Spoilers for the entire season of The Terror ahead…
AMC’s The Terror wrapped up its ten-episode run this past weekend, bringing to a close the fictionalized story of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. In reality, we don’t know exactly what happened to 129 men aboard both ships. While their fates were no-doubt terrifying and gruesome to consider, we can presume it didn’t involve a demon polar bear on steroids. Still, the depiction of their final months and days, based on the Dan Simmons’ novel of the same name, is harrowing and authentic (mystical monsters aside).
Now that the story has been told, we’re left with plenty of questions and considerations about what went down and might still be.
Slow (Ice) Burn
The Terror was often a slow, deliberate TV show at odds with the pace of most prestige television programs and it was a storytelling process that worked to its advantage. How many modern shows can you think of that have seven-minute uninterrupted scenes of two characters casually talking to one another? And yet, part of what makes The Terror work so well as a whole is the way it parses out the horror of the situation in psychological ways rather than visceral. Not to say that there aren’t a few gory shocks along the way (R.I.P., Sir John) but the show earns those moments by letting the audience sit in the frigid atmosphere that the characters are forced to reside it. You really get to feel the cold resignation that death is coming for them and all the scout teams, rifles, and boats at their disposal are ultimately worthless.
Hey, Character Development!
For a show about an arctic expedition, The Terror really doesn’t rely on plot to move forward. Instead, it puts the focus squarely on the shoulders of character development, a bold strategy that pays off thanks in large part to well-written scenes and a fantastic cast of actors. Over the course of just a few episodes, we watch as these crews push back against the odds, begin to bend, ultimately break, and push beyond their limits until they can do so no longer. All the while we get to see what’s happening under their hoods as each of them begins to realize that help is not coming and their mortality is at hand. Some take matters into their own hands while others subject themselves to the whims of idiots and madmen. Whatever their choices, we get to understand why they might consider such extreme measures (or push back against them).
There’s also a running theme of characters ultimately being revealed as something other than they make out to be. Sometimes that’s thematic (Noble Sir John Franklin revealed as a snob and buffoon) and sometimes that’s literal (James Fitzjames admits he was a bastard who faked his name, Mr. Hickey reveals he killed the real Cornelius Hickey). Even Dr. Goodsir, whose journey is among the most engaging (and desperately sad) betrays himself while under Mr. Hickey’s iron thumb. Only Captain Crozier appears to walk the same line from beginning to end and is “rewarded” with survival in the end.
Perhaps this is random but there’s something so quaint and enjoyable about a group of men referring to each other as “Mr.” Between Mr. Hickey, Mr. Blanky, Mr. Jopson, Mr. Barrow, and Mr. Tozier we’ve got ourselves the kind of naming structure that Quentin Tarantino would kill for.
Hello, Mr. Hickey
It’s unlikely you had ever heard of Adam Nagaitis before The Terror and it’s unlikely that you won’t be hearing from him again. Nagaitis is the breakout star of the show as a villainous Mr. Hickey. What’s so impressive about his performance is the way he doles out exactly what’s going on underneath the surface in each episode until there’s no denying his devious and sinister ways. What’s truly frightening about the character is that after everything we see, from the scheming to the murder to the cannibalism, we’re still left with so much mystery surrounding him. Just before being torn in half, he admits that he actually killed the real Mr. Hickey and took his place aboard the vessel, which begs so many questions that will never be answered (for the betterment of the character). Still, it’s Nagaitis’ cold stillness and wry smiles that really bring it all home.
Poor Dr. Goodsir
First of all, you’d be remiss for thinking that the surname Goodsir was a little too on the nose except that he was, in fact, a real person (as many of the characters in the show were). That aside, there is no more heartbreaking journey in The Terror than that of Dr. Harry Goodsir, full of high ideals and warm friendliness. Even if you’d read the book or understood how this story ends, you still probably found yourself rooting for him to make it out alive. That’s what makes his demise all the more jarring. Not only do we watch as he poisons himself before committing suicide, but we are then treated to the most disturbing image of the entire show: Goodsir’s sliced-up corpse laid bare, revealing where Hickey’s men had carved chunks out of his flesh. He gets vengeance, in the end, thanks to that poison but it’s not enough to make up for everything this good sir goes through. “This place is beautiful to me even now,” he tells Crozier just a few scenes before ending his own life, and we believe it. Images of nature’s perfection flash before him as he fades away.
