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.
“No one can convince me that optimism or confidence is warm enough.” – Lady Jane Franklin
Your Time Has Come, My Love
Will: Episode 4 of The Terror begins with a welcome respite from the Arctic cold. Sort of. In England, the creaky old halls of the Admiralty seem nearly as indifferent to the plight of the Franklin Expedition as the ice and snow that now traps man and ship alike. Fearing the worst, Lady Jane Franklin and her niece Lady Sophia Cracroft have come to appeal to the Royal Navy’s commanders to enact a rescue plan, only to have the situation mansplained to them by the guffawing, scotch-drinking admirals. A rescue will not be sent until 1850 at the earliest. Lady Franklin, expecting to be rebuffed, is already hatching a public relations plan to win the Admiralty to her cause, even name dropping author Charles Dickens with whom she and Sir John were friends. Can a celebrity telethon be far behind?
Peter: Dan Simmons’ novel only ever speculates on the actions of Lady Franklin’s actions, choosing to stay in the Arctic for maximum cabin fever effect. Seeing her and Ms. Cracroft appeal to the Admiralty and come out the more competent (albeit more frustrated) is yet another welcome revision of the source material. By necessity, The Terror’s primary storyline is filled to the gunwales with mutton-chopped white dudes, so it’s a relief to see a strong diversion exploring the more historical side of the story that focuses on the women affected by this slow motion disaster.
Will: Lady Jane’s subplot is a really great addition to the show – and very true to the real Mrs. Franklin’s efforts to get her husband and his men out of trouble. It’s heartbreaking to see her lobby the Admiralty so vehemently knowing full well that Sir John has, by this time, been dead for over five months. The opening scene also reveals a fact that I think really adds to the tension north of the Arctic Circle: there is no rescue plan in the works. Things are going south fast aboard Erebus and Terror, but the men of the expedition are going nowhere.
Peter: My favourite part of the cold open in damp old England is how little faith Lady Jane has in her now-dead husband. “He’s as wonderful as he is fallible,” she tells the Admiralty, in a comedic beat that gets to the sympathetic heart of what makes this story so painful. Too often stories of hubris forget that the subjects of divine retribution are as frail as the rest of us.
Will: She really throws Sir John under the bus, doesn’t she? Lady Franklin will apparently do anything to bail her husband out, whether it’s urging him to take on a mission he’s probably ill-suited for in order to restore their reputation or telling others he sucks and needs help when he screws said mission up. A great rescue is still a good story, right? She’s hoping to salvage whatever she can from this debacle before it’s too late.
Will: Back aboard Terror the men are in good spirits thanks to a birthday party, but Goodsir is not in a celebratory mood. Ever the scientist, the young anatomist is examining pictures from the day Franklin died (hey, at least the sweet group shot turned out well!) and photos of the aftermath to try to the size of the jaws of the beast that now stalks the ship. His conclusion? It’s big!
Peter: Viewers craving more of the ice beast terrorizing the men of the expedition should come away satisfied from “Punished, as a Boy.” Sure, the Terrors and Erebuses still aren’t sure what is systematically dismembering their shipmates, but they do have insight into how grotesquely playful it can be, cutting two men apart at the waist and then returning them to The Terror’s deck as one mismatched corpse.
Will: It’s a reveal that goes from gruesome to horrifying as soon as Hickey touches the figure. Many viewers, including myself, likely believed the creature had simply twisted a single man around like some sort of human washcloth (super gross!), when in fact it had surgically bisected two men and gingerly stacked the remains. Also – and I don’t know if I should even ask – but what has become of their other halves?
Peter: The abominable bear-thing left its first survivor: Royal Marine William Heather (Roderick Hill) who miraculously is still living in spite of his exposed brain. This is the content I’m here for. As the doctors examine the semi-skulled seaman a brief exchange of human philosophy brings to light what the darkness is doing to the expedition’s moral. “It’s a pudding, basically,” says Dr. MacDonald.
“I would have said cathedral,” says another.
The man with a working body but no high functioning brain activity recalls the metaphor established in the first hour of The Terror, in which HMS Erebus was likened to a human body by juxtaposing its broken propellor shaft with a fresh corpse. In this case, the disabled Heather is the living image of the expedition’s command. With Sir John below the ice, the body politic of both ships is brain damaged if not headless.
Made Comfortable and Safe
Will: The beast has come onto the ship. The men’s refuge from the mother nature and whatever it is that hunts them is a refuge no longer. Meanwhile, Terror’s captain drinks away the hours in his slanted cabin as the crew are picked off one by one. What is to be done? Never fear, Cornelius Hickey is here! After coming face to torso with the bear-thing’s handiwork, Hickey takes the initiative and hatches a plan to kidnap Lady Silence, who most of the crew have come to believe controls the man-eating creature.
