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 and horror culture writer Peter Counter week-by-week as they recap AMC’s ten episode television event The Terror.
“I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” – Genesis 28:15
A More Appropriate Hole
Peter: We start episode three of AMC’s The Terror with the preparation of a body. Dr. Henry Goodsir insists that his assistants leave what amulets and tokens they find on the Inuit man shot and killed on the late Graham Gore’s King William Land expedition. Just as we saw last week, Goodsir has a compassion for the people of the North that isn’t shared by nearly anyone else on either Erebus or Terror. As such, the surgeon’s insistence on respecting the Inuit man’s burial traditions is ignored, and the body is dumped into an open hole augured into what looks like at least fifteen feet of pack ice.
By the end of the episode, that same hole will claim Sir John Franklin in a haunting and dreamlike death scene. Sitting with his men in a hunter’s blind constructed to kill the bear that claimed Lieutenant Gore, Sir John is accosted by something terrible, huge, and invisible to the viewers. Rending the man’s limbs, the monster drags Franklin through the burial hole leaving behind only a dismembered leg.
Will: With a man-eating bear on the loose, the casual photoshoot out on the ice was, perhaps, a poor choice. As was Franklin’s decision to remain in the blind after his little pep talk about God and dominion. I’m starting to think this is less about Victorian hubris and more about Sir John’s ego. The prospect of seeing the beast felled or perhaps killing it himself is just too much for the expedition’s commander to resist. It’s a fatal decision – and oh what a terrible way to go. The Terror has bested Game of Thrones by killing its star just three episodes in!
Will: The watery grave shared by the Inuit man and Franklin can’t be a coincidence, can it? This bear almost seems like it targeted Sir John. It didn’t kill him immediately, but actually carried him a great distance to the icehole and deposited him there.
Peter: Purposeful or not on the beast’s part, the killing of Franklin was poetic. I absolutely loved the parallels between the two ice burials, perfectly illustrating the pessimism at the heart of this story: in death we are all equal. The aftermath felt political too, in a way that humiliated Franklin in death through the absurd ritual of burying his stockinged and beshoed leg in a full-sized coffin.
Will: Polar bears are well known for their love of seal meat and seeing others humiliated, didn’t you know? I don’t think we’re dealing with simple bear here.
Will: But let’s backtrack a bit. Bears aren’t the only thing that have the crew worried this episode. The Inuit woman (Nive Nielsen) – now nicknamed Lady Silence for her refusal to speak since the death of her father – is the subject of a great deal of consternation amongst the crew. Sent on her way with condolences and supper, Crozier and his officers discuss the situation over afternoon tea the next day. Lieutenant Little (Matthew McNulty) worries that she’ll return with her people to try to avenge her father. However, as Mr. Blanky rightly points out, that seems highly unlikely given that the chief concern of everyone in this region of the world is basic survival above all else.
Peter: Blanky proves to be a more thoughtful judge of character and situation. As we see from Lady Silence’s off-screen activity this episode, she decides to make shelter. Within view of one of the ships.
Will: Fear and superstition seem to be the rule of the day aboard both ships, even when cooler heads like Crozier and Blanky prevail because of rank. It’s worth noting that most of what Franklin’s men know of the indigenous peoples of North America probably comes from frontier tales of the American West where relations between colonizers and the colonized were usually violent.
Peter: From that perspective, The Terror is quickly revealing itself as an anti-frontier tale. Colonizers come to foreign lands only to have the land quite literally start killing them, all the while proving to be habitable by the people who already call it home. I do think it’s a fascinating if questionable choice for Crozier and Blanky to have Inuktitut language skills. This detail is a revision from the source material, and I wonder if it is supposed to be a shorthand for their cultural sensitivities, a historical tidbit omitted from the novel, or if it will have utility in the plot as more talkative Inuit characters join the cast.
Peter: “You’ll eat your shoes again.” says Sir John Ross, warning Franklin to bring an escape plan on his expedition. “You’ll eat worse.”
The line is spoken in Sir John Franklin’s flashback, triggered by an empty plate set at his table for the ghost of Lieutenant Graham Gore. As we touched on in our conversation about episode one, the historical Franklin indeed was forced to eat his leather boots on a previously botched expedition to the Arctic. To Sir John, the echoes of Ross’ warnings give voice to his mounting guilt, regret and fear. His brazen confidence in God and technology have cost him six men on this journey.
Will: In this flashback we also learn that Lady Jane Franklin (Greta Scacchi) played some role in Sir John’s current predicament, egging her husband on to prove their naysayers wrong. The Van Diemen’s Land she mentions is a reference to Franklin’s brief tenure as Lieutenant-Governor of Tasmania, which ended in disgrace in 1843. Mrs. Franklin saw this great Arctic expedition as a chance to repair their family name, pushing her husband to lobby for the assignment. Both Jane’s urging and Ross’s warnings are likely played up for dramatic effect in Franklin’s dreamy recollections, but it’s quite clear that with the death of Gore, reality is finally setting in for the expedition’s commander.
