Why Katla should be your next box set
Helen Archer | On 18, Jul 2021
While some might say it’s been a long time coming, Netflix’s first Icelandic show is well worth the wait. Created by Sigurjón Kjartansson and Baltasar Kormákur, Katla clearly draws from their experiences of filming Trapped and Everest, respectively. They have delivered another visually cold, majestic landscape populated by characters who are themselves trapped in their own grief and trauma.
Katla is set in a village called Vik, under the titular volcano – a real place that seems ready-made for this sort of drama. The environment is forbidding and almost uninhabitable, a malevolent character in its own right. We join our cast of characters a year after the volcano has erupted, leaving the ash-covered town looking like some post-apocalyptic wasteland. It’s more-or-less deserted, save for the hardcore few who are unwilling or unable to move on, confined to their own personal purgatories, the bleak landscape mirroring the bleakness of theirlives. Some are there for research purposes, such as scientist Darri (Björn Thors, last seen in Icelandic series The Valhalla Murders). Others, such as Gríma (Guðrún Ýr Eyfjörð), have roots in the small community, and are staying to find other sorts of answers.
Though it’s only been a year since the volcano eruption devastated the town, one gets the feeling that these lives have been stuck in the past for much longer. To a hopeless background of ash storms and animals simply dropping down dead, the inhabitants of the town are living solitary existences, confined to their own personal snow globes. This sense of isolation only increases when human figures start wandering down from the volcano, naked, covered only in a thick layer of dirt, with no idea of where they’ve come from, or where they’ve been.
Though they might look like zombies, and it would be easy to pass them off as the dead brought back to life, things are made more complicated by the fact that at least one of the returned is, in fact, a simulacrum of someone who is still very much alive. This outlier complicates matters, although the townspeople never seem quite as unnerved as the viewer.
Episodes with titles such as “This is Not Him” and “I Am You” suggest themes of doppelgangers and identity, but the villagers gradually share their own theories. The hippy lady who runs the sole guesthouse points to ancient local folklore, while the scientists look to the geology of the volcano for answers – but the answer to the mystery of who they are and why they are there seems entirely more personal.
While there is, for most of the series, a kind of wilful refusal of the characters to scrutinise their circumstances, the new arrivals do open up new or existing passions for them. Depression and grief are probed, and gradually, those who have been stuck in ice – both literal and metaphorical – slowly thaw and come back to life. In early episodes, the pace, too, is glacial. There is a slow reveal of backstories, but the series takes its time in laying it out for the audience. Thematically, the pacing works, as numbing as the characters’ unaddressed trauma.
While this may sound like a rather grimier (and much colder) Les Revenants, what distinguishes it from that French show is the emotionally satisfying conclusion, which actually answers all our questions and, crucially, makes sense – while simultaneously leaving itself open to another series. The conceit is clever and, even for those who prefer their dramas with a little more zip, it really is worth sticking with for a remarkable final episode. The eerie, sinister atmosphere is ultimately cut through with a deep, all-encompassing humanity, and the lasting effect is something akin to a universal allegory.
Katla is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.