Warning: This contains spoilers for Fortitude Season 2. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review of Episode 1 here.
Keep your head. That’s the best advice you could give to anyone watching Fortitude Season 2. Within its opening few episodes, the city might as well have renamed itself “Decapitation Ville”. Keeping your head, though, is doubly important this time around, because Sky Atlantic’s show is seriously ramping up the horror. And headless corpses are just the start of it.
Fortitude’s appeal has always lain in its balance of murder mystery, supernatural sci-fi and sheer terror, but Season 2, if anything, has become more and more reliant on the latter to keep viewers hooked. With a new wave of bodies and the threat of the prehistoric wasps still humming in the background, even the characters are getting the willies. “Everything about this place has me shitting my pants in expectation of some environmental catastrophe,” says Dr. Sarinda Khatri (Parminder Nagra).
You’re inclined to agree, after Episode 1’s opening saw a bloke munching a baby back in 1942, not to mention all those dogs disappearing under the Blood Aurora – apart from the one with its spine removed. Oh, and that bloke in the wilderness going on about the polar bears singing, who had no eyes.
The opening chapter sets the tone for Season 2, which only gets darker and nastier as it unfolds. That’s terrible news for Vincent (Luke Treadaway), who’s the jumpiest of the whole cast, and understandably so. Treadaway’s performance is one of the keys to maintaining that edgy mood; every time he hears a buzz that might belong to a parasitic prehistoric wasp, he jumps. After several hours of twitching and nervous glances, it’s infectious.
But the show doesn’t just leave it there.
Immediately, Fortitude makes it clear that Vincent isn’t insane: we see Sarinda experimenting with a deadly wasp she’s keeping secret, which is only destined to end badly. Even Natalie knows about it, despite helping Vincent to blow up that graveyard in the icy outback, hoping to seal in those wasps for eternity.
At the same time, the weird things just keep happening. A polar bear wanders into town and finds it way into a school building – prompting Michael (Dennis Quaid in full-on Hollywood hero mode) to go and shoot it, despite being exceptionally trollied. Vincent and Natalie’s autopsy on the bear only confirms that it was behaving strangely, with its stomach completely full, giving it no reason to enter town. And, of course, there are those corpses, which pile up and weigh on poor Eric, lumbered with the Sheriff job in Dan’s absence. (One tragic moment where a dead daughter is identified by her toenails is rather effective.)
And, amid it all, there are the loose strands from Season 1 still floating around, being generally eerie. Darren Boyd is having way too much fun as bizarre feeder Markus, who is hanging about, visiting Elena (shot by Dan in Season 1) in hospital and singing Tainted Love to her. He presumably knows what’s going on with her – we soon realise that she’s being kept in her coma by Sarinda, who seems to be doing some kind of experiment on her. An experiment that, true to weird form, involves her reading Snow White to her and bottling any tears that come out as a result. While Season 1 might have left things there, though, Season 2 is increasingly explicit in its horror, with one scene seeing that weird stranger with no eyes from Episode 1 appearing in the lab and hovering over her with menace.
Fortitude’s success, though, is not in being scary, but in balancing those fears with an intriguing detective mystery. And so we have Eric, Hildur, Ingrid and Petra gradually trying to piece together what the heck is going on.
Ingrid and Petra’s investigations lead them to Lazlo Hindemith, after finding a geologist tool near a headless body. With his house deserted, Ingrid finds a belt with an “R” on its buckle, which she conceals – presumably because she recognises it as belonging to Rune, her brother, and the son of Freya and Michael. Great police work, Ingrid – although given her partner mostly seems to spend her time smashing windows and climbing through them, these things are all relative.
Petra then takes a swig from Hindemith’s flash, which turns out to contain something disgusting: Reindeer Juice. No, it’s not what it sounds like: it’s some kind of booze that involves passing stuff through a reindeer and drinking what comes out the other side. It’s powerful, it’s hallucinogenic and judging by the innards of that weird polar bear, it’s probably a very, very bad idea. Nature isn’t exactly on the side of humanity in Fortitude.
Dan, meanwhile, has sauntered back into Fortitude and seems absolutely fine – except for some acute alcohol poisoning. Is Season 2 of Fortitude really just going to turn out to be all due to a communal drinking problem?
Eric, meanwhile, goes to find a friend of his, Tavrani, who’s got experience in juicing reindeers. And, wouldn’t you know it? He’s got a head in his freezer. The head, to be specific, of Lazlo Hindemith. Hindemith, it turns out, is something of a drunkard, popping up in the local pub at one point to scream: “The Demon is among us!” Tavrani starts talking about demons at the police station too, adding that he killed Hindemith to save his tormented soul – and that, hey, he didn’t need his head once he was dead anyway. A swift tongue cutting-out by the demon later and we’re left relying on Rune’s help to find out more, who then starts talking about a drug den with a reindeer in it. Oh, and that spooky dude from the wilderness with no eyes.
It’s not the most rewarding of subplots, as the show swings back and forth between Freaky Blind Dude and alcohol poisoning as its two narrative drives. Things are much stronger, though, in the other half of the programme, as Governor Hildur (Sofie Grabol) and Michael team up to do their own sleuthing.
