The world is increasingly unthinkable – a world of planetary disasters, emerging pandemics, tectonic shifts, strange weather, oil-drenched seascapes, and the furtive, always-looming threat of extinction. In spite of our daily concerns, wants, and desires, it is increasingly difficult to comprehend the world in which we live and of which we are a part. To confront this idea is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all – an idea that has been a central motif of the horror genre for some time.”
~ Eugene Thacker, In The Dust Of This Planet
FORTITUDE is a British psychological thriller TV series that just concluded its first season. It presents as a straight-forward murder mystery, combining elements of classic British crime drama and the new, popular sub-genre of Nordic Noir; calling attention to that second element by featuring Sofie Gråbøl – from UR Nordic Noir, The Killing (Forbrydelsen)– as the Governor of the town that gives its name to this series. Proving the popularity of this type of television, it aired simultaneously in the UK and US, Canada and shortly thereafter in Australia and New Zealand. It is also full of demons.
This is a show about people haunted by their inescapable past and a town slowly infected by the new face of an ancient evil. And these are the aspects I am going to examine in this review. As the show concludes, the who-dunnit aspect becomes immaterial, but the why and the how of it are more than just a cleverly constructed plot device, they’re a metaphor for the future of humanity and the planet.
Which is why I started with the opening paragraph of Eugene Thacker’s In The Dust of this Planet. What creator Simon Donald has delivered to his audience is part human mystery, part cosmological puzzle. Connections between events beyond the core plot line are rarely explicitly stated or resolved, and most are only obvious in retrospect. To the frustration of many casual viewers, much is left unexplained. Everything isn’t tied into a knot woven of simple causality. Instead, this is a drama about the ripples formed by one singular large scale event, which flows over each person in the town differently, affecting all elements of life, in fact all forms of life too. It is about how those waves are generated by a cold, uncaring universe completely dispassionately, that wash equally over the local citizens seemingly regardless of their character or past.
To paraphrase Thacker: “to watch FORTITUDE is to confront an absolute limit to our ability to adequately understand the world at all.” The innocent are made murderers, victims become killers, the flawed punish the corrupt, the wicked are left as witnesses seeking retribution, two tortured lovers come together only for one to be later shot by the other, and one hero’s reward is permanent disfigurement.
My nickname for FORTITUDE’s plot device is Checkhov’s Mammoth. Events are set in motion by the most harmless of things, two kids out playing on the edge of town. The strength and subtly of the show is that it all happens within the opening credits. The inattentive viewer wouldn’t even realise what they’re seeing, until later rewatching the whole series; true of many scenes that, as I said, only make sense in retrospect.
What follows is a loose recap of the first series of FORTITUDE that focuses less on the human drama of its people, trying to apply reason to events and conditions so outside their usual grasp that they constantly get lost in emotion and loops of reaction. The trap of applying simple logic to complexity beyond their reckoning. Focusing instead more on the surrounding atmosphere and metaphors being used within the plot. For this reason entire episodes and side plots are skipped altogether. Less attention is given to more than a few characters. We’re taking the macroscopic view, as if watching a drama set inside an ant colony; we name a few of the ants to keep track of things, but what matters is the greater meaning of the story playing out on a higher scale, across a deeper time line.
As stated, the story commences with an act of innocence. The children idly pick up something interesting they find whilst out exploring and take it back into town; the innocent are become vectors of doom.
Fortitude acts as a microcosm of humanity. There’s a great diversity – though not perfectly representational – in its community and in their flawed characters. Its population have come from across Europe, the Americas, and beyond; but it’s no model UN. Apart from the key roles they play in their community, they are also shown to be wife cheaters, feeders, murderers, drug users; there’s explicit mention of open marriage and implicit hints of polyamory.
It’s the human race in a snow globe. A perfectly crafted diorama. Useful when taking a God’s eye view.
And no one is allowed to die there.
