How do you talk about a show influenced by Twin Peaks without burying it in the shadow of Twin Peaks? Twin Peaks is widely considered one of the greatest TV shows of all time, and certainly one of the most important. Now more than ever we are awash in a sea of shows – good and bad – that follow an investigation into a murder or disappearance in a small town that kicks up buried secrets and drags unspoken darkness into the light. And whether a show like that is good or bad, someone is going to compare it to Twin Peaks.
Twin Peaks! I love Twin Peaks, but here’s the problem: people need to shut the hell up about Twin Peaks. I appreciate how impossible that demand is just six weeks before we get a new season of Twin Peaks for the first time in twenty-five years, but goddammit, we need to shut up about Twin Peaks, at least in the presence of other shows. Not because it’s not great, not because it’s not important, but because it’s a crutch. Twin Peaks changed what was possible for TV in a dozen ways, from the quality of cinematography to the use of music. Saying a modern TV show is influenced by Twin Peaks is redundant. Everything that came after Twin Peaks carries some of its creative DNA and passes it forward to what follows.
But some shows carry more of that DNA than others, of course, and in that case, one might think it could be appropriate, even necessary, to talk about Twin Peaks.
Maybe that could be true one day, but not today. Twin Peaks comparisons are thrown around with such abandon these days that they’ve become a casual part of TV marketing, “a way of saying a show will push boundaries, but in a way you already understand”. Every time a critic makes a Twin Peaks comparison when they could make a more interesting one, what could have been sharp analysis is immediately dulled. I don’t think it would be possible right now for even a skilled critic to put Twin Peaks and one of its descendants in dialogue in a specific and analytically rigorous way that doesn’t presume to give Twin Peaks credit or blame for the qualities of its descendant but treats them as distinct but related works of art, because the second anyone saw the name Twin Peaks, a sizeable section of their brain would go into autopilot. We need an extended detox from Twin Peaks before we can learn again to use it in moderation.
So let’s talk about a little show called Fortitude.
Fortitude is the odd child out of contemporary British crime dramas in a dozen ways, not least of which is that it’s received far less attention in the United States than Broadchurch or Happy Valley, despite a more intuitively bankable lead in Stanley Tucci. Partially, that’s a distribution problem, since the first season aired on Pivot in the US, an obscure cable network that launched less than two years before it broadcast Fortitude and folded less than two years after (reports suggest the second season will be distributed in the US by Amazon instead), but it’s also likely a result of the fact that Fortitude is grim, withholding, and deeply weird, all of which some people probably find off-putting, but which I’ve found endlessly enjoyable and fascinating from the moment the series started.
What sets Fortitude apart from its contemporaries most immediately is its titular setting, an isolated former mining colony on an island in Arctic Norway, now largely populated by fishermen. Many modern shows in a similar vein suffer from audience familiarity with the premise. We know this seemingly-normal town will turn out to have hidden secrets, so all the material in the early episodes showing off how seemingly-normal this town is so we can find it kinda relatable before the show starts to peel back the layers so we can discover, to our shock, that things are not as they seem can be a bit of a drag if the writers can’t make the normal parts interesting. I found this particularly exasperating when I attempted to watch The Kettering Incident and could barely keep my eyes open as the show spent two episodes on the obligatory journey through businesses and police stations and homes so I could see the same small town as every other show before it was all turned on its head.
Fortitude is not set in a seemingly-normal town, but one that seems extremely strange on the surface. Apart from its foreboding far-northern environment, the town’s residents are a medley of oddballs from all over the world. No one is allowed to live in Fortitude unless they’re able to contribute so everyone has a job, carrying a rifle outdoors is mandatory due to the ever-present risk of polar bear attack and anyone who gets too sick is shipped to the mainland lest they strain resources with the inconvenience of their death. Until the first episode, the Fortitude Police has never had to investigate anything more taxing than minor theft, and no one in the town had ever been murdered.
Rather than lure the audience in with a relatable portrait of a small town, Fortitude presents an enticingly bizarre setting that puts the viewer off-balance right from the start. This disarming strangeness disguises the fact the show is actually very relatable, not as a portrait of life in a small town, but as a terrifying vision of the world. Fortitude is a microcosm of human life that compresses the normal function of capitalist society into a horror story and questions our lack of horror for the same atrocities on a grand scale.
