In 1845 a British voyage consisting of two ships – HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – departed England with aims to chart the fabled Northwest Passage. The expedition was lost. Join Dork Shelf Editor-in-Chief Will Perkins, television critic Susan Stover and horror culture writer Peter Counter week-by-week as they recap AMC’s ten episode television event The Terror.
“Close.” – Lieutenant Edward Little
Dead and Consumed
Susan: They told us from the very beginning they were dead, and we even know from history the voyage never returned, but somehow The Terror’s finale managed to make the loss of the Franklin Expedition palpable and very real.
Peter: Well, here we are: the final hour of the most compelling and heartbreaking drama of the year. The abducted Captain Crozier is taken to the united tents of Cornelius Hickey, where Henry Goodsir briefs him on the latest happenings. Billy Gibson is dead and consumed, the Tuunbaq has been sighted to the north, and he will not be returning to London. “This place is beautiful to me even now,” he says. “To see it with eyes of a child. There is a wonder here, captain.”
Susan: The inspiration Hickey gleans from the landscape is insidious yet logical; here is a place where he could be king. Forget his accent, forget his rank on the ship, forget England – this is where he can have it all.
Peter: Alone on his final night, Goodsir turns himself into the last meal of his captors, thoroughly poisoning his meat. It is a martyrdom, and a heartbreaking one. For all his naivete, Goodsir truly lives up to his namesake. But keeping with the show’s cynical treatment of human bodies, we see his heroism juxtaposed with the ruin of his butchered corpse in sight of Hickey’s dining table.
Terrible and Meaningless
“Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.” (Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are) – Lieutenant George Hodgson
Will: At the end of this journey the truth is revealed: the men of the Franklin Expedition did not simply “vanish without a trace” as the epigraph in the opening moments of the series told viewers – they destroyed themselves and one another in the most brutal way imaginable. Good or evil, kind or cruel – or somewhere in between – a terrible fate awaited all of these men. Did Goodsir’s sacrifice, while noble in its way, even matter in the end?
Susan: I don’t want to put people off the show, but terrible and meaningless might be right on the money there Will. Goodsir sees into his future as dinner, but also the stunning and chilling images Goodsir witnesses on the border between death is one of the more disturbing aspects of his death. Specimens of nature like a seashell floating with no context, perhaps something he’s seen in real life? Or maybe even just in a book? There are ideas about death portrayed in television or novels that have the dying seeing a light, or beloved dead ones, but there’s something truly chilling in the image of the mundane, the unexceptional, which makes Mr. Goodsir’s death all the more haunting. Jopson, on the other hand, when abandoned to die with his other sickly comrades begins to crawl towards his death with a vision of Crozier enjoying an opulent meal.
Will: Poor Jopson. Poor Goodsir. Poor Little. Poor Blanky. Poor Fitzjames. Poor everyone who remained faithful to their captain. He could not save them, nor could they be saved. Not even close.
You Are What You Eat
“It’s sick from what it eats.” – Captain Francis Crozier
Peter: All of The Terror added up to a wonderfully brutal comment on the horrors of colonial thinking. As we’ve discussed in previous recaps, the metaphysics of the show don’t favour its main characters. The underlying nature of the Arctic has revealed itself partially to the colonizers, and Hickey muses on the Tuunbaq, “What mythology is this creature at the centre of?” But Crozier knows the score: “We were not meant to know of it.”
Will: The mutineers’ final confrontation with the Tuunbaq is the stuff of myth. A handful of dying men, marooned at the edge of the world and facing down a spirit clothed as an animal. Is it any wonder that Hickey, cursing god and country, is having delusions of grandeur? His actions, his scheming, has brought about this moment. At this point the ravings of the caulker’s mate come within a table knife’s length of breaking the fourth wall: “What if we’re not the heroes of this story?” he asks the survivors. And then the beast is upon them.
Susan: Hickey’s demise functions perfectly within this metaphor of the Empire assuming its control over the rest of the world. Hickey’s narcissism (combined perhaps with a healthy dose of madness) thinks that he can control the Tuunbaq, offering it his tongue. Hickey did not witness Lady Silence’s offering of her tongue to Tuunbaq, which begs the question of how he knew this was the traditional way to tame the beast? I can only guess he made the connection seeing that Lady Silence’s father was without a tongue as well and figured it out (he is a pretty sharp man after all). Whatever the case, Hickey was not deemed worthy of for the Tuunbaq and, along with the other men, is eaten.
Peter: The fate of the Tuunbaq is one of the most notable revisions this series has made to its source material. In the book, the beast is not killed by the poison bodies of white men. Instead it simply eats Hickey as he sits frozen on a throne of his own making, surviving long enough to know the literary Crozier as its Shaman, eating the tongue straight from his mouth. Killing Tuunbaq is a sad, pessimistic choice, but it fits in line with the sorrowful message of for which this show stands. No good has come from this journey. Only death. Only violence. Only destruction.
