clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Watch: the 7 most shocking moments from the unbelievably disturbing show Fortitude

The creator of this crazy Arctic mystery tells us just what he was thinking.

An image from the opening scene of Fortitude, which is shot in Iceland and looks like few other things on TV.
An image from the opening scene of Fortitude, which is shot in Iceland and looks like few other things on TV.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

If you didn't watch obscure cable network Pivot's Arctic-set mystery series Fortitude — and the ratings suggest you skipped it — you missed out on one of TV's most propulsive, addictive shows. Fortunately, the entire first season is now available on Amazon Prime.

Fortitude is that rarest of creations — a show that's one genre in one scene and a completely different one in another. It's equal parts sci-fi thriller, small-town comedy, horror show, murder mystery, soap opera, and commentary on climate change.

Any of those shows would be a lot of fun. But by making them rub elbows with one another, Fortitude makes all of them that much more exciting. It's never clear when the straightforward murder mystery is going to take a hard turn into horror, or when the gentle laughs of the small-town comedy are going to be interrupted by a torrid love affair.

The series, a co-production with the United Kingdom network Sky Atlantic, is set in the town of Fortitude, an isolated burg north of the Arctic Circle, primarily occupied by people with deep, dark secrets that they want to keep hidden. (It's loosely based on the very real islands of Svalbard.)

When a terrible murder occurs in the show's first episode, the stage is set for those secrets to unravel — especially with a detective from outside the town, played by the great character actor Stanley Tucci, coming in to crack the case.

But there's more going on here than meets the eye. What's with the recently discovered mammoth carcass? Why are people seemingly losing their minds and breaking out in violence? And how is one little kid at the center of so many of these mysteries?

To give you a taste, I've embedded seven of the show's most memorable moments below and gotten series creator Simon Donald to tell us what those weird, freaky, utterly unforgettable moments are all about.

(Yes, they'll spoil you if you haven't already seen them, but I'd like to think they will entice you to watch the series.)

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.

1) A man comes upon a polar bear mauling another human being — and shoots the human, not the bear

Simon Donald: The man being shot while being eaten by a polar bear probably came from very early on when I was investigating the world, Svalbard, the Arctic. I was struck by this thing a couple of people told me, which worked its way into the story, which was that when a [polar] bear takes its prey, it's one of the only animals in the animal kingdom that doesn't kill the prey first. Even a lion will kill a gazelle before it starts eating it — because they're dangerous and can kick your eye out.

In the Arctic, the bear — there's nothing that can hurt it. So it starts eating the thing that it's hunting as soon as it's got its claws in it. And that notion of something so powerful and single-minded that it eats you without killing you was so chilling that it became an important moment in the world.

Somebody had told us if they ever saw someone being mauled by a bear, the smartest thing to do would be shoot the person, not the bear. There's no way anybody that a bear has got its hands on is likely to survive once the bear's started on them. That got me thinking about what it would be like to stumble on that moment.

I liked the idea that there's a sense of dread almost immediately. You know you're in a crime thriller as soon as it starts.

And what I wanted was this sense that you meet these people and you have no idea which one of them is going to be the body at the end. You also have no idea which one is going to be the person that killed the body at the end. It felt like quite a fruitful way around of re-engaging with what is a very, very well-trodden format.

2) A young child goes for an impromptu late-night walk — and returns with brutally depicted, very realistic frostbite

SD: Something I didn't know is that it can be two or three weeks after the frostbite before they can tell the extent of the damage. They call it debridement, which means removal or amputation is going to be required.

They carefully monitor the damaged tissue until a certain amount of time has passed, and then they know how much is necrotic and how much is viable, and they start cutting.

That's one of those creepy, unpleasant things that also what worked its way into the show. [Jules and Frank, the boy's parents] don't know whether their boy is going to lose his feet further down the line. Also, both parents think this is their fault. And they blame one another, too. Jules blames Frank.

But the idea that your negligence, your selfish momentary negligence, has now condemned your child to three weeks of waiting to discover whether they can save his feet, because the dad sneaked out to have an assignation and because the mum went out because she couldn't cope any more — the consequences are just so grim and unforeseeable and horrifying.

3) When Jules waits with her son as his frostbite is treated, she hears another child crying — but doesn't find a kid when she searches

SD: Pigs are used for all sorts of tests, things they're not allowed to do on people. They even get used for testing high-velocity rifle rounds — because the ratio of flesh to bulk and bone is very similar to that of a human being.

Doc Allardyce [who works in the research center] hints to Jules before they go in there, "It's actually a research center. It's not set up for patients." A young woman is taking her child into an experimental research center where they don't normally treat people, but of necessity, as this is her kid's best chance of surviving severe frostbite.

She's wandering this building, lost and frightened, and she hears what sounds like a kid squealing. She works her way down through the corridors, and there's an identical hyperbaric chamber to the one her son's in, and inside it is a pig.

If you look carefully, its hooves have been horribly damaged because they're experimenting on the pig to see to what extent the hyperbaric oxygen chamber can heal frostbite. So she's seeing an animal being experimented on in exactly the same circumstances as she's just left her kid, and it's just deeply distressing and disturbing.

