Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Fortitude: “Episode 1 and 2”

Stanley Tucci
Stanley Tucci

If people have heard anything about Pivot’s first foray into drama, Fortitude (which seems unlikely given how few people know about the channel’s existence), the knowledge almost certainly revolves around any number of facts, easily gleaned from advance reviews of the show. It stars Stanley Tucci! The setting is very snowy! There are polar bears! It’s kind of like Twin Peaks! Or Fargo! Or Lost! And while all of those facts are completely accurate, they also don’t come anywhere near doing the series justice, for as similar on the surface as Fortitude may be to anything that came before, buried deep down is something entirely unique.

Television is never without its depictions of small town life, be they realistic (like Rectify), satirical (like Fargo), or storybook fantastical (like Gilmore Girls), but Fortitude’s take on life in a tiny burg is decidedly different. Part of that distinction comes from the fictional town’s self-selecting makeup. Set in an isolated town in the Arctic Circle, Fortitude seems to be entirely populated with individuals with something to hide. As similar as that might seem to something like the UK’s Broadchurch (or stateside, Gracepoint) Fortitude differs, because the town has no interest in learning about the darkness that lay in anyone’s past. Instead, we see the town as a united front, a collective unit invested in closing ranks and flushing out interlopers in order to preserve the peace, no matter how murderous that peace may be.

The two hour pilot is purposely languorous, introducing character after character and detailing the how Fortitude operates, all the while choosing not to introduce Deputy Chief Inspector Morton (Stanley Tucci) until nearly 3/4 of the way in. This is an audacious choice for the show and serves to underline the idea that the town itself is the true protagonist, despite the fact that on any other show Morton would be the unequivocal lead, for whom we root to crack the case and emerge triumphant. With the town as a whole serving as the main character, that frees up every other individual, no matter how tertiary, to ping-pong between good and evil, the audience never having enough information to truly pin them down. To that extent, in a conversation between Natalie (Sienna Guillory) and newcomer Vincent (Luke Treadaway), the former answers his inquiries as to whether the sheriff is “good” or “bad” with the thought that no one really knows, because not enough happens in town for anyone to be revealed as one or the other. She acts as though what really defines us as people is what other people see us as.

As vital a character as the town plays, the setting serves an equally compelling purpose. Beyond the stark, alien beauty that is the Arctic, the locale pushes the pervading sense of isolation and secrecy. When a mysterious skeleton is uncovered in the glacier melt, immediately spurring a rash of events, both explainable and otherwise, it serves as a visceral reminder for not only the open threat of the unforgiving terrain, but the danger contained in the corrosive secrets of years past.

In this sense the town of Fortitude acts as a sin-eater, bringing in its derelict residents and setting them right, absorbing their pasts and setting them free in a blank slate of endless white. That’s not, of course, how the world works and it won’t be long before all of those deep, dark secrets get deposited on the surface, soiling everything they touch.

But maybe the single best element of Fortitude, the thing that will bring viewers back time and time again, is how little it cares if you have any idea what’s going on. By focusing on building out its community and the relationships therein, the show has too much on its plate to worry about holding the audience’s hand. For as much exposition necessarily exists in any pilot, Fortitude spends much more of its time moving through plot than specifically spelling out who and what each character represents and it’s all the better for it. The downfall of so many shows seemingly built around mystery


is that eventually seems like that is the only thing that matters. By spending so much time not explaining things, the show makes the show more mysterious while simultaneously undercutting the viewer’s need to understand everything. Now, as Lost learned and as Fortitude will likely experience in time, there’s only so long a show can put off answering questions and only so successfully said questions can be answered, but those are concerns for another day.

For now, what we know is scattered. Two children discover ancient animal remains in the thaw of the glacier at which Fortitude lay just outside. The remains may (or may not) have made one of the children, Liam (Darwin Brokenbro), extremely ill. The other child’s father decides to take possession of the remains with a friend in the hopes of selling it to the research center in town and making a large profit, desperately needed as the mines around town grow ever more exhausted. The exhaustion of the mines is a concern with the governor of Fortitude, Hildur Odegard (Sofie Gråbøl), who is pegging her hopes for economic stimulus on the planned construction of an ice hotel, into the side of the glacier, environmental report willing.


