Show name: Katla
Release date: 2021
Country of Origin: Iceland
Created: Sigurjon Kjartansson, Baltasar Kormakur
The dead walk when natural disasters happen, and that folklore is common to all cultures including Europe. Remember how the volcanic eruption in Iceland grounded planes twelve years ago? Me too.
Imagine that eruption was a whole lot bigger and lasted for a year, and you’ve got the premise of Katla. It isn’t long before the dead rise again when it already feels like the world is ending.
Vik is a small town in the shadow of the volcano Katla and, since the eruption began, almost everyone has left for Reykjavik, the houses are deserted and the hotel only remains open to provide accommodation for visiting scientists who monitor the ash clouds.
Grima is part of the emergency response team that is never short of work in an environment like this. Her father, Thor, tinkers with machinery and befriends stray cats. Her husband farms the only milk cattle in Vik, which have to be kept indoors because of the ash.
Everyone wears breathing masks to go out and life is almost entirely conducted indoors. The family is all still mourning the death of Grima’s sister Asa and the earlier suicide of their mother. Katla is a bleak story indeed.
A young woman, covered in ash that has to be scraped off, appears from nowhere. She is pregnant and remembers events only up until twenty years ago. This unnerving experience calls Gunhild, who is still alive, back from Sweden to confront this strange alternate version of herself.
Meanwhile, Asa (who died when she fell into the glacier a year ago) also reappears. It didn’t take long for Katla to raise serious questions about mourning the dead and being at peace with our actions from decades earlier. Other risen figures follow, including a young boy who died elsewhere but whose father is a visiting scientist.
One of the things I loved most about Katla was the way that it drew upon folklore to develop a story where the dead walk and return to complete unfinished business. It felt as if the living had inadvertently called them back to help.
Asa’s main reason to return is to empower her sister come to terms with her death. Gunhild helps her living counterpart find out more about what led to her son being born with severe disabilities. Was it her fault?
Darri and his estranged wife are in denial about the violent tendencies their son possessed, and are struggling to mourn his death three years earlier because they cannot accept his true nature. When he returns, he’s the same psychopathic youngster and they have a second change to address this truth about him.
The most disturbing element of Katla came when your returning other self doesn’t quietly set right your problems before conveniently disappearing again. This is what Grima encounters when her double appears. The Gunhilds work together to help the elder resolve her guilt. The second Grima has no intention of being as supportive towards the original, however.
Katla was a superb piece of Nordic Noir, part mystery and part fantasy/horror. There was a little bit of everything in the show, but it contained plenty of action and the ancient folklore element that underpinned the whole story provided unity and clarity to the concepts explored.
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