They’re not immortal, it’s just that the tundra is no place to bury a body. As Henry Tyson (Michael Gambon), as the embodiment of the dying community is told by the Governor:
You know nothing buried in permafrost ever decays. Disease doesn’t die in the ground. You’re a toxic old man, aren’t you Henry? So you and your cancer will leave here, and you’ll die all alone on the mainland.”
~ Episode 3
The lifeblood of the community has been mining, but that’s ending, and Governor Hildur Odegard (Sofie Gråbøl) is frantically trying to save the town by the injection of foreign capital into a grand project to build a hotel on the glacier. Are the metaphors leaping out at you yet? A town built on mining, a man who’s body is racked by cancer. It’s already being strongly implied that humanity is a disease, a blight on the Earth. If we’re the disease, what is the cure? And who will deliver it?
The mammoth is found in the thawing permafrost. Thawing because Climate Change, obviously. Everything that follows is thus situated in the Anthropocene. The weapon (Checkhov’s Mammoth) has been armed by Anthropogenic climate change, and everything that happens after the opening credits is the trigger slowly being pulled. In fact, it ends up taking two different teams and types of detectives to understand just how they’re being wounded.
The first, overt team are the town’s police force and the intrusive, visiting American detective, DCI Eugene Morton – played by the ever great Stanley Tucci – who arrives nominally to investigate the murder of Professor Charlie Stoddart (Christopher Eccelston), but has a secondary agenda; to solve a more mysterious, earlier death that occurred in the town. That ends up framing the entire plot, of course, within a larger context. And it’s with this that the show leans far closer to a drama series like Twin Peaks, than a more traditional Brit crime drama.
Nothing dies in Fortitude, and whatever secrets they tried to bury, however ineffectually, are being thawed out.
The second team, one that forms as the show progresses, is the scientists who are roped into becoming the local forensics unit.
They do not look right, these reindeer foetuses. What is wrong with them?”
“It’s hermaphroditism. Male and female sex organs developing simultaneously. They’re all spontaneous aborts.”
“What is causing this?”
“Well, that’s what we’re working to find out.”
~ Episode 5
Not only are the town folk being haunted by their past, but the local wildlife are being corrupted too. And science and demonology begin to mix.
But first, some more about Mammoths. Here’s a documentary VICE MOTHERBOARD just did about the race to clone them, and the grey legal market the mammoth meat, as clone source material, is coming from:
For our purposes here, the pull quote is this:
There are spirits all around us. That’s why you shouldn’t look for mammoth bones and tusks. By doing that, a person and his family can get cursed. It’s dangerous.”
Back to the show, by the sixth episode Henry, haunted by his own actions, prevails upon a man he identifies as being the local shaman to make an object to ward off evil to give to one of the kids from the start who [REDACTED SPOILER]:
Something is attacking them, I fucking know it.”
~ Episode 6
And continue the attacks do. Poor old, good natured, town gossip, Shirley brains her mother with what could actually be a mammoth statue (it’s hard to get a clear picture – also, the body horror really starts ramping up at this point and we need to keep this post PG-rated).
Instead, witness the act that turned Shirley a homicidal maniac (back in episode 5):
Pure curiosity was all it took. She opened the door to where, unbeknownst to her, the mammoth is lying, thawing out and – BOOM! – she’s infected by the ancient evil that lies within it.
As we get deeper into the series all the plot lines begin converge, and it becomes clear that for the most part nothing is not unrelated. The basic research the scientists were doing before becoming an impromptu forensic unit holds the key to understanding the malady afflicting our microcosm of the world, and the fate that awaits it:
Ovaries, penis. Male and female sex organs developing in parallel.”
“Do you think the spontaneous aborts are a result of this hermaphroditism? Which is a result of some environmental factor?”
“Maybe there is another theory”
“Well the Sámi reindeer herders have accounts of similar mass events. Whole herds that abort and miscarry, whole generations lost to hermaphroditism and they say it happens when a demon lives amongst the herd. Mates with them.”
“What do you mean by demon?”
