Now might not be the right time for a show like To the Lake, but if we have to have morbid topical media — and it seems we do — then I’m happy for it to be as good as this.
This review of To the Lake, now streaming on Netflix, is spoiler-free.
Look, let’s be frank — now probably isn’t the best time for a moody Russian drama about the rapid decline of civilization in the face of a terrible plague. But if we absolutely must have this kind of topical, morbid media — and it does indeed seem like we must — then I’m glad it’s as good as To the Lake, Netflix’s new eight-episode original series which is a gorgeous, horrifying, and compelling account of contemporary society in a hastening collapse.
It’s a patient show, this, but one that establishes immediately that it knows what it’s doing. A large cast of characters, all with distinct personalities and relationships, is introduced economically and then gradually brought together as the threat of a mysterious, aggressive epidemic is unveiled through news broadcasts, online videos, and terrifying scenes of carnage. At first, the threat is naturally dismissed by the public and downplayed by the media, which will seem familiar to anyone who saw HBO’s Chernobyl and indeed anyone alive right now — To the Lake is smart to include scenes that encompass the breadth of responses to this kind of viral threat, mimicking the reaction of our own governments and citizenry to the very real pandemic we’re in the midst of currently.
But, this being entertainment, things escalate much quicker than they have for us, and whatever airborne menace is afflicting these characters is more made-for-TV than ours. Alongside the usual coughing and spluttering are blood-red eyes, a dead giveaway that someone is infected, and a useful narrative tool. Pretty soon, the urgency of what’s happening drives a big cast of characters together for a long journey north to the titular lake, in the middle of which is an island and an abandoned ship that just might be big enough to house everyone. That’s providing everyone makes it, of course, which they definitely won’t.
Speaking of “everyone”, To the Lake relies on its characters and their diverse personalities and fraught relationships for a lot of tension and drama. The nominal lead is Sergey (Kirill Käro), who has a good relationship with his wife Anna (Viktoriya Isakova) and her son, Misha, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Sergey has a much frostier relationship with his ex, Ira (Maryana Spivak), though, who clearly isn’t over him and keeps empathy at arm’s length — she certainly isn’t shy about poisoning their son, Anton, against his father, and telling Anna what she thinks about her. Joining them are the well-to-do Lyonya (Aleksandr Robak), a terrible creep who nobody likes, his pregnant missus Marina (Gilli Messer), and his tearaway daughter Polina (Viktoriya Agalakova), as well as Sergey’s father, Boris (Yuriy Kuznetsov), a capable survivalist with some obvious government experience who’s leading them to the lake and his renovated boat.
This is a lot of people, but their introductions are efficient, their personalities are distinct, and their relationships are clear — it’s admirably how good To the Lake is at establishing all this in the midst of such chaos. And it’s in that chaos that the show really excels. The camerawork is consistently impressive, but when it’s time to build tension, skillful editing and some nasty violence help to keep the stakes raised, and the focus on character lends each predicament a personal aspect, only upping the drama further. This is a glum, humorless show, but exceedingly well-made and absolutely absorbing at its best, and even though you might not want to be reminded of the current state of the world, this is a useful, binge-worthy reminder of how much worse things could be.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.