To say that the Icelandic sci-fi series Katla is a slow burn is not exactly right. Instead, like the subglacial volcano at its heart, the show smokes and simmers for a time before violently erupting.
Streaming on Netflix with English subtitles, Katla stars Reykjavikian pop sensation Gudrun Eyfjord (aka GDRN) as Grima, one of a handful of townspeople who have yet to depart the coastal hamlet of Vik. Looming over the village is the eponymous volcano that has lately reawakened after 100 years of dormancy. Though scientists fear that a sudden rush of gas and lava could create “another Pompeii,” the remaining residents can’t quite bring themselves to abandon their homes.
For Grima and her father, Thor (Ingvar Sigurdsson), the decision to stay in Vik is an intensely personal one. Asa (Iris Tanja Flygenring), Grima’s sister, has been missing for a year but might one day return to the family farm. Grima herself has only lately recovered from a grief-induced nervous breakdown. Frailty and loss are, as it happens, something of a communal property in Vik. Gisli (Thorsteinn Bachmann), a local policeman, is nursing a dying wife whose lungs are slowly filling with ash. Visiting researcher Darri (Bjorn Thors) has recently lost a young son, and even Grima’s cows are producing less milk than they should.
In the hands of director Baltasar Kormakur (2 Guns, Everest), Katla’s opening episodes fairly shimmer with uncanny imagery. A volcanic cloud billows over an active thunderhead. Horses run, spooked, across a desolate beach. At the edge of town, Thor kneels to bury a raven with a single white feather in its coat. By the next morning, an identical bird is flapping around the still-occupied grave.
It is this unearthly phenomenon, not resurrection but something eerily different, that provides Katla with its overarching narrative. Emerging from the volcano, one at a time but at a steady clip, are a company of doppelgangers who stand in for absent or forgotten loved ones. The first to appear is Gunhild (Aliette Opheim), a lovely young woman who carried on an affair with Thor some decades earlier before decamping to Sweden. Next is Grima’s sister, Asa, followed shortly thereafter by Mikael (Hlynur Atli Hardarson), the deceased son of scientist Darri. In each of these cases, the visitor arrives caked in a mixture of ash and clay, with no perception that time has passed since he or she was seen last. Each, furthermore, is unaware of being a kind of ghost. Given this circumscribed perspective, why shouldn’t the newcomers simply attempt to resume their lives, as each, in due course, does?
Like 2020’s incurious sci-fi dud Tales from the Loop, Katla gives the requisite attention to the practicalities of the appearance of doubles. Where the two shows diverge is that Netflix’s series delves below this pragmatic surface to the philosophical substratum beneath. Having considered, in early installments, the business of where the new Asa is going to sleep, Katla turns its eye on the sisters’ relationship in all of its understandable complexity. Similarly handled is the bond between Darri and his son, Mikael. Spiriting the child away from his oblivious colleagues, Darri must begin to answer the only question that really matters: Is it possible to love a person whom one knows to be unreal?
Complicating this moral problem is the show’s distinct flexibility where the rules governing the arrival of doppelgangers are concerned. Because the real Asa and Mikael are dead, it makes (some) sense that the volcano has produced novel versions of them. The original Gunhild, however, is alive and well in Stockholm and is justifiably perplexed to learn that a younger version of herself is attempting to seduce her former boyfriend. As Katla progresses and still other changelings show up, the series’s ethical dilemmas spin ever outward. To whom, for instance, does Gisli owe his loyalty and attention: the fading wife in her sickbed or the vibrant copy who insists that she is the woman Gisli married?
Perhaps surprisingly, given its cryptic tone, Katla does, in the end, resolve a number of its mysteries. If these solutions, which owe a debt to the 1982 cult classic The Thing, are not quite a disappointment, then neither are they strictly necessary in a show that depends on a certain degree of puzzlement for its success. Indeed, Netflix’s production is on the firmest ground in its middle episodes, after its introductions have finished but before its stories have raced to their inevitable conclusions. To take only the most compelling example, viewers know in a matter of minutes that Darri’s shy, troubled son will come to a tragic end. The drama, as harrowing as anything on television in recent months, is in watching it unfold.
Occasionally confusing but often captivating, Katla is a reminder that good TV is by no means an exclusively American concern. If Iceland’s future exports are as strong as this one, we have much to look forward to.
Graham Hillard teaches English and creative writing at Trevecca Nazarene University.
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Original Author: Graham Hillard
Original Location: Netflix's Katla is an eerie sci-fi gem