Television Review: “The Terror”

As I begin writing this article, preparations are underway for this year’s Emmy Awards. I know your instinct is to hurry off and catch up on the heavyweights like Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale and American Crime Story, but today, I’d like to draw your attention to a little series that was unfortunately — and in my opinion, quite wrongfully — overlooked.

“Tell those who come after us not to stay. The ships are gone. There is no way through. No passage. Tell them we are gone. Dead and gone.”

So begins AMC’s The Terror, a series best described as ten hours of beautiful brutality. What starts off as a spooky tale inspired by a real-life maritime mystery gradually transforms into the finest kind of endurance test. How much gloom and suffering can the human mind and body endure? Viewers and characters alike will find out. That pessimism can make the show difficult to watch much of the time, especially since we’re told right up front how this story will end. But the most important part of a story is not where it goes but how it gets there, and The Terror is no exception. The strength of its writing and the brilliant performances of its cast transform it from mere survival horror into a gripping character study which explores how inescapable doom and the collapse of established order can bring out both the worst and best in humanity.

NOTE: While I will attempt to keep this review free of major spoilers, there are some key plot points and twists that I want to discuss. So if you haven’t watched the show yet, be warned that there will be some spoilers here.

The Plot: Ahoy! It’s the 1840s, and the growing empires of Europe are on the hunt for the Northwest Passage, a semi-explored sea route in the Arctic that could potentially link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Wanting to utilize the Passage as a trade route with Asia, Britain dispatches two of its most technologically advanced ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, on an expedition to find the Passage and chart a way through. Erebus, the flagship, is captained by eminent Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds), who is big on ambition but lacking in practicality. Terror‘s captain and the second-in-command of the whole expedition is Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), a curmudgeonly man who’s better qualified to manage this undertaking than his superiors but faces discrimination over his Irish heritage and humble upbringing. Rounding out the trio of leaders is James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), the second-in-command of Erebus and an inexperienced playboy officer whose social connections and self-aggrandizing put him at odds with Crozier. In September of 1846, as the expedition navigates through the Canadian Arctic, Franklin’s refusal to heed Crozier’s warnings about unsafe travel conditions results in Erebus and Terror becoming trapped in pack ice indefinitely. But there’s more to watch out for than just the onset of winter: as the explorers search the area for land, they accidentally kill an Inuit shaman, unleashing the wrath of a powerful, bloodthirsty, bear-like spirit known only as “Tuunbaq.” Sudden tragedy forces Crozier to take command of the expedition, and a series of unlikely alliances and rivalries form amongst the crew as they try to overpower Tuunbaq and find a way out of the Arctic. But as supplies and numbers dwindle and it becomes clear that no help from Britain is on its way, the fragile peace and sanity of the expedition start to unravel. Some men fall prey to their paranoia and depression, while others use the growing anarchy as an excuse to indulge in their worst vices. Those who survive these trials are sent hurtling towards a final showdown with the monster hunting them — as well as a monster of their own making.

Alright, so there’s probably no such thing as an ancient snow demon that wants to eat your face (unless you count polar bears). But there really was a Franklin Expedition, and it really did become lost in the Arctic, leading to the demise of roughly 130 men. What exactly happened to the crew has been a mystery almost since the moment they vanished. Finding them was a famous cause amongst the Victorian elite for several years, at least until search parties uncovered evidence that the last men to perish had resorted to cannibalism to survive. Graves of crewmen and artifacts from the expedition have been turning up for years, often thanks to knowledge supplied by the local Inuit population. The wrecks of Erebus and Terror themselves were discovered in 2014 and 2016 respectively, and investigations into these sites are ongoing. With these resources, today’s historians have a clearer image of how the expedition may have met its fate. The full story, however, remains just out of reach: there are some things we simply don’t know about and perhaps never will. That’s where The Terror comes in.