4) At least one of the people present at the big murder is the last person you'd ever suspect

SD: It was a very early idea. The principle that gave us the kid [as an assailant], is the principle that works its way right throughout the show.

The kid being both victim and aggressor is just such a transgressive place to go in a murder story. That felt true to Fortitude, where unprecedented things happen in this strange place at the far edge of the world.

One genre suddenly transmutes into a different one. In police procedural thrillers, there's a kind of grammar that people are quite relaxed about, and if you break that grammar, it's shocking.

There is no motive for that kid to be doing what he's doing in any police investigation handbook. It's right off the scale of what you expect to be able to attribute to a 10-year-old kid. It's unprecedented, and it's deeply, humanly disturbing, never mind criminally out of the ordinary.

I think it's the kind of breaking down of the walls of each genre, and they leech across the boundaries into one another. God, that's pretentious. [Chuckles.]

Even the setting allows that. You don't get conventional cop behavior. You don't get the incident tape and the 20 guys in white suits and all the photographers. You've lost all those reassuring crutches. Everything is, to an extent, reinvented from first principles by these characters in this very strange place. And I think that just keeps it on its toes all the time.

5) A thawing mammoth carcass is leaking ... something into Fortitude's water supply

SD: I was really attracted to going to somewhere right on the edge of the world, and it's modeled on this town [Svalbard] in the furthest northerly community on the planet. On Svalbard, the human population has only been there for a hundred years. It was a coal-mining, whaling station in 1902, 1903. There's no indigenous community at all, so it's almost virgin of human presence.

The idea is there's something under that recent veneer of ice that is without any precedent, that had never been in contact with humanity before. The change in climate — the thawing, the melting of the permafrost and the thawing of the permafrost — releases it into a human community.

These things all started to knit together rather beautifully, and the requirement for permafrost, as part of the story, took me to Svalbard, which is a brilliant place to have a community. It's a place where the cavalry aren't coming. The mammoth — I wanted it to feel like a monster show. [Horror movie] The Thing was in my head.

It's a really interesting time to be writing television drama, because in the last five, six, seven years the appetite of the broadcasters has undergone a gigantic revolution. They are looking for high-end drama, and they're catering to a really sophisticated audience that is growing in sophistication all the time.

What I love about this opportunity is to be able to take all the different genre tropes and conventions — knowing that my audience is literate to them and recognize them and that it sets off chains of alarm bells and chains of expectation — and playing among all those different genre moments.

I wanted the audience to think, "Is this sci-fi? Is this horror? Is this supernatural?" All these avenues are open, because people are watching this show thinking, "What the hell is it? Where is this? Who are these people? What genre am I in?"

And that's just great fun to be able to play with that giant palette, instead of saying, "It's a crime procedural, investigative cop show, therefore all these things are the sort of things we deal with."

6) Morton (Tucci) makes a discovery in his hotel room that points to a murderous cover-up

SD: One of the things about Morton that's in my head is that he brings this application of forensic experience and insight into this world, and he can't find purchase. He's doing all the things he's trained to do and that he's experienced in doing. He's looking for the money trail. He's looking for the motivation trail. He's looking for connections. He's not making any progress, and it's driving him bananas.

That, for me, is part of the fun of a character who is so insightful and so resourceful, forensically and analytically, finding himself continually unable to make progress in this world that just doesn't obey the rules he's so experienced in. He's not having the best time ever, but also there's a weird freedom for Morton in this environment that I don't think he's embraced yet.

7) In the show's most horrifying moment, a woman attacks her own mother with a fork, and, well ... just watch

SD: [Laughs.] My wife got phone calls after that episode from friends: "You must leave him. Get out of the house."

There's an inevitability in the chain of events. I'm sure you remember Shirley, walking back from the supermarket, pokes her head into the big freezing unit where the mammoth is stored and has a sniff and then shuts the door.

The transgressiveness of it is because it's domestic, and it's a mother and daughter, and it's the daughter attacking her own mother, and her own mother is a doctor.

Amidst that, you've learned that the mother, Doc Allardyce, is very dismissive of Shirley. She's quite judgmental about the new boyfriend, Markus.

Markus has homed in on a vulnerable young woman, and he's homed in on someone who has real issues with her physicality, with her body image, with her self-respect, with her independence. He's found somebody vulnerable, and he's exploiting her. It might appear that he's doing it out of love and affection. He might tell himself that, but there's something troubling and unhelpful and unnatural in that relationship.

The moment when Shirley goes over the edge is induced by something natural and physiological [which will be explained in a later episode], but what's expressed is kind of what's repressed in Shirley, which is this anger and deep, soul-torturing resentment of the way her mom has treated her. And the way [her mom] really knows lurks in this strange boyfriend's worst intentions, which are not to see her as a young woman who's seeking affection and emotional engagement, but to see her as someone susceptible to his perversions and desires.

All that expresses itself in that horrible explosion of bizarre violence that involves an eating implement, her own mother, and the regurgitation. They are all systematically linked in my head.

Fortitude is available on Amazon Prime.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.