I were to invent a series to perfectly mate Peak TV with Peak 2020, it might by Iceland’s grimdark supernatural fantasy Katla—released this year, but surely influenced by the grim desperation of the deep pandemic. By now, my appreciation for the remote northern beauty of Scandinavia is written all over this blog; Katla brings more of it, but layers a thick coating of physical and psychological grime atop that beauty, making for a dark, immersive test of endurance.

Set in the tiny coastal village of Vik, Katla’s titular reference is a nearby volcano which, in this timeline, has been in a state of constant eruption for an entire year. Most of the villagers have evacuated to Reykjavik, but a handful of tenacious essential workers—scientists, police officers, doctors, and emergency workers—remain behind to mind the store. Among them is Grima (Guðrún Ýr Eyfjörð), an EMT in a crumbling marriage with dairy farmer Kjartan (Baltasar Breki Samper), who has also stayed behind to keep their patch of land going. Grima is still haunted by the recent disappearance of her sister Ása (Íris Tanja Flygenring) and the long-ago death of her mother, both of which have contributed to a rift with her handy-man father Þór (Ingvar Sigurdsson). The town is then jolted when a Swedish woman named Gunhild (Aliette Opheim), caked in volcanic ash and suffering from hypothermia, wanders onto the scene. As it turns out, Gunhild appears to be an old flame of Þór—but from twenty years in the past. It’s just the first in a series of bizarre, impossible manifestations, which ramp just as scientist Darri (Björn Thors) arrives to try and make sense of Katla’s strange scientific mysteries.

Katla takes bleak Nordic narrative to new depths, and while it’s definitely not an easy or invigorating watch, it’s also an empathetic, thoughtful one about the lingering effects of trauma, loss, and regret. The apocalyptic backdrop and mostly deserted setting make it feel very much a product of the pandemic, perfectly capturing the endless isolation and end-times vibe of the experience, but really the ash-covered landscape and endless mushroom-cloud eruption seem intended more as metaphorical representations of the suffering characters’ inner landscapes. Viewers familiar with dark, European speculative drama will find resonances with Dark, Fortitude and The Return—perhaps the latter most of all. Like The Return, it’s driven by a similar spec-fic mystery, in which the literal interpretation is overwhelmed by the metaphor. It takes the characters of Katla far longer than the viewer to piece together the reality of what’s happening; the repeated exposition tests the patiences at times. But the tangle of character connections is well thought out, and the final couple of episodes bring the artistic message home quite well. On one level, the slow, bleak build to those revelations appropriately reflects the piece’s extended examination of depression. In the end, the appeal will likely be limited to those with the emotional fortitude to endure its dark paces, or those intrigued by the idea of a series that transforms an idyllic northern setting into a smoldering, black hellscape—which, somehow, manages not to diminish its beauty. A difficult, but interesting and memorable watch.

 

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