Peter: Based on what we, the audience have seen, it’s safe to say that assumption is incorrect. While the great white bear-thing is not hostile to her, Silence’s reactions to its initial offering of seal two episodes ago clearly showed us her fear of the beast. The real horror here isn’t the monster, however, it’s the prejudice with which the Netsilik woman is treated. The Terror’s most difficult to watch scenes are those that are littered with racial slurs and colonial violence, brought into sharp relief when juxtaposed with the actions of more sensitive characters like Goodsir.
Will: Hickey’s methods are most certainly not above board (going AWOL and kidnapping Lady Silence at gunpoint), but his mission is almost laudable given all the available information. The creature and the woman do seem linked somehow, and they did show up at the same time. Yes, it’s a superstitious, xenophobic response, but something is still killing the men of Erebus and Terror. Someone had to do something – or so Hickey argues to the commanders during his disciplinary hearing (“I just saved your life!”) – even if it costs them their hide. Crozier, knock-me-down in hand, now seems as feckless as the late Sir John. It’s an ultimately self-serving response on Hickey’s part, but can you really blame him for wanting to do something, anything?
Peter: Some people just aren’t cut out for the servitude of a career in the navy and Hickey is one of them. In the book, Crozier frequently refers to him pejoratively as a “sea lawyer.” The show does a good job of making his thirst for agency sympathetic, especially as the command struggles to tread in the dark dold waters of despair and brown liquor.
Will: Did Hickey actually see the creature and Lady Silence communing? We don’t see it and he seems to be an unreliable narrator. The Caulker’s Mate, for his part, seems very sure of what he saw – or is at least very eager to convince others of what he claims he saw – but his compatriots don’t weigh in one way or the other. I’m inclined to agree with the commanders. I don’t believe Cornelius Hickey for one minute.
Peter: As a book reader it’s tough to say. In any case, it’s a strong choice to keep Hickey’s reality defined by his fork-tongued word.
As a Boy
Peter: Will, you made the comparison last week to Game of Thrones in the wake of Franklin’s untimely death. I’ve got to say, this episode bested HBO’s wintery deathfest once again, only this time in the category of most painful and compelling torture scene.
Will: I mean, it’s not Ramsay Bolton levels of torture we’re talking about here, but being publicly flogged by a cat-of-nine-tails is no walk in the park. The cat makes short work of Mr. Hickey’s backside, and 30 of the best is sure to make for an uncomfortable recovery. It’s not something the Caulker’s Mate is likely to forget any time soon – you can see it in his eyes.
Peter: You’re right, Hickey isn’t getting the full-Theon here, but in terms of audience affect, Mister Hickey’s flogging was more uncomfortable than any abstracted mutilation GoT has given us over the years. The camera plants us in the lower deck with everyone, making every strike count to the point where even my morale was down. The Terror stands out here as it has all season so far, by committing to its promises of punishment.
Will: The episode closes out with a quiet scene between Lady Silence and Goodsir. Goodsir formally introduces himself and tries to apologize for the behaviour of his crewmates (“This is not how Englishmen act…”), but it’s little comfort to the traumatized woman. Still, it’s a heartening development, and the first real kindness anyone has shown the woman since her father’s death. Will a connection between the two provide answers to what is going on?
Peter: I’ll tell you what it won’t do: save Doctor Henry D.S. Goodsir. Good intentions or no, this cold place wasn’t meant for these men.
Flotsam and Jetsam
Will: In the cold open Lady Sophia stares at the weathered portraits of Franklin and Fitzjames and says she’s made a terrible mistake. That mistake, as it is later revealed, has to do with the expedition commander not pictured in the admiralty anteroom: Francis Crozier. Lady Jane and Sir John arranged to finally give Francis that command he’d been after, and in the process put the Irishman safely out of marriage proposal range. Harsh!
Peter: I noted the absence of Magnus Manson in past recaps. Happy to see the big guy here, even if it’s under such dire circumstances.
Will: Terror’s unnatural list really adds to the sense of unease in this episode. The ice is getting the better of this mighty bomb ship. Nobody can quite get their footing, every camera angle is canted, everything is just off. Can you imagine how uncomfortable it must be to live in those conditions?
Peter: Just to keep track of the major revisions from Simmons’ novel: while Hickey is lashed in the book, he is not punished “as a boy,” nor is it for the same infraction. In the book, the caulker’s mate is whipped raw with Manson and Richard Aylmore after a grand and disastrous carnival in which they disrespect the memory of Sir John.
Will: The good Mr. Goodsir doesn’t get much to do in this episode, aside from learn what he can from corpses or the nearly-dead, but I suspect his scientific curiosity will come in handy in future episodes (see: Mr. Morfin’s headache and gum issues). The real Harry Goodsir was the brother of Dr. John Goodsir, one of the pioneers of Cell Theory in biology, and the younger scientist actually contributed to his older brother’s groundbreaking work. Not a bad guy to have on your expedition!
Peter: In much the same way that episode three was rife with titular ladders, the “boy” of episode four refers to more than the flayed Mister Hickey. Ship’s boy Thomas Evans meets his own punishment under the green glow of Aurora Borealis, making up one of the halves of the corporeal abomination found by Hickey.