Based on the Dan Simmons novel of the same name, The Terror uses this historical background as the basis for a Gothic horror story in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft’s bibliography, the Alien film series or John Carpenter’s The Thing. It posits that the men of the Franklin Expedition stumbled across forces too ancient and powerful for them to comprehend, that what they thought they knew about the workings of their world was a lie, and that they descended into madness and savagery in the face of such a revelation. It’s essentially a Lord of the Flies in winter gear or the kind of thing you would give to obnoxious children who won’t stop watching Frozen. The show even has a direct connection to its horror heritage in the form of Ridley Scott himself, who serves as executive producer. Its easy to see his influence on the project: with gloomy, barren Arctic landscapes and the themes of science vs. the unknown and voyages of discovery gone wrong, the series often feels like a more coherent version of Scott’s own Prometheus, or even last year’s Alien: Covenant. There are no erotic flute lessons or Romantic poetry recitations, something for which I am grateful.

But what makes The Terror really work isn’t its horror, but its history and its heart — specifically, the characters who keep you watching even as the plot gets ever bleaker. In a story like this, where you go in knowing that most of the people you meet in the pilot are going to kick the bucket eventually, it’s easy to end up with a situation where you’re just waiting for them all to die, especially when they’re driven by Victorian hubris. Showrunner David Kajganich (who’s worked with Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagino on several projects, including this year’s Suspiria remake), is aware of this potential pitfall and goes out of his way to avoid it. This is first and foremost a character-driven series: the intrigue and stand-out moments come from their relationships, their contemplation of themselves and the struggles they undergo as they battle their personal demons. This is one aspect of the story in which the TV writers have an advantage over the material they’re adapting. The original novel was written before most of the recent research done into the expedition and its members. The show, on the other hand, has access to a trove of historical accounts that it deftly uses to breathe life into its characters. This is most apparent in the character development given to Fitzjames. Initially set up as a foppish antagonist for Crozier, his real-life background and military exploits are used to make him into a compelling and tragic figure hounded by his own insecurities.

The writing on the show is top-notch, but the acting elevates it even higher. It’s times like these where I really wish awards shows had a category for Best Ensemble Cast, because wow, do these actors deserve that kind of recognition. All of them are perfect in their roles, and across the ten episodes, they all get their moments to shine. Nearly every character gets a soul-baring monologue at some point, even the minor ones: look no further than Crozier’s show-stopping speech at the end of episode 5 for proof that Jared Harris should be up for Best Lead Actor at the Emmys. Some of the best scenes don’t even need dialogue to have power (be on the lookout for a heartbreaking couple of seconds in episode 7 to see what I’m talking about). Standout supporting characters include grizzled old sailor Thomas Blanky, who doesn’t let a small thing like a brutal Tuunbaq attack ruin his day, and loveable naturalist Harry Goodsir, a figure so kind and honorable that his name would be bad symbolism if it wasn’t based in historical fact. But the truth is that it’s easy to get invested in nearly all of these characters. As a result, every death — whether it’s loud and dramatic or quiet and introspective — has weight and meaning to it. You feel for these men and what they’ve gotten themselves into, even when it’s their own fault.

I mentioned Lord of the Flies earlier. That’s a story which is most often interpreted as a treatise on the inherent savagery of humanity as a whole, and how we would all become our worst selves when left untethered and faced with dire conditions. However, it can also be read as making a more specific point about the damage wrought by British imperialism and toxic masculinity. The Terror has a similar argument to make. The expedition’s fate is sealed not by what it finds in the Arctic, but by what it brings from Victorian society: racism, classism, misogyny, homophobia. It’s no coincidence that Franklin, who advises his men to give Tuunbaq a lesson on the glory of the Empire, is the first of the main cast to die, being violently dispatched by the creature moments after that last speech. The effects of these social ills on the explorers and those they come are explored through the interactions between the white men and the Inuit. There’s a key character in the story, the daughter of the shaman who’s killed at the beginning. She’s referred to as “Lady Silence” by the crew, most of whom treat her with fear and derision even as they demand that she help them fight Tuunbaq. She owes them nothing, and she knows it, but that doesn’t stop the men’s internal turmoil from wreaking devastating havoc on her family, her community and her life. By the end, she and her people are victims of the tragedy as well. This is another instance in which it would be all too easy to make the expedition’s members unsympathetic to modern viewers. A handful of them certainly are, but looking at the crew as a whole, one sees a range of nuance in how they handle their situation. The characters who remain stubbornly set in their ways, who bottle up their emotions and seek refuge in self-destructive habits, are the ones who die alone, afraid and in the worst ways. On the flipside of that, the characters who make an effort to kick those destructive habits, are upfront about their weaknesses and seek help from their loved ones? They last much longer than their counterparts. The overall theme of the show is clear: people are stronger together than they are apart, even if they don’t prevail, and people doing bad things doesn’t make all of humanity bad. The characters who stoop as low as possible in their survival efforts do so out of desperation rather than pleasure. Well, to a point.