We say Governor Hildur, but, of course, she’s now former Governor Hildur, after being fired by government official Erling Monk (Ken Stott). She gets him to take her to the neighbouring town, where officials are covertly burning what may or may no be bodies – is the same thing happening there that happened in Fortitude in Season 1? One wonderfully tense sequence sees Hildur and the other town’s mayor chat in their native language, while a Russian soldier (yes, the Russians may be involved) watches over them.
Eric, meanwhile, is suspicious of Hildur and Michael being together – and with good reason, given that they have romantic history. Indeed, their chemistry is one of the highlights of the show, as they share a bottle of drink, then later team up to trick Erling Monk and investigate him. Eric’s theory is that Hindemith is being silenced because of the horrors and war crimes he saw in the Congo many years ago, but Hildlur isn’t buying it. And so Michael starts a brawl in the local bar, while Hildur sneaks into Monk’s room upstairs.
It’s in these sequences that things really work, partly thanks to the sheer entertainment value of Ken Stott. “You have been paid money actual to get out off this freezing sewer with its flesh-eating wasps and headless fucking corpses!” he spits at Hildur, somehow managing to keep a straight face. That sense that he’s just as not in control of events only makes things more tense, as Hildur overhears him on the phone: “It’s under control, but I need more money.” He also dismisses Hildur’s theory about Russia and the neighbouring town as “a joke”. Erling certainly isn’t in charge.
The answer to what’s going ultimately lies with Sarinda, who ends up having dinner with Dan, looking healthier and smugger than ever. He reveals that he knows about her connections to a major pharmaceutical company, who seem interested in the healing properties about the wasps. The words “contingency plan” are uttered, while knives are flashed about in a way that Chekhov would no doubt approve of.
It’s another enjoyably unnerving sequence that’s essentially a two-hander – a reminder that Fortitude works best when it lets its cast have room to breathe and simply interact. Vincent and Natalie, for example, are out in the wilderness in a tent halfway through. Surrounded by wind during the night, he suddenly finds himself unable to see – a condition that Natalie can only hide for so long, before trying to brush it off as maybe a temporary affliction. She’s brilliantly unconvincing, and we can’t tell whether that’s because she’s scared too, or because she knows what’s going on. By the time the Freaky Blind Dude appears in their tent and stares at Vincent, things are genuinely scary.
It’s a hard line to tread, balancing the need for otherworldly chills and serious detective work. A detour involving Michael’s wife being healed by a shaman in the magical nearby waters comes across as one step too far into supernatural territory – it feels like a completely different TV series, after Fortitude’s firm focus on both science and stranger things.
And yet the notion of healing becomes the main driving motivation of events: Sarinda is working to tap into the power of the ancient evil (and those wasps), which have been linked by scientific experiments to tissue regeneration. There’s no greater proof of that supernatural recovery than Dan’s return to the town, and Richard Dormer’s gleefully sinister performance becomes the central villain of the piece. It’s a shame to see much of this winding, wayward tale boiled down to what is essentially a tale of a good man possessed by something bad: by the time we reach the finale, Dan has starting gnashing on others who discover he’s not himself anymore, and has turned the whole town against Erling Monk.
Stott’s departure, being through of the office window by angry townspeople, is a wonderful moment of catharsis – not least because we’ve seen Stott’s over-the-top politician become weighed down by the guilt of Hildur’s death (she fell into icy waters after a trap to ensnare expose Monk went wrong). Less satisfying is Sarinda’s demise, as she winds up fighting for her life in a helicopter fleeing the town, only for the whole thing to go down in flames. Fortunately, though, Dennis Quaid’s Michael is still there to hold the fort (debating whether to turn to Dan for help with healing Freya), as is Treadaway’s Vincent (dealing with the infection of the now-blind Natalie, and his decision to inject her with some of the wasp juice to heal her). It’s Fortitude’s decision to ultimately anchor the story in a smaller group of characters that ends up redeeming this second season.
Season 1’s finale, which span out of control as it tried to reconcile its dual genres, feels like a long time ago, as Fortitude’s mythology and meaty ensemble of characters have all been given a chance to develop. But Season 2 proves the show can’t get away with the same trick twice: while the drama is darker than ever, we need answers as well as unsettling events. And so, despite some of the more uneven plot strands, and people and ideas hurriedly left by the wayside, Fortitude’s second season does well to condense everything down in its final, rushed chapters – the result is more violence, in a show that has often been distracted by gore in favour of clarity or narrative structure. But as Dan heads to his Sheriff’s office at the close of Season 2, the sole man of official standing left in Fortitude, the question hanging in the air is a refreshingly simpler one than at the end of Season 1: is he back to normal again? Or is he still a threat to the town?
Fortitude Season 1 and 2 are available on-demand through Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it all on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. The contract-free service includes access to a range of Sky channels, from Sky Atlantic (Patrick Melrose) and Sky 1 (Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash) to FOX UK (The Walking Dead, Legion). A 14-day free trial is available for new subscribers.