“Well, there are other incidents…”
~ Episode 9
An ancient evil re-emerging. Signs and portents abound. A demon haunted landscape. Inexplicable behaviour of wildlife. The continual search for meaning in changing conditions. Welcome to the Anthropocene.
Let’s fast forward through some exposition now, and then do the work of unpacking it afterwards.
It’s magnificent… killed another bear, full grown adult male. Ate it”
After the post-morterm:
Professor Stollart hired me to look at the effects of pollution and environmental toxins in apex predators.”
“The tests I carried out on the bear, I want to do the same with Shirley Allerdyce. This bear attacked and devoured another adult male bear. We don’t see that happen, it’s psychotic. Shirley Allerdyce – I know this sounds strange but – Shirley Allerdyce was an apex predator… Scientifically speaking, we all are. We’re at the top of the food chain. And Shirley attacked and attempted to kill her mother.”
“Bio-magnification; the toxins accumulate in apex predators.”
“A seal absorbs a gram of mercury. So the bear eats a hundred seals, that’s a 100 grams of mercury accumulating in the bear’s liver.”
“So you want to examine Shirley’s brain?”
“Because if we find what we’re looking for then that means this place is dangerous.”
“…it’s not safe to live here. For any animal.”
~ Episode 9
More than just a demon haunted landscape, the entire environment becomes a malevolent force. Creatures driven mad, turned psychotic, turning on each other. The natural order of things has been deeply disturbed. Or has it? Is it just our understanding that needs correcting? And what is the source or sources of this contagion?
The scientific investigation continues, and the true nature of the ancient evil begins to be understood.
We’ve established that both Liam’s blood and Shirley’s blood both contained the identical Type E haemoglobin isotopes this means they had a similar infection.”
“What kind of infection?”
“Type E is the body’s first line of defence against invasive pathogens. Anything from tapeworms to… viruses.”
“We’re looking at a virus?”
“We don’t know”
“But could a virus cause this psychotic behaviour?”
~ Episode 10
But more science is required to find the exact cause and culprit. Humans after all, always need someone to blame; preferably someone or something Other. So they examine Stoddart’s dog for more clues:
The behaviour we’re seeing is complex. It’s not just an urge, an appetite, it’s directed. There’s a goal.”
“The biosphere is full of parasites. They get what they want. The Cordyceps fungi gets its spores launched in the air, turns an ant into a zombie. The live fluke takes over the brain of an ant, commandeers the body of a cow. Toxaplasma gonda brainwashes a rat.”
~ Episode 11
To repeat: “The biosphere is full of parasites.” “The Night is dark and full of terrors” (Game Of Thrones).
Welcome to the Anthropocene!
It’s a grub.”
“What kind of larvae?”
“The trouble with larvae is you don’t know what they are until they pupate and hatch”
“If larvae are passed into a living host, then that host is food. The larvae develop inside feeding off the living tissue of the host.”
“Inside her. That’s what’s keeping her alive.”
~ Episode 11
Things do not end well for Doctor Allerdyce. A host cannot long survive when its being devoured by parasites.
Our metaphors are getting pretty mixed and varied by this stage, operating at different levels.
We have humans downgraded – dethroned – to being just another animal, as subject to the forces of nature as much a polar bear or reindeer is.
We have a mother attacked by her child; infected and eaten alive working as a pretty solid stand-in for the Earth being destroyed by humanity.
Then we have the final explanation.
Parasites that lay their eggs in a live creature in a live host then they hatch and consume the creature from the inside out.”
“Doctor Allerdyce was eaten from the inside out by insects?”
“I think they’re wasps.”
“Wasps? Where have these things come from?”
“Well, they’re pre-historic. There’s no recorded incidents of a human ever being parasited by an Ichneumonidae. So this is the first time this species has been in contact with a human population.”
“Because Fortitude has only been inhabited for a hundred years.”
“They’re way older than that.”
“So where could they have come from?”
“They could survive? Frozen in the permafrost?”