Fortitude’s requirement that all residents contribute, and the implicit ban on the disabled that entails, strikes as weird and authoritarian, but is it really that alien to the stigmatisation and exclusion of the unemployed and the disabled in real life? Fortitude’s prohibition on dying seems especially cruel when we see how much pain and terror it causes Henry (Michael Gambon), dying of terminal cancer, and Freya (Michelle Fairley), dying of motor neurone disease, but surely it pales in comparison to the way we dismiss the value of the lives of chronically and terminally ill people whenever we suggest they’d be better off dead, or describe their passing as a “release”. Henry is also very obviously the only person in Fortitude over the age of sixty and one of just two over the age of fifty – no one says so, but people clearly age out of Fortitude, just as they age out of usefulness in the eyes of capitalism.
Indeed, while Fortitude consistently misleads the viewer with hints of the supernatural, the horror of Fortitude is hyperrational. Even as it gradually acquires some sci-fi elements, the sci-fi is spare, minimalistic and within the bounds of current scientific understanding – it is capitalism that haunts both the town and the show, not demons. The cause of the first season’s murder spree is ultimately revealed as an outbreak of prehistoric wasps from a mammoth corpse initially exposed by global warming, but allowed to thaw out by criminals trying to traffic in the ivory. The spree scuppers the plans of the town’s governor, Hildur Odegard (Sofie Gråbøl) to save the town from economic devastation by attracting tourists with an extravagant ice hotel, as the closure of the town’s mines, and its subsequent lack of productivity, means the Norwegian government is looking for any excuse to slash the subsidies that keep it functioning.
In the second season, when her plans have failed, we see what Hildur feared would happen: the shelves at the supermarket are barely stocked, and the fishermen are ready to riot when Oslo withholds the fuel they need to make their livelihoods. An unscrupulous medical corporation attempts to exploit the survivors of the wasp outbreak under the guise of giving them expert medical care, vivisecting them without their consent in order to commodify a newfound ability to regenerate damaged tissue caused by successfully fighting off the wasp infection. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the residents, a second plague of flies sweeps across the island from another thaw of mammoth corpses in the neighbouring Russian town of Vukobejina. Everything initially hinted as mystical in origin, whether the seemingly random explosions of murderous rage in season one, or the foretold arrival of a demon in season two, is shown to be rooted in the brutal banality of the body, the environment and the survival of the fittest, in the wants and needs and desires of living things, and the limited scope of their ability to seize them in a capitalist system defined by the destructive and all-consuming competition for power and resources.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the journey of the show’s true protagonist, Sheriff Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer), a petty and mediocre man initially characterised by his obsessive infatuation with an uninterested resident, Elena (Verónica Echegui), and his territorial suspicion of DCI Morton (Tucci), the detective sent by Scotland Yard to help investigate the recent murders.
One of the defining questions of the first season is whether Dan is a good sheriff or a bad sheriff. When Elena is asked this by a new arrival, she responds that nobody knows, since there’s never any crime in Fortitude, so Dan has never done anything to prove himself one way or the other. But as the first season unfolds, we get a clear answer: Dan is a terrible sheriff, not just incompetent, but dangerously unworthy of his authority. Apart from childishly interfering with Morton, stalking Elena and assaulting one of his own officers when Dan finds out he’s been having an affair with her, we eventually learn that Dan kidnapped a man who attempted to rape Elena and left him tied up in the wilderness to be eaten alive by a polar bear. After shooting a wasp-infected Elena to prevent her from killing a child in the first season finale, Dan disappears from Fortitude, only to return months later on the brink of death from alcohol poisoning in the second season premiere. Fortunately for Dan, circumstances have conspired such that no one in the town knows that he extrajudicially murdered a resident in a fit of vigilante rage.
Dan’s return to Fortitude coincides with a new spree of killings, this time by junior electrician and wannabe shaman Vladek Klimov (Robert Sheehan). Though initially benched by Hildur’s replacement as governor, the corrupt bloviating drunk Erling Munk (Ken Stott), Dan regains his title of Sheriff as his former colleagues and, increasingly, the townsfolk, look to him for leadership. Vladek is killing to collect the body parts necessary for a Sami ritual he believes will stop a demon who’s coming to destroy Fortitude – a demon who’s taken the form of Dan Anderssen.
