So much of horror, particularly psychological horror, deals in the realm of the unseen. This is because the human brain is an incomparable house of horrors, versatile and hyper-specialized to individual interpretation. If a show suggests a threat, rather than shows it, then nine times out of 10, what a person’s brain creates to fill in the blanks will not only be more effective, but more specific to whatever that individual would find the most frightening. This, similarly, is why adapting well-loved books is always a tricky proposition, as people’s own visualizations of a text are rarely a 1:1 match for whatever manifests itself onscreen, often making for a lackluster endeavor for all involved.
It’s no surprise, then, that Fortitude invested nearly half of its first season in building a world in which the terror was real, but existed mostly unseen. In the pilot, we see Billy Pettigrew seemingly attacked by a bear. We see the aftermath of Charlie Stoddart’s murder. But it was only last week that the series began to dig into the gorey reality of the situation at hand, showing the start of Liam’s attack on Charlie, but even that isn’t fully revealed. No, it’s not until this week’s episode that Fortitude finally pulls back the curtain and reveals that whatever the audience had been imagining, was nowhere near the house of horrors at work in reality.
That said, the show doesn’t entirely abandon its “suggest, but not show” methods entirely. One of the most unsettling scenes, not just of the episode, but of the season as a whole, comes when Markus (aka Creepy McUnsettling) visits his increasingly ill girlfriend Shirley. Undaunted by Shirley’s repeated insistence that she’s too sick to eat, Markus assures her that he has a new method to keep up her strength (i.e. weight): a DIY feeding tube. His suggestion of force-feeding his love condensed milk moves past the discomfort that we’re prepared for, in dealing with supernatural elements beyond our control, and conjures another level of fear that correlates directly to the evil that others are capable of inflicting on each other.
But the true thrust of the episode belonged to the openly macabre and as tempting as it is to jump to that scene, let’s first look at another way the episode addressed the unthinkable. In the midst of Henry and resident taxidermist/secret shaman Tavrani’s DIY murder blood drive (the people of Fortitude are nothing if not resourceful), Henry uncovers a repressed memory of sorts, that leads him back to his dark room, anxiously developing his photos from the day of Billy Pettigrew’s murder. What he finds, is what his mind knew all along: Billy Pettigrew was handcuffed on that beach, like so much bear bait. But Fortitude doesn’t just tell us as much, they show us, by revealing not just handcuffs but Pettigrew’s detached arm dangling in the wind. Again, we knew that something terrible had befallen Pettigrew, outside of bear attack or simple murder, but how many can say that they had imagined such a gruesome fate had actually befallen him?
Though Pettigrew’s arm, grim as it may be, won’t be what people remember about “Episode 7” of Fortitude. No, they’ll remember disease-ridden Shirley straddling her mother Margaret, stabbing her with a fork until able to pull her abdomen open and vomit inside. They’ll remember her gently pushing the skin back together and resting her mother’s hands on top. And they’ll remember, almost certainly, the fact that Margaret is still breathing as it happens. As unnerving as Fortitude has been from the start, nothing could have prepared one for the visceral gore the scene portrayed, which was a huge part of what made it so effective. Fortitude taught us to watch it as a slow-burn thriller, a tease that would not pay off until the finale, if then. It taught us that if we were patient, it would scare us silly, but it never once hinted that those scares would start as early as episode seven, making the gut punch of explicit violence all the more effective.
And yet, perhaps the most meaningful turn “Episode 7” takes is its definitive, undeniable commitment to the genre elements flirted with from the pilot. Fortitude has no interest in being mixed up with the run-of-the-mill detective stories populating the current television landscape and has gone all-in with regards to mysterious mammoth-based illnesses and regardless of what the ultimate explanation is, you’ll never take that commitment to elaborate psychological horror away from it.
Our good friend Geno is back to his old fringe-based antics as he ventures out into the wilds of the Arctic, to find Yuri, Pettigrew’s document, and the Russian mining town. He’s successful on all fronts, though Yuri could not be less interested in handing over the document. Instead, he crafts quite the tale pinning Pettigrew’s murder on the Governor’s husband Eric. While we learn this episode that Pettigrew (a character I don’t believe we’d ever actually met before this episode) did in fact scuffle with Eric the night before he was/was not murdered, Yuri was passed out and didn’t actually witness anything beyond some shed blood and a punch exchanged. He does, however, have a shell from the beach where Pettigrew was shot and he gives it to Morton, telling him to run the ballistics against Eric’s gun, poo-pooing the idea that it was actually Andessen who did the killing. Though he does go on to say that all of the Fortitude police department is in cahoots on the matter. Also interesting is the fact that Yuri, who is fully committed to retaining Pettigrew’s document, actually has no idea what it says or what its significance is, other than knowing it’s important. Morton, however, knows exactly what it is and he’s not telling. (Though earlier episodes suggest it’s oil.) This is basically the extent of his involvement in the episode.
And did he smirk?
That said, Morton did have a near miss at the Russian mining town with our other favorite fringe dwellers.
…on a completely different show. Ronnie and Carrie are living high on the hog, eating trash and getting scammed out of their ultra-rare, plague-ridden mammoth tusks and generally failing at most everything. Carrie, tired of her father’s grim incompetence, I assume, places an illicit call to the Fortitude police department that eventually leads to Ingrid trying to convince Ronnie to come back to Fortitude, assuring him that they know he didn’t kill Stoddart. Ronnie is unswayed but his enormous tusk fuck-up seems to finally be enough to put this poor, miscalculated subplot out of its misery. One hopes.
But what else?
Well, Trish tells Hildur that she and Eric last fucked two weeks ago and had been carrying on together since the solstice party (which is exactly the kind of party that would exist in Fortitude.) Hildur confronts Eric about it and asks that he not come back to the house. The drill arrives to begin work on the glacier hotel but it’ll be a few days before the hydraulics settle down enough to use. There’s a farewell party for the miners which most everyone in town seems to attend with the sole purpose of getting laid. Dan gives a meandering goodbye speech to the miners, Frank tries to confront Elena about visiting Liam, and Frank and Dan come to blows yet again. Henry and Tavrani continue making their tupilak which is not like a dreamcatcher thank you very much and Dan confronts Henry about bringing Morton to Fortitude with his accusations.
- When Yuri came to return the police rifle in the earliest episodes, he took a pair of handcuffs after peering at them closely. Where did they go and do you think they were the cuffs used on Pettigrew?
- If Henry is back on Dan’s side, what becomes of those photos he just developed and how long can information exist in Fortitude without it getting back to Morton?
- Did someone leave the goddamn mammoth shed open again?
- Literally unsure at this point whether, for her sake, I hope Margaret’s dead or alive.
- “Summer’s coming.” The people of Fortitude are literally the anti-Starks.
- “Shirley gruesomely attacks her mother (Margaret), cutting her stomach open with a fork and vomiting inside.” — information that Pivot asked me to embargo until after air. I have to say that I was never really tempted to just blurt that information out, as it’s probably the single more horrifying sentence I’ve ever read.
- That said, much love to Pivot PR who taught me how to spell tupilak!
- Oh, this is going to end well.