Put a Glacier on It! ‘Fortitude’ Is a Potentially Great, Atmospherically Overwhelmed Crime Drama

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The new hour-long crime drama Fortitude (a British show made by Sky Atlantic, which aired in the US last night on Pivot) begins promisingly: it’s hard not to see televisual promise in a man getting torn apart by a polar bear against a breathtaking backdrop as Dumbledore (well, fine, just Michael Gambon) watches horror-struck, attempts to shoot the bear, and instead shoots the now-fragmented man straight in the head. No spoilers there: this is the first scene in Fortitude’s pilot. Then a Scandinavian woman sings a haunting theme song, and we’re told to be transfixed by sweeping aerial shots of a landscape that already had us at “hello” (and “check out this polar bear eating this dude”).

And it is transfixing: but Fortitude, like many programs of its genre, quickly becomes a constant battle between being romanced by the show’s virtues — atmospheric beauty, a legitimately puzzling plot, a fascinating premise — and the desire to roll one’s eyes at the dialogue’s and characters’ inability to match the quality of its image and themes. Said premise is: Fortitude is a fictional town of approximately 700, nestled somewhere in the Svalbard archipelago — which itself is situated between Norway and the North Pole. True to life, the land mass is, in the show, overseen by a state-appointed governor, but is an unincorporated area. Its population is a collection of deracinated individuals from all over the world, all of whom have moved here, to the edges of society, with a very specific (predominantly science-based) professional or personal purpose in mind.

False utopia that it is — it prides itself on being crime-free, so of course it’s the perfect setting for a murder mystery — the town of Fortitude has its fair share of (possibly fatal) instances of bureaucratic unscrupulousness, as well as its own set of bizarre laws, the strangest of which is a law that prohibits dying in the territory. This does not, of course, make characters immune to death: it rather ensures that, if someone seems to be dying, they’re exiled. For anything, notably corpses, buried in Fortitude will be perfectly preserved in the permafrost, and who wants that?

Such is the plight, for example, of Michael Gambon’s liver-cancer-beleagured character: the (seemingly) accidental murder he commits that launches the show will surely play into the season’s arc, but it is not the murder at the center of the story. When he questions a second, clearly intentional homicide that occurs — and which ends up being the driving force of the first few episodes — the political powers that be seem to want to cover it up, and try to silence him through threats of exile. As is often the case in dramas set in claustrophobic towns, no one is without their dark secrets, and especially not government officials. This applies most notably to Governor Odegard (played with eerily oscillating softness and ruthless manipulation by Sofie Grabøl), whose plans for an Ice Hotel built into a glacier are stymied by a professor’s hopes to acquire a wooly mammoth molar from inside the very same glacier. That professor, in the aforementioned murder, is duly disemboweled. Cue obvious suspicions. Also cue Stanley Tucci’s entrance.

Tucci plays an American detective (alas, a proxy for us poor, lost American audiences!) flown in from England, and fits into the displaced, keen but clueless detective archetype: he appears especially American when, after being asked what he thinks of Fortitude, he responds, “It’s a very nice community with a lot of very nice people.” Unlike the other characters, he seems rooted in a foreign cultural identity, and sticks out somewhat goofily. His presence isn’t exactly appreciated by the local police.

We get the sense that the copacetic cultural and professional melding we’re seeing among Fortitude’s residents (here, the scientists, miners and politicians will all find themselves at the same bars) will actually reveal itself to be teeming with tensions, and that those tensions will lead to an explosion (or, if we’re being site-specific, an avalanche). Among the other leading characters whose lives — formerly lived peacefully alongside one another — are now brutally colliding are: gruff policeman Dan Anderssen (Game of Thrones’ Richard Dormer), Frank Sutter (Nicholas Pinnock), another policeman whose adultery has both emotionally and physically harmed his family, his wife Jules Sutter (Jessica Raine), who’s currently grappling to care for their wrongly diagnosed son’s (almost supernatural?) illness, and Elena Ledesma (Verónica Echegui), the Spanish waitress whose reason for being in Fortitude remains, at least early on, undisclosed. There’s also Christopher Eccleston’s professor character who, despite very much seeming to be murdered, is said on IMDb to appear in all 12 of the season’s episodes (perhaps it’ll take a Six Feet Under-y turn?).

I could have easily put “mysterious” in front of each of these characters’ descriptions (especially that of the undead(?) professor), for the show, with annoying genre-dictated precision, withholds information about everyone in its striking, panoramic view. Though you’d expect all to be exposed by the vast neutrality of the tundra and small-town familiarity, it seems startlingly easy to keep a secret in Fortitude, both from other characters and from the audience. The very fact that the show works within such a captivating geopolitical framework strangely undermines the viewing experience: the setting is not at all generic, so generically mysterious lines like “everybody here is running away from something” become a particularly noticeable imposition. The concrete mediocrity of the dialogue and character development becomes highly visible in contrast to the show’s own excellent, but more abstract, ideas.

Because Fortitude is an ensemble piece, every time it risks divulging anything too quickly, it can simply jump to the next character. It’s strange: it both imbues in us an increasing desire to link its many narrative threads, to continue watching and be our own sleuthing Stanley Tuccis, but it also makes it seem meandering, ensuring we get attached to no one, and enabling writers to obfuscate the fact that they may have created inchoate characters. Like a Bond movie’s woefully two-dimensional representation of what it takes to make a female character, this show, like so many others, seems to think that “beautiful” and “mysterious” are enough for its every element.

This is a shame, because its premise of dubious cultural neutralization and deliberate isolation are smart and compelling. Perhaps in coming episodes it’ll mine those themes with better dialogue, and I’m hoping it’ll find itself less beholden to the mystery genre’s implicit negation of character (an admittedly difficult task, for what is mystery without negation?). Creator Simon Donald (who made the original Low Winter Sun) has a potentially amazing show on his hands. But in order for us to be interested in the voids of his landscape and his secrets, he also needs to prove there are real people whose existences are threatened by them. He needs to prove he didn’t think, “You know what’s cool? Glaciers. You know what’s cooler? Bloody glaciers,” then roll a set of character-creating dice, send a polar bear and a murderer to chew up a couple of those characters, and press “go.”