Fortitude, the Sky Atlantic/Amazon original series, is a show that sneaks up on you. At first, it seems like a show cut from a very familiar mold: a murder mystery, structurally similar to every other murder mystery, using an unusual setting to set itself apart, in this case the titular Fortitude, a remote Arctic city/research station operated by the Norwegian government. It has all the familiar pieces: the murder, the gruff sheriff who doesn’t always play by the rules, the townspeople with mysterious pasts.
But there are other, less familiar pieces, too: animals behaving oddly, the thawed corpse of a wooly mammoth found in melting permafrost, a little boy sleepwalking barefoot in the Arctic snow.
This is the game Fortitude plays over the opening episodes of its first season. It uses the comforting structures of the whodunnit, plus some recognizable faces (Stanley Tucci, Michael Gambon, Christopher Eccleston), to lure you in, while quietly laying the groundwork for something else.
Then, before you know it, a woman is vomiting a viscous sac of prehistoric wasp eggs into her mother’s open chest cavity.
Fortitude, it turns out, isn’t just a murder mystery, it’s an absolutely insane science fiction/horror series. After the wasp-vomiting incident, things only get steadily more crazy, until by the end of its second season Fortitude has become a hallucinogenic nightmare kaleidoscope of ancient prophecies, indestructible superhumans, shadowy corporate/government conspiracies, and Dennis Quaid.
If that sounds like a lot, it is. Fortitude toes a precarious narrative line, one that it could easily step over into incomprehensibility. The remarkable thing about it is that it never does. Despite all the different genre elements that creator Simon Donald manages to incorporate, the narrative never falls apart.
Part of the key to that is those first few episodes. If things started with the dial turned to 11 and then just kept going, none of it would mean anything. We need the relative normalcy of those opening episodes to establish the characters and their relationships. Then, when the descent into madness begins, we’re experiencing it in the same way the characters are, and the foundation of empathy has been built that allows us to follow the show into the outlandish places it takes us.
Extraordinary circumstances grounded by relatable characters behaving in relatable ways—it’s the reason any piece of genre entertainment works, from Star Trek to Avatar: The Last Airbender, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s at the center of Fortitude’s success as well. Whenever the show feels like it’s slipping into sci-fi gobbledygook about the aforementioned indestructible superhumans, we’re reminded that those indestructible superhumans might be the key to a man saving his dying wife’s life.
Sounds great so far, right? Well, full disclosure: there is a bit of a good news/bad news situation here. The bad news is, Fortitude hasn’t yet been renewed for a third season, and my gut tells me it probably won’t be. However, the good news is that season two ends on a solid note, so you won’t feel like you’ve been left completely hanging if there isn’t another season, though the finale does leave the show with more story to explore.
But even if it ended on a total cliffhanger, I’d still recommend watching. The bottom line here is that Fortitude is compelling, outrageous sci-fi/horror television that any fan of the genre should check out.