In reality, Dan has spent the past few months chained up in abandoned house, trying to kill off an infection of wasp larvae by drinking lethal quantities of alcohol and even bleach. As well as the aforementioned ability to regenerate damaged tissue, the ordeal has left Dan unhinged, with cannibalistic urges and an even more psychotic obsession with possessing and controlling Elena, who survives in an apparently vegetative state while Dr Surinder Khatri (Parminder Nagra) experiments on her. The question of whether Dan is a good sheriff or a bad sheriff gains new urgency as Vladek assures him a second disaster will strike Fortitude – the wave of disease from Vukobejina – and that the town’s survival depends on whether Dan is able to resist the new “demonic” impulses that have come with his transformation or turn back towards his humanity. But Dan isn’t a demon, and it’s not even one hundred percent clear that he’s even lost his mind. Perhaps the feeling of power that survival gave him has just peeled back a facade of decency to expose the sadistic megalomaniac he’s always been – a question of character familiar to anyone who’s watched Breaking Bad.
Survival is an important theme in Fortitude, most horrifyingly expressed in the form of the wasps, who survive hundreds of years beneath the ice, only to emerge again and immediately start spreading. But if Fortitude has optimistic moments, it’s the rare glimpses of what it might look like for people to survive with each other instead of against each other, like when Hildur essentially throws away her governorship to release the fuel to the fishermen. That’s the choice Vladek presents to Dan, between survival of the community and survival of the fittest, between the survival that tries to stop the ice from melting and the survival that merely plans to rule over the flood. But that’s a choice the town of Fortitude fails every day when it exiles the sick and disabled and bases your ability to live there entirely on your ability to be productive. For every civic-minded speech that Hildur gives trying to remind everyone the town only works when they work together, the truth is that everyone in Fortitude has to look out for themselves first, because losing your job or even getting sick could mean losing everything. That’s the harsh reality that makes a doting single father, an underpaid security guard and a greedy scientist join forces to traffic ivory in the first season, almost destroying the town in the process. Stability and security in Fortitude are dependent on the same thing as anywhere else governed by capitalism: the ability to hoard wealth and power for ourselves.
Dan doesn’t just throw the choice back in Vladek’s face, he spits it as he beats him to death: “You know, people always ask me, am I a good sheriff or a bad sheriff? Now I realise I am both. Hell, I am all the fucking sheriffs who have ever existed.” Whether a result of madness or the ruthless grasping for control of an unexceptional man, all Dan cares about now is power, and the second season ends with him sitting triumphant behind the governor’s desk. All his enemies are dead, and he’s survived, because he’s the fittest. Dan is the apex predator, the nightmare of capitalist competition made flesh, and everyone left in Fortitude will either join his pack or be prey.
All of this makes Fortitude sound unbearably bleak, but it’s not. The show is visually beautiful and takes full advantage of the setting’s jagged glaciers and placid lakes. Even more, it’s surprisingly sweet in those moments when the town comes together to celebrate or to mourn, as well as its romances. Fortitude is a show full of pining hearts and furtive glances, and even its infidelities are just sombre and painful, not bitter and angry. The doomed love between the dying Freya and her husband Michael (Dennis Quaid) is warm, affectionate and achingly sad. Friendship in Fortitude is a deep and powerful bond, and parents love their children with every piece of their soul. Most of all, Fortitude is shockingly funny, full of gallows humour and often able to provoke belly laughs just by having a character recap whatever absurd state of affairs they find themselves in.
Unfortunately, based on its UK ratings, it seems unlikely that Fortitude will get a third season even if it does well on Amazon. If this is the end, all I can say is that I’m glad I was lucky enough to enjoy such a great show while it lasted. The television landscape will be a little blander without one of the darkest, weirdest and funniest crime dramas I’ve ever seen. Fortitude depicts not just a town, but an emblem of human civilisation raging against its own decline, and it’s exactly as harrowing, heartfelt and hilarious as such a melancholy tale should be.