However, the discovery of the animal remains have thrown the project into question, as Professor Stoddart (Christopher Eccleston), author of the environmental report, doesn’t know that he can sign off on such a thing knowing there may be historical anthropological artifacts at stake. The professor learns about the remains when one of the miners attempts to ascertain the value of the remains, but is spooked after the professor informs him of the illegality of his actions.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Dan Anderssen (Richard Dormer) (our other pseudo-protagonist) has been informed that former friend Henry Tyson (Michael Gambon) is to be sent back to the mainland because his liver cancer has entered its final stages. Tyson and Anderssen had a falling out after Tyson accidentally killed a man who was being mauled by a polar bear and was protected from investigation by Anderssen who was mysteriously present for the killing. When Stoddart turns up dead, at first seemingly mauled by a polar bear in his own home, but later revealed to be murdered, Tyson takes the opportunity to call the mainland and inform them that the Governor is having the Sheriff murder people who she views as complications.


Back at Liam Sutter’s house, his inexplicable unconsciousness is making for tense times between his parents, Jules (Jessica Raine) and Frank (Nicholas Pinnock). The extremely strange town doctor diagnoses the unconscious boy with mumps, asks a lot of strange questions and then leaves. Frank continues making time with Elena (Verónica Echegui), a mysterious woman who works for the hotel in town. When Jules leaves Frank to care for Liam alone, taking solace in a dark bar, Elena comes by the house and she and Frank spend some sexy time in a shed, during which Liam wakes up, exits his bedroom by his window and wanders around in the snow in only his pajama bottoms, returning before anyone is the wiser. When Jules returns home she’s happy to see her son awake and unaware that Frank has only just returned to the house, bloody and guilty. Shortly thereafter Liam starts screaming about his feet and it’s revealed that his traipsing about in the snow has given him a severe case of frostbite and it immediately becomes clear that Frank was not by his side when he said he was.

Frank is called to serve on the manhunt to locate Natalie, who along with Vincent, was supposed to have dinner with the murdered professor that night, only to go missing. Natalie, it ends up, though she’s yet to be officially located, is shacked up with the miner who approached the professor about the remains, and whose cabin the police are making their way towards imminently. Vincent, on the other hand, was (seemingly) the first to discover the professor’s body, breaking into the house to attend to the dying man mere moments before the sheriff revealed himself and summarily arrested Vincent on suspicion of murder.


The next day, upon questioning, it becomes clear that Vincent is not the murderer but neither the sheriff nor the Governor are interested in letting him go, as having a wrong suspect is better than having no suspect at all. Around this time DCI Morton (our other pseudo-protagonist) arrives from London to help with the investigation, representing the interests of the victim’s family, one of whom he manages to meet on the plane to Fortitude. It’s unclear what Morton’s true motives are, as it is revealed near episode’s end that in order to arrive in Fortitude when he did, he would have had to leave London before the professor had even been killed.

That… was a lot of words. And that’s still leaving out a handful of characters and correlating complications. While not every review with dig into such specifics as to what happened when, it’s important to realize just how many balls Fortitude is trying to keep in the air from the start. The show is twisty and malleable, impossible to get a firm grasp on, while still remaining a prickly breath of narrative fresh air. Easily one of the best new show of the TV season, Fortitude bites off more than it can chew and is all the better for it.


Stray observations:

  • Holy crap, welcome to your weekly Fortitude review. It’s impossible to tell what kind of audience this show will boast, so tell your friends.
  • You may be wondering, “Self, what is a Pivot? Do I have a Pivot? Do I need a Pivot?” Thankfully, Pivot has you covered.
  • Alternatively, you could just go here and stream the (first hourlong) episode starting February 1.
  • So, uh, there was totally a big pig in the research center, huh?
  • I’m not much for predictions, but feel free to speculate in the comments.
  • The show was surprisingly funny, something that I referenced exactly no times in the review. Of particular amusement, the scene between the officers trying to figure out if the interrogation audio was recording.
  • So Doctor Who and Dumbledore and Beric Dondarrion walk into a bar…
  • Sofie Gråbøl is best known for her work as the lead on Forbrydelsen. You are likely more familiar with the American remake, The Killing.
  • In the latest example of children ruining everything, ain’t it just the way that you manage to sneak in some bloody infidelity and then your dumb kid has to go and get frostbite and totally blow your cover?
  • No, but really, what’s up with that pig?