When Fortitude arrived on our screens in 2015, it did so floating on a sea of publicity. Millions were spent announcing the arrival of Sky’s newest pitch at offering original drama to sit alongside its impressive roster of US imports. Polar bears appeared at tube stations and posters of its snowbound stars, among them such luminaries as Michael Gambon, Sofie Gråbøl, Christopher Ecclestone and Stanley Tucci, appeared in hoardings both online and in the real world. The campaign caught attention but remained abstract, leaving little clue as to what the show was actually about.
The marketers can be forgiven for this approach, as the show itself seemed uncertain. Having completed its second season, it seems that it remains unsure. This, however, is both a weakness and a strength.
Fortitude retains its curious kaleidoscope of genres. Part science fiction, part fantasy. A little murder mystery. Some political intrigue. A shot of family relationship drama and, running through the whole piece like a subterranean stream, visceral body horror. There’s enough for anyone’s tastes here, though perhaps a little too much to take in fully and certainly too many to do justice to any single one. The program’s core problem is that, having set so many plates spinning, it lacks the time to maintain the momentum of each one. Consequently, they all suffer. It’s a shame, because in its individual parts, Fortitude is very good indeed. Some of it nears excellence. It’s just too tempting to think that it would do more justice to these elements if it cut their number and concentrated on doing more with a select few.
Among the highlights of the series are the varied ways in which the residents of the town struggle to cope with the events of the first season. The show very cleverly sketches out the impact on Hildur’s political position and how the town has sloughed off its former claim to be 100 percent crime-free (“there’s been a murder” is utterered very early on with the cynical abandon of peak Taggart). However, it is in the personal emotional impact that the show does best, and particularly in the relationship between Natalie and Vincent. They had always been somewhat mismatched, but their very different experiences only serve to widen the gap between them. Natalie simply cannot understand what Vincent has been through (and, brilliantly, early in the season, even fails to understand that she fails to understand). Through this couple, Fortitude offers a portrait of a relationship clouded by trauma. It’s aided by sensitive performances by Sienna Guillory and Luke Treadaway who humanize their characters so well.
Indeed, so many of the show’s performances are rewarding. In playing Dr. Khatri, Parminder Nagra manages the rare feat of expressing a cold, emotionally restrained character without robbing her of personality. Great work is also done by fellow newcomer Dennis Quaid, whose Michael Lennox provides the moral core of the season. We first encounter him as a man with a particular array of problems to solve; his wife’s illness, his finances, the future of his children, and the beginnings of solutions to them. For Michael, the events of the season appear as an interruption and he has to struggle with doing the right thing in the face of more and more things just going wrong. The right mix of desperation, heroism and old-fashioned charm make Michael very pleasant company for the viewer and his every scene is one of warm welcome. It’s a shame, given such strong foundations, that the each of these character arcs are treated so poorly. Michael, Natalie and Vincent receive only sketchy resolutions while Dr Khatri blows herself up apparently in a bid not to be killed.
The show lingers far too long on less interesting characters. Ken Stott is misused as Monk, Hildur’s apparent replacement and placeman for the shadowy pharmaceutical firm that acts as puppetmaster for the whole town. Richard Dormer’s Dan Anderssen finds his role increasing as the series presses on, ultimately ending up as both antagonist and protagonist with little clue to his motivation, demonic forces aside, in either role.
This confusion extends to the show’s expanding mythos. An opening flashback sets up the backstory from 1942, which seems to offer the strongest clue yet of the origins of the mysterious force that besets the frostbitten residents. It’s rather strong stuff, but is then combined with reference upon reference to malignity, as though drawn from an encyclopaedia of evil. Kinshasa blood diamonds, nefarious multinational corporations, the FSB, cannibalism and a strange demon, summoned through sinister rituals. There’s so much to unpick that the viewer is found lost and bewildered by it all, caught in a snowstorm of the sinister.
Fortitude doesn’t seem to recognize its strengths and leaves so many of them hanging, relying instead on violence, gore and death which can only ever provide diminishing returns. Of the four leads in the original publicity, none remain alive by episode seven of this season (indeed, only Hildur made it alive into this season at all). The impact is that death feels cheap and easy, appearing with the weary regularity of advert bumpers. When Christopher Ecclestone’s Professor Stoddart was killed off in the first episode, it was mildly shocking. By the time we lose Hildur, it’s almost become commonplace.
That is not to say that Hildur’s death itself wasn’t handled well – the scene of her hanging on above the frozen water was agonisingly tense and a dramatic highlight of the season – it’s just that it felt cheap in the context of the narrative. Nevertheless, it was comparatively bloodless, which by this point was a strength.
The show is addicted to gore to the point that it all becomes rather wearying. Episode nine was a particular struggle with Dan Anderssen’s extended torture and Vladek’s gruesome self-castration. That scene was emblematic of Fortitude‘s problems – it was excellently performed (Robert Sheehan did his best work as the tormented “shaman” psyching himself up, making a careful assembly of equipment and focused mutlilation) and, in the moment of its delivery, emotionally affecting but it was ultimately without purpose. Worse, after all the beheadings, stabbings, disembowellings and eye-gougings that we’d seen, it was rather routine. At times, the show tests the viewer’s patience. At its worst, it becomes a test of endurance.
Fortitude remains a show with a great core idea. The isolation of the town and the beautiful danger of its environment are superb starting points for a drama of danger, human extremes and paranoia. When it works, Fortitude offers all of this. It just needs a tighter focus.
Fortitude series 2 is currently airing on Sky Atlantic on Thursday nights in the UK. The entire series is available to watch via Sky Box Sets and Now TV.