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John Lynch, centre, as Dr. Arthur Wilde in The Head.Courtesy of CBC Gem

Sometimes you wonder what inspires the storytelling in a particularly good TV series. In the case of the series under review today, I’m obliged to wonder if the Wallace Stevens poem The Snow Man was on somebody’s mind: “For the listener, who listens in the snow/ And, nothing himself, beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

Also, it is perfectly possible that the series is just a very good example of “snow noir,” the genre that includes the Canadian series Cardinal and the Icelandic series Trapped. The ingredients are cold isolation, snow and, well, the terrible things people do in these conditions.

The Head (streams CBC Gem) is an excellent thriller to add to the list. It’s bleak, compelling, deeply twisted and has a sense of the ominous that’s both aching and hair-raising. Made for HBO Asia, it’s actually a Spanish production with an international cast. (The language used is English, mostly, with the occasional need for subtitles.) The cast play characters in one of the most isolated settings imaginable.

The six-episode thriller set in an Antarctic research station during winter on the South Pole. It opens on the last day of sunlight before months of darkness. One crew member is leaving the station and wishing “the winterers” the best for the coming months.

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Their work is about climate change and there are reminders about the importance of the research. Everything is rather jolly. The characters are quickly established and we know there are some tensions and grudges, but they seem minor. There is, for instance, a spat about somebody taking too long to take their weekly shower. The two men in charge, commander Erik Osterland (Richard Sammel) and renowned biologist Arthur Wilde (John Lynch), seem to have the group under control.

Katharine O'Donnelly as Dr. Maggie Mitchell and Tomohisa Yamashita as Aki in The Head.Courtesy of CBC Gem

Some months later, the summertime commander Johan Berg (Alexandre Willaume) returns to the station only to find most of the team dead. Two are missing, including Berg’s wife, Annika (Laura Bach). The sole person alive at the station is the young Irish doctor Maggie (Katharine O’Donnelly), who seems traumatized and is diagnosed with memory loss and psychosis. It is only through her fragmented memory that the puzzle of what happened can be solved. Talk about an unreliable narrator.

What you’ve got is a single-setting mystery in a place surrounded by the vast winter cold and ice. People can go crazy in such isolation, but why? All these characters seem smart, affable and highly aware of the pleasures and perils of their isolation. At the beginning, there’s a suggestion of a theme, specifically that the scientists are there to study nature but not disturb it. “Empathy will only let you get killed,” one character says.

There is also a blatant suggestion of thematic links to the movie The Thing, the 1982 cult classic directed by John Carpenter, about a group of American researchers in Antarctica who encounter a murderous parasitic life-form. In fact, here we see the isolated group watch the movie, and we’re told it’s part of a tradition that the “winterers” watch it together to bond.

Álvaro Morte, centre, as Ramón Lázaro in The Head.Courtesy of CBC Gem

What happens is far from straightforward, but the sense of menace lurking among these characters becomes palpable. There are as many twists as there are secrets held by the characters. Yet at its core the series is a love story, with Johan desperate to find his missing wife Annika, or at least what happened to her.

Over the six episodes, the tension holds up, the mood of dread builds and you understand that what’s happening is far more baleful than drops of blood on the white snow. The ending might divide people, since it reaches for perilous poetry rather than an easy, satisfying conclusion.

As escapism or binge-watch, The Head is severe and stark, a journey to a place that is not entirely unfamiliar to us in our wintry present. And there is also the familiar mystery puzzle to engage us – just don’t expect its climactic revelation to bring comfort and joy. Remember that the ending of the Wallace Stevens poem advises us not to project fake and false meaning onto the winter landscape, but to look at ourselves.

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