Peter: In the bigger thematic picture of “The Ladder” John Ross’ foreboding menu has scarier implications. Mr. Diggle, chef of HMS Terror pays a visit to the mess on Erebus to inspect the Goldners canned provisions. He has found bad seals on the containers and grey meat. His concern is met with an eye roll and a call for more salt by Erebus‘s cook, but taken in combination with Sir John’s flashback and the mounting suspicion the ship’s won’t see a thaw for another year, the spectre of alternative meats starts to manifest.
The Devious Seducer
Peter: Cornelius Hickey, the devious seducer and spiteful bed-shitter. The symbol of the ladder shows up all throughout this episode – from the title, to the story of Jacob’s Ladder cited in Sir John’s eulogy.
Will: A sailor even walks by with a ladder when Lieutenant Irving confronts Hickey outside of the ship. There it is, Peter, the titular ladder!
Peter: The guest star that stole the show! In an interesting meta-fictional way the image of the ladder helps inform just what kind of man we’re dealing with in the incorrigible caulker’s mate. “You’ve sketched out the ladder,” he tells his traitorous lover Mr. Gibson, “but you’ve got me on the wrong rung.” Sounds like someone’s been binging Game Of Thrones. Littlefinger much?
Will: Hey, at least they have HBO Go on this trip! As I wrote in my interview with Terror actor Adam Nagaitis, Hickey’s the smartest man aboard either ship – and he knows it. He’s always watching, always trying to find ways to climb that proverbial ladder, and that fact makes him the most dangerous person on this expedition. We saw glimpses of this Hickey in the first two episodes, but this scene between him and Gibson is a our first real window into how this character sees the world. He despises the idea that people are doing him a favour. Irving speaks of clemency whilst Gibson talks of saving their skins from the lash, but the very fact that Hickey had no control over this situation seems to drive him absolutely mad.
Peter: Hickey is also irked something fierce by Gibson’s assertion that Crozier will take any excuse to break the seal on his private whiskey stores, thereby plucking the feather in his cap from last week’s drink scene. In addition to provoking Hickey’s scatalogical revenge, the accusation that Crozier is an addicted drunk adds to The Terror’s mounting cairn of doom. With teatotalling Franklin deep beneath the ice, greater responsibility rests on Crozier’s shoulders. And given there’s no distillery for thousands of kilometres in any direction, self-medicating ice-bound despair can only expedite the inevitable painful symptoms of withdrawal. Drink with caution, captain.
Flotsam and Jetsam
Will: Did that bear bring Lady Silence a gift?!
Peter: It certainly would appear to be the case! As a fan of Dan Simmons’ horror novel, I am obligated to feign speculation on behalf of our readers experiencing this story for the first time. I can say that while Lady Silence’s character has been slightly rewritten with greater emphasis on her humanity, everything to do with the beast is sticking close to the established mythos. I’m just so pleased with it all.
Will: The presence of Jacko the monkey, Lady Jane’s gift to Sir John, in the scene where Crozier and Franklin have it out over the “long unnecessary walk” to Great Slave Lake is no coincidence. You can practically hear Sir John echoing his wife’s words, more concerned with appearances and perception than cold hard facts.
Peter: Friendship ended with Crozier, now Jacko is my best friend.
Will: The flashbacks in this episode should have been our first clue that Sir John’s time in the Arctic was coming to a close, but Franklin’s death was actually foreshadowed even earlier in the episode. When the sailors were preparing the Inuit man’s body for “burial” they found two carvings – a limbless man and a great white beast.
Peter: I didn’t make that limbless man carving connection until you pointed it out. I love it! The attention to detail in the show’s writing is what really makes The Terror click for me. That level of symbolic foreshadowing makes each episode rewarding on a rewatch and helps amplify the sense of doom that counts for the series’ greatest strength. It almost feels as if there’s some meticulous demiurge torturing them in the most poetic way.
Will: Speaking of poetry, the song John Morfin (Anthony Flanagan) sings after Franklin’s death is called “The Silver Swan,” a madrigal by Orlando Gibbons. Reminded of their current situation, Morfin rightfully hesitates before singing the final words:
“O Death, come close mine eyes! More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.”
Peter: And a sombre note of recognition: last week Louie Kamookak, the Inuit historian largely responsible for the discovery of HMS Erebus, died. He was 58. His work as an educator and historian earned him the Order of Canada in 2017.
Will: Real-life searchers and storytellers like Louie Kamookak are the reason we know what we do about the Franklin Expedition. There is no story without the oral traditions that Kamookak helped to preserve. I really hope The Terror’s showrunners dedicate an episode to him.