“If they were in a larval state inside something else, something that protected them.”
~ Episode 12
So we at last have the bullets that Checkhov’s Mammoth fired, rather indiscriminately, at the local environment and its various animal inhabitants. An unwelcome gift from thirty thousand years ago; a poisoned letter from the Pleistocene. An unwanted visitor from deep time, when humans first rose up and began to mark the Earth with their presence, acting completely outside the ecology it evolved in.
Who is really to blame here? There’s no intentionality to the act of an insect, or the parasites it plays hosts to, let alone one awakening confusedly from such an ancient slumber. Humanity may be the cause of climate change that restored them. And the extinction of the mammoth, it should be added. Perhaps if we hadn’t played a role in killing them off, the wasps and their parasites would be but an annoyance today, functioning smoothly within the web of life. Is it then an ancient evil of our own making?
On the other hand, on a long enough time scale, that tundra was always going to thaw eventually. Some time between now, the explosion of the sun and the inevitable heat death of the universe, those wasps and their parasitic package were going to make some form of a return to the stage of life on Earth. The planet has of course long oscillated in its global climate. The sun has occasionally afflicted us with immensely powerful solar flares (known as Superflares) too, enough to shred the Earth’s protective magnetic field.
Feedback loops in nature play out across time, between life forms on various scales. Bears hibernate for the winter, some desert species can sleep for years or decades. Ultimately, the events that FORTITUDE depicts, that so confuse and agitate its residents are perfectly natural; as natural as the unforgiving cosmos and its many sources of deadly radiation. And its implications for our current civilisation are rather ominous.
Before we conclude by considering the greater message of FORTITUDE’s closing scenes, some final consideration of the notional villain of the piece; the evil parasitical wasp larvae:
These, they are the reason for all this?”
“The Ichneumonidae. Charles Darwin considered their life cycle to be inimical to the notion of a benevolent creator. A loving god could not have created something so wicked. Or so he thought.”
“Parasitical wasp larvae.”
“Frozen. Inside the mammoth. Thirty thousand years. Permafrost thaws, frozen wasp thaws, wasp injects eggs into human bloodstream.”
“This is what happened to Shirley?”
“Yes, the eggs develop inside the host. The host is compelled to find a victim. Hacks open the thoracic cavity, vomits. Larvae develop inside secondary host. Wasps erupt from Doctor Allerdyce and attack. Attack scientist. That’s the best hypothesis I can give you based on the available data. Subject to revision.”
~ Episode 12
Natalie, one half of the scientific detective team lays it all out for Markus, Shirley’s boyfriend and feeder, who’s been savagely beaten during the unravelling of the show’s events, as they watch over the other action scientist, Vincent, in a burn unit, having sacrificed himself by setting Doctor Allerdyce’s hospital room ablaze to destroy the plague of wasps.
What if this theory is nonsense? What if gentle Shirley Allerdyce attacked her mother because for years her mother belittled her? What if Shirley was reacting to me? And I am the cause of her pain and self-loathing?”
Vincent breathes: “No.”
“He said ‘No’.”
“No? They always seek excuses for our baser selves, they’re always victims of circumstance. Not responsible. Well maybe when we do bad things for good reasons we must still face the consequences. A child is in torment, a father takes action. Will there be no consequences? You [addressing Vincent] and you [addressing Natalie] you cut Shirley open, to further research. Will there be no consequences?”
“We had no choice.”
“Well, it is not wasps that should make one doubt the existence of a benevolent god. It is us. His children.”
And all that was subtext is made overt. Markus is made the very flawed, guilty embodiment of mankind. Seeking retribution for his injuries, knowing he deserves judgement for his sins. Scared and alone in the universe, wishing for salvation from a benevolent god.
Now a few words from the show’s creator on what informed his world building:
The pull quote here being:
…a single cellular organism that influences the behaviour of a mammal. And we wanted something where within the boundaries of credibility we could introduce it into a population, a human population, that had never encountered this parasite before. So it needs to be in a place on Earth where you have had centuries of permafrost and it needs to be a place that is on the cusp of change, where the permafrost is receding and things are coming out of it.