There’s one last important character I want to talk about, because his story arc is at the core of my main issue with this show. Cornelius Hickey is a lowly member of Terror‘s crew who uses his charm and wiles to create dissent within the ranks once the ships become trapped. For the first six episodes, I really liked him. Not because I agreed with his viewpoints, but because he was a layered and even sympathetic character despite being an antagonist. Early on we learn that he’s gay, something he doesn’t hide very well, and that he’s trying to carry on a secret relationship with a fellow crewman. One of the lieutenants gets wind of this, and the subsequent hostility of the ship’s higher-ups leads to Hickey’s partner deciding to end things and Hickey himself being subjected to a humiliating punishment on Crozier’s orders. Things just don’t ever go right for Hickey: he’s hurt and angry by how he’s mistreated, and his efforts to help the crew survive either go wrong or end up rejected. It’s easy to see why he thinks he’s in the right, especially in his enmity towards Crozier, and how his experiences keep pushing him towards an antagonistic role. He’ll be the bad guy not because he really wants to, but because society is determined to treat him like one.

And then there’s a shift. It happens in episode 7, right around the time we learn of Hickey’s other big secret, one which forces the audience to re-evaluate all his actions up to that point. Following this twist, Hickey wastes no time settling into the conventional role of just another crazy and power-hungry villain who never cared for anyone, which is disappointing after his gradual downfall was written so well. This shift could have worked if the last three episodes explored the new twist in a meaningful way, but it gets left behind because the story is so dense by that point. Only the audience is privy to the revealed information for much of that time: when other characters finally find out, they’re too busy with other problems to care or even have much of a reaction. I won’t spoil what the twist actually is. But it’s a change from the original book, and I’ve read an interview where the creative team explains their thought process behind that decision. While I understand why they did what they did, I think it ultimately undermined the point they were trying to make with Hickey’s character, at least somewhat. Writer’s personal preference incoming. I think that when you’re trying to create a situation of moral ambiguity where readers are encouraged to scrutinize the morals of the “good guys,” the character making observations on that ambiguity should be a credible source. If they are exposed as a hypocrite, secretly villainous all along or something of that sort, then the points they’ve made become less credible as a result. I feel like the writers may have been better off sticking to the source material in this one instance. This is historical, yes, but it’s also historical fiction. We know that it doesn’t claim to be a representation of what really happened to these men or what kind of people they really were. It’s a story, and with a story, you can take some liberties in order to craft the best possible narrative. Exhibit A: ancient snow demon that wants to eat your face.

AMC has opted to keep The Terror alive as an anthology series, à la American Horror Story. Most of the creative team will be returning for a second season, which is set to focus on a Japanese-American community during World War II faced with the dual horrors of malevolent spirits and the US internment camps. It’s currently unknown whether any actors from Season 1 will reappear or if this new storyline will have any connection to its predecessor. It’s going to be a risky transition, one that I hope the show survives. There are some great storytellers and artists behind the scenes of this project, and it will be exciting to see what they do with a wholly original storyline. Season 2 is set to premiere sometime in 2019. In the meantime, I highly urge you to check out Season 1 as soon as you can, if you haven’t already. If you can stomach the bleakness, you’ll find a meticulously crafted and haunting piece of television that will stay with you long after the final credits.

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