Katla is a new horror show on Netflix. One thing I will say about Netflix: When they go Icelandic, they go all the way Icelandic. Were you interested in a show about the lives of people living in a small, coastal Icelandic town? Cool, here’s one set at the foot of an active volcano so you can stare into the alternately icy and fiery maw of your own existential hell while slowly being covered in a fine layer of suffocating ash.
Also, for the purpose of this review, I’ll be discussing plot points covered in that trailer along with some additional themes of the entire show. If you’re only interested in whether you should watch it? Do it. It’s good. Although I do need to mention a few caveats:
- There’s not nearly as much mystery as the trailer lets on. There are some general questions as to why people presumed to be dead and twenty-years-younger clones of people are popping out of glaciers covered in clay and soot, but there’s surprisingly little “what’s going on here” to it. I’ve never been to Iceland, but I’m going to assume it’s because the Icelandic people are very straightforward. “Your child has come back from the dead. That is what we know. Let us now all return home and possibly participate in our country’s nationalized healthcare.”
- There also aren’t really any jump scares or gore. This is an existential horror piece, not a slasher one. The bad guy is not a masked figure stalking you through an abandoned camp, but more your own masked feelings stalking you through your subconscious and eventually spilling over into your waking life, where they have negative effects on you, your loved ones, and your relationships. And it’s terrifying.
- All of this existential dread does create a fairly slow first half. Now that I’ve seen the whole show and liked it, I’m feeling generous enough to call it “deliberately paced.” But yesterday in the thick of episode five, I was thinking it was boring. Set your expectations appropriately.
With all of the caveats aside, what’s the show actually about? Essentially, the active volcano Katla is burping up people who shouldn’t be here. The first is a young Swedish woman traveling and working at the local hotel, only she actually already did that in 2001, and is now a middle-aged woman living with her twenty-year-old son back home in Sweden. The next is Gríma, the missing sister of the protagonist (played by Guðrún Ýr Eyfjörð, whose name I can’t pronounce but who I would watch do almost anything at this point).
And then a few more I won’t detail here because you really should let the slow burn play out in real time. I’m going to stop ascribing all of the show’s better points to being characteristic of Icelandic culture, but if this show is at all realistic, I could get very into a subdued and reserved life in the Icelandic countryside. These emotionally muted people are my people.
I do need to highlight that the mystery of why these odd events are occurring is never the focus of the show. Even when the volcanologist Darri (played by Björn Thors, who I will be referring to exclusively as “Icelandic Bill Hader”) wants to uncover the reason the volcano is spewing fully alive people with its ash, the explanation isn’t important.
Because this is not a show to find out why something weird is happening; it’s a show about finding out how we deal with something weird when it happens. I’m soon going to move into more specific spoiler territory for those who want to jump ship, so I’ll finish this part by saying the show deals with unresolved fear and trauma in ways that are both more unsettling and more reassuring than they have any right to be. If you want to spend eight hours watching a series about the darkest recesses of our own souls and also Iceland, this is your show.
And Now, Spoilers!
I really considered ending the review after my last paragraph because I didn’t want to give away too much. I’d only seen the trailer when I started this, and the not knowing made the ending much more impactful. And at the risk of sounding insincere, if you’re at all interested in watching the show unspoiled, you really should bail now.
Because the scene where “Magnea” comes home? Scared the absolute balls off me.
The show has a lot of really unsettling aspects, which makes sense for a story about a volcano that’s literally bringing to the surface the townfolks’ deepest fears and desires and forcing those individuals to confront their underlying issues. Like Darri’s whole story about secretly believing his dead son would have been a murderer is, well, I’m unnerved just having to write that sentence. Also, I’ve yet to meet a long-term couple who couldn’t in some way identify with Gríma and Kjartan’s marital issues. Being in a loving, committed relationship with someone you genuinely love is wonderful, but most honest couples would admit their lives would be happier if the other was a little bit different. It’s hard enough when the complaints are “I’d love if he’d stop leaving his socks on the floor,” but “I think our relationship is crumbling because of her inability to move past the deaths of her mom and sister, and she keeps pulling away from me” is an entirely different level. In fact, Gríma quietly admitting, “I think he would be happier if I were kinder and gentler” gutted me.
But again, New Magnea coming home while Regular Magnea lies helplessly in bed will stay with me way longer than I want it to.
The most unsettling part is that, true to Icelandic form (last one, I promise), no one overreacts to the sudden appearance of a few-years-younger Magnea who hasn’t yet developed cancer. Regular Magnea is terrified because there’s a stranger in her house that she assumes is a devil, but even that, given the circumstances, is expected. And because no one overreacts, we as the viewers have a chance to imagine how gut-wrenching this would be for each of the characters involved. If you’re New Magnea, you come home after a seemingly normal day to find an older version of yourself living in your house, despite having no idea how that would be possible or when it happened. You’d probably want them to leave, right? Or at the very least, you’d want your partner to explain what the hell is going on when they get home. Also, are you… nice to yourself? How do you handle that? Do you ask you just what you’re doing in your home and ask you to leave? How do you ask you to leave when you are mostly bedridden and hooked up to an oxygen tank? How do you throw yourself out when you’re sick and presumably have nowhere else to go?
Also, the spouse who is supposed to explain this situation? They have no idea. If you are the spouse in this case, how do you handle that? Yes, your partner is still the person in bed, but is this new, slightly younger person also your spouse? They look just like the person you know, they have all of the same memories, and they treat you the same as they used to. If this is somehow a version of the person you’ve known and loved for years (and not a devil), do you have an obligation to help them? And if not, can you justify essentially dumping your spouse when they would most need you?
Both of which are scary and sad circumstances to imagine being in, but are absolutely nothing compared to Regular Magnea in bed because that’s entirely OH MY GOD GET THE ALIEN DEVIL CLONE OUT OF MY GODDAMN HOUSE. Regular Magnea is confronted not just with a nightmare scenario where she has to question her own conception of self but also watch as her shitty husband tries to explain, “Well, it is kind of you, right? It’d be cruel for me to not let her live in our house with us, wouldn’t it?”
It’s like the writers made the general fear a lot of straight women have that their husbands will leave them for younger, prettier women have babies with the general fear that those with chronic or terminal conditions have that their sickness will become too much for their loved ones, and then poked those nightmare babies with a red-hot poker in order to really get all the feels out. It’s absolutely terrifying, and made all the better when New and Regular Magnea solve for that fear by riding off into the death ash cloud together. I couldn’t have picked a more beautiful ending for your terror hellscape, Iceland, you beautiful, deranged bastard.