HBO Max is smartly using its brand power to highlight the company’s productions from around the world like last month’s acclaimed “30 Coins” and now the HBO Asia import “The Head,” a remarkably binge-able thriller set at the edge of the world. Echoes of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” blend with something that plays like an Agatha Christie mystery novel with an unreliable narrator or two along the way. Strong performances and breakneck storytelling—there’s a twist like every five minutes—combine to make this an incredibly watchable thriller that should find an audience through buzz and word of mouth on the streaming service. Watch it before one of your friends tells you to.
The set-up for “The Head” is fantastic for anyone who likes remote, single-setting mysteries (which, I’ll admit is an easy sell for yours truly). Other than flashbacks, all six episodes are set in Antarctica, mostly at a research station called Polaris VI. It opens with everyone in a cheerful mood even though they’re about to split up. The sun will soon be gone for six straight months, and that means there will be a limited crew at the station for the season known as the Winterers, who will continue the research into stopping global warming led by a renowned biologist named Arthur Wilde (John Lynch). Months later, the summer commander Johan Berg (Alexandre Willaume) returns to the station to find an absolute nightmare: blood on the floor, bullet holes in a wall when there were no weapons at the station, and the bodies of his friends and colleagues. Johan’s wife Annika (Laura Bach) is missing, and he must unravel what happened at the Polaris VI with the help of the sole survivor, Maggie (Katharine O’Donnelly), but her memory is spotty and possibly unreliable. And then they discover they may not be alone.
“The Head” addresses its “The Thing” lineage early on by having the crew perform the annual tradition of viewing it at the station, but this is not that kind of horror series. Oh, it’s gruesome—I won’t spoil why it’s called “The Head,” but you can imagine—but it’s more about survival and man’s cruelty to man than it is outside forces. Creators David & Alex Pastor and David Troncoso cleverly intercut between the current investigation into what happened and flashbacks that fill in the details but raise more and more questions along the way. Willaume is a strong leading man, capturing the multiple layers of Johan, a man whose primary goal is to figure out what happened to his wife (and if she could still be alive), but also has to worry about if what went down on Polaris VI could happen again. It’s a mystery series blended with a survival story at the same time, like someone investigating a crime scene while it’s still possibly active. It gives “The Head” a unique tension and sense of danger. And O’Donnelly is even better, serving as the narrator of the piece, but raising enough questions about her motives and reliability to keep her enigmatic.
I’m not sure all of the answers in the back half of the six-episode season add up in a satisfying way, especially a shocking twist saved for last, but there’s enough to admire about the entire production that they can be forgiven for not sticking the landing. This is fun, escapist genre TV with enough unexpected turns that disbelief stays suspended just by virtue of trying to keep up with each new revelation. And who can’t relate to losing their minds a little bit in an isolated state during the numbing cold of winter right now?
The whole season screened for review.