We spoke to an entomologist at the Natural History Museum that said that parasites are at their most dangerous often when they go into the wrong host and that’s kind of what’s happening in our story. It’s this parasite has not evolved to be in contact, parasitising in a human population. And when it does the chaos that is part of our story is the result.”
NOTE: this is jam on her face – the parasite compels its host to eat (to feed it) and act as a vector for transmission (attack other animals in psychotic rage and fill their chest cavity with parasite filled ooze). She’s just made to completely appear like a Zombie.
As we come to a close, let’s zoom out and look at FORTITUDE’s place within the Zeitgeist. It fits neatly amongst several works that seem to be collectively functioning as a cultural brainstorming session on the interrelated issues of climate chaos, overpopulation, near-term human extinction and humankind as just-another-animal.
Spoiler warnings for: Agent Carter, Kingsman, Helix and Utopia.
In the seventh episode of the Agent Carter TV series, SNAFU, a bioweapon is used by the evil Leviathan group to turn the patrons of a cinema into homicidal manics who tear each other to shreads. In Kingsman: The Secret Service a similar scene (highlight of the movie, if you like that sort of thing) occurs in a church, this time via a barely explained, hand wavium ‘signal’ transmitted by mobile phones, which turns out to be the Bond-esque villain’s plan to reduce the human population down a level fitting the carrying capacity of the Earth. A sustainable level. Justifiable genocide, all for the greater good.
In the first season of Helix a viral outbreak at, yes, an Arctic research station turns the infected into “violent zombie-like “Vectors”, spreading the infection to others, with a small percentage eventually regaining some normality if treated”. And in the second season, the greater plot revolves around a group (of immortals, btw) that will deploy this virus worldwide – a la 12 Monkeys – to thin the human herd, and the race to not fight it, but instead find a more benign cure for the human infestation; widespread sterility. And finally, sterilising the bulk of the human race to save the Earth is the plot driver of the excellent UK TV series Utopia (about to be remade for the US audiences by David Fincher – I did warn you about spoilers).
Where I am going with this? Well, what is implied by one scene in particular, given the revelations of the nature of what is lurking inside at least some of these thawing mammoths?
The zombie-like apocalypse about to sweep across the globe, threatening to destroy if not the human race, then definitely devastate western civilisation. That mammoth that nearly destroyed Fortitude was not the only one. There’s a whole cave full somewhere out on the glacier. And – zoom back camera – across the Arctic too.
What new or old plagues, parasites or viruses might be the end result of climate chaos as more of world’s ice melts? As grey legal, un-policed, Russian Mafia linked, mammoth hunters raid the thawing tundra. And other frozen megafauna and whatever might lie sleeping within them are thawed out, as the Arctic melts and shrinks. As the Northwest passage, freed of troublesome pack ice, becomes an exciting new shipping route. What extra passengers might it transport? It’s not alarming if you accept that the universe is constantly trying to kill us.
And the only way to prevent it might just be to consider more benign, less decimating actions – instead of heading straight into the Jackpot future Gibson talks about in The Peripheral (as I’ve also talked about here).
The best thing for the planet is less humans on it – but I’d argue we create a vast, posthuman space republic instead of being turned into homicidal beasts by plague or circumstance; or voluntarily walking into extinction ourselves, as cosmic pessimist Rust Cohle suggests. Accept responsibility for our tainted inheritance as Earth’s apex predators and work towards healing its ecosystems through the knowledge gained in nearly destroying them. Or just let nature take its brutal, uncaring course.
That, for me, is the overall message of FORTITUDE, viewed through the lens of Eugene Thacker and the Philosophical School of Speculative Realism he’s a part of: Climatological horror shows us that the universe is uncaring and the planet we live on unknowable and we are reduced to nothing but beasts by it all. Here’s John with the weather!