Susan: Lady Silence – or what we learn later Silna – gives Crozier a hand by relieving him of his. She’s sifted through the ruins of camps and seen her good friend Mr. Goodsir face down and eaten almost whole. This is one of the only glimpses we get of a full corpse that’s been devoured. Before this the meat could still be disassociated with its origin, but like Crozier walking through the devastated and death-filled camps of his men, the horror can no longer be looked away from.
Will: Watching Hickey and the mutineers consumed by the Tuunbaq was nothing compared to the shock of seeing Goodsir – perhaps the expedition’s only remaining bastion of true goodness – butchered like an animal. It was extremely upsetting. We’d already seen the act of cannibalism on the show, but we’d never seen its aftermath.
Susan: Despite the absolute horror, gore, and trauma of the show it does end on a slightly positive note — with Crozier, now in Inuk garb – sitting by a seal hole in the ice with a sleeping child at his side.
Will: It’s a fascinating and somewhat hopeful image to close the series on, but one that’s not without baggage. Crozier did what Hickey could not: he adapted to survive. But I use the term “survive” loosely here, as it’s clear the Francis Crozier we knew died with the Franklin Expedition. There’s no return from this sort of disaster, from seeing all your men die and murder one another, even if you live through it. And as problematic as the concept of “going native” is – particularly in the context of a Victorian explorer and the broad strokes of the series – it really was the only way to live in the North at this time. In fact, it was these very same survival skills that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen learned from the Netsilik Inuit of King William Island that allowed him to successfully traverse the Northwest Passage decades later.
Peter: The final image of Crozier is problematic, but that discomfort is emblematic of what The Terror stands for. Colonial history is a complex and upsetting topic. Even the best, most kind hearted men brought violence to what we now call Canada. For ten hours, we cried and cried and even occasionally launched along with people who, by the very nature of their occupation, were responsible for unspeakable horror. As the camera zooms out, we lose Crozier’s face among the icons of the Netsilik people who allowed him to live in their society. He disappears into the North, rather than claiming it. As the Netsilik man who told the former captain of Silna’s lonely fate said, “You must remember where you are and accept this, also.”
Flotsam & Jetsam
Will: There’s obviously much to discuss from the season finale, but as I’m an aficionado of title sequences, I noted the opener to this final episode was slightly different than the ones that preceded it. While the main titles’ visuals remained largely unchanged, the musical score was muted and hollow, slightly less foreboding than before. A nice touch!
Susan: What really killed Tuunbaq? Forks? Poison? Chains? Or was it the pure evil of the souls it consumed that really did it in? Either way Silna slightly nods her head “no” when Crozier is asked about Tuunbaq’s death.
Will: I’m going to go with E) All of the above!
Peter: Edward Little really went fucking crazy, eh? The chains were pierced to his facial orufices, so I’m assuming the jewelry was at least initially intended to keep him breathing and awake?
Susan: I really had no clue why he had the chains on his face, but it was a stunning visual. Who knows, when people go nuts on this show, they go B-A-N-A-N-A-S. Like a veritable space madness, this Arctic chills down to the mind. Even Goodsir was carrying around the corpse of Jacko whispering to the dead capuchin, “I’m trying.”
Peter: While the ending of the series had very little in common with Dan Simmons’ novel, there is one major difference I am pleased to report. In the chapters chronicling Goodsir’s time with the mutiny camp, Mr. Hickey mutilates the doctor to keep him in line, butchering the fresh corpses and eating with the rest of the cannibals. The bits and pieces removed from Goodsir in the book are truly gruesome and I think even AMC would have trouble showing those frosty amputations on TV.
Will: If it’s any consolation, it appears the real life Harry Goodsir did not suffer a fate quite so brutal. Remains eventually identified as Goodsir were found in the Arctic in the late 19th century, buried in a shallow grave showing no signs of cannibalism – although some of the bones were discovered to have a few Arctic Fox gnaw marks. Coincidentally, the work of Goodsir’s biologist brother, John Goodsir, allowed the remains to be identified more than a century later.
Peter: On a similar note: I appreciated the loophole the writers used to turn Hickey so villainous without sullying the name of a man who probably wasn’t nearly as evil. But having him brag about killing the real Cornelius Hickey, the writers of the show introduces a man of fiction to go full Kurtz in the Arctic.
Will: A small moment almost lost amongst all the madness and cannibalism is the scene with Sir James Clark Ross back in England. Thanks to Lady Franklin’s efforts, he and two other expeditions are finally about to set out to find Sir John and his crew. However, upon meeting with his expedition’s financial backer, Ross learns the voyage is not really about finding his friends, it’s still really about finding “it” – the Northwest Passage.
Susan: CUE SEASON 2 – THE PASSAGE. I joke, but the next expedition, the McClure Expedition was “successful” in the sense they made way through “it”, but the men were nearly dying of starvation when they were finally rescued.