Good Day, Sir John
As I’ve written about previously, it’s worth noting that by dying so quickly in The Terror, Ciarán Hinds continues to make his case for replacing Sean Bean as The Guy Who Always Dies In Everything. He does a wonderful job giving a humanity to a character who otherwise could have been a caricature, but let’s face it, you knew as soon as Julius Caesar/Mance Rayder showed up, he was not long for this frozen earth.
Understandably, this show about the crews of two British ships in the 19th century featured an almost entirely male cast. However, the few female roles in The Terror were inhabited by actresses who deserve full credit. First and foremost was Nive Nielsen, who portrays Lady Silence. As her name suggests, she doesn’t say much (especially after cutting out her own tongue). In fact, most of her scenes involve her simply staring at someone or something. It might seem like she’s doing nothing but she packs so much emotion into her steady, motionless inaction that it speaks louder than any speech could. It’s the loudest silent performance I’ve ever seen.
The scenes of those back in England wondering what’s happening with our doomed expedition often feel like the weakest moments of the show. Intended to help keep the arctic events tethered to the life those crews left behind, they only really have any weight because of Greta Scacchi, whose Lady Jane Franklin pleads for help in rescuing her husband from himself, and Sian Brooke, whose Sophia Cracroft regrets what she turned down in Captain Crozier now that he’s gone.
Fork Armor & Gold Face Chains
The Terror was a slow burn throughout and saved some of its most striking imagery for the finale. Two images stand out.
The first is of Thomas Blanky, who hobbles off to lure the Tuunbaq away from the other men. After he inadvertently and all-too-late discovers the Northwest Passage, Blanky affixes bent forks all over himself, knowing full well that he won’t be able to defeat the monster, but he can at least try to give it a serious tummy ache.
The second is that of Lt. Little, the final survivor of those left behind when Crozier was taken by Hickey’s men. Despite staying loyal to Crozier, it’s strongly implied even they succumbed to cannibalism and, at some point, Little started affixing gold chains and piercings to his face, looking like a zombified version of Xerxes from 300. He dies before he has any chance to explain what happened or why he’s in this state, but the perverse end to the supposed “good” crew drives home the realization that Hickey was not an evil virus but simply the first to let his worst impulses take hold.
Considering the story is a fictionalized account, it’s impressive the way The Terror adheres to the overall structure of the book. While there are minor changes along the way, specifically concerned where some characters die and how certain characters end up where they end up, it seems as though the story follows through on about 80-85 percent of the source material.
The biggest change is surely the ending. In the book, Crozier and Lady Silence fall in love and have a family together while Crozier joins her in being a shaman (sans tongue). The TV show forgoes that tidy end, sending Lady Silence off to die alone while Crozier eschews “civilized life” for a life among the Inuit. It’s a starker, bleaker ending, but also one befitting the themes of the story. Death is coming for us all and sometimes it’s better to accept that than try to fight against it.
For much of the ten-episode run, this has been referred to as the first season of The Terror, but, that can’t be right…right? The story has been told. There is nowhere else to go.
Or so we think. According to series creator David Kajganich and co-showrunner Soo Hugh, The Terror was pitched to AMC as the first season in an anthology series. Whereas the first season would be the story of The Terror, the second season would be about a different story that “subsequent seasons would take on a new narrative that carried the DNA that we established.” Both Kajganich and Hugh have confirmed they will not be involved with the second season of the show, which means whatever AMC plans to do from here appears to be entirely up in the air.
Personally, I hope they just let it go here. The Terror was a fascinating, deliberate journey that earned it’s completion, both thematically and storywise. It’s likely to rack up some well-deserved awards and acclaim in the coming months and it would be nice, for once, to see a TV network accept that they had lightning in a bottle and it’s best to find the next great TV show rather than trying to rework this one.
Who are we kidding, The Terror: Tuunbaq Rising will probably be on AMC sometime around 2020.