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 television critic Susan Stover (filling in for 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.
Peter: It’s confession time on The Terror this week. As the men of the expedition come apart socially, emotionally, and physically, Fitzjames and Crozier come closer together, finally, as brothers. Venturing out to update the late Sir John’s message in the cairn, James undresses his vanity, calling himself a fake, admitting to benefiting from political luck, and saying aloud for the first time that he sees himself as a joke. “Even my name was made up for my baptism,” he says. “James Fitzjames. Like a bad pun.”
Susan: Fitzjames gushes his fee-fees like many of the men gush blood from their gums, and one can definitely say Fitzjames and Crozier’s blooming bromance is pretty much the only happy-ish thing that occurs in this episode. For a brief moment in time there is some reprieve from the physical and mental degradation of the expedition’s men.
Peter: Tobias Menzies shines in this cold open, delivering yet another of the series’ golden monologues. Throughout the episode, the concept of manhood continues to rise up as a theme, so beginning with an honest contemplation of the toxic masculinity under which the Terrors and Erubites live is key to fully depicting the gruesome events to follow.
Susan: Toxic masculinity is a pervasive theme throughout the series, with Crozier definitely attricuting maleness to creature who hunts them.
“It’s most definitely a he.” – Captain Francis Crozier
Susan: Another ‘he’ proves a predator for the men, the one and only venomously verbose Mr. Hickey spins a titillating tale about the “savage” attack by the Netsilik peoples. I could barely watch the scene as Mr. Hickey pontificates in an undeniably politician-like portrayal, stirring the fears of the men. The terror of The Terror exists not just in the real but also the imagined, as the men fear they are under potential siege of the vengeful relatives of the souls who were killed. Crozier began the episode by explaining it best not to discuss the creature, lest comforting the wise men stir the foolish ones, and this is something Mr. Hickey understands perfectly, and plays to his advantage, or so he thinks.
CSI: King William Island
Peter: As much as he understands the power of fake news in the deep North, Hickey’s lie barely lasts a full day. After learning the full extent of the massacre from last week’s episode, Crozier marches out to the site of the violence with Goodsir and Lady Silence in tow. The Captain already suspects Hickey of sowing mutiny (as he has for a very long time now), so he approaches the forensics with a heavy dose of confirmation bias.
Susan: Crozier proves himself as the OG Horatio Caine with a clever and gruesome discovery of the seal meat shared in the dead man’s stomach. I guess dead men do tell tales on this voyage, a fitting theme for a story of doomed men. When seal meat is discovered in the stomach of the unlucky Lieutenant Irving, Crozier’s figured out who committed the murders: Hickey. It’s just a shame he didn’t have The Who to underscore this revelation. Time to get the carpenters to work for a good ol’ fashioned hanging.
Nicer Back Home
Peter: After the field trip to the massacre site, the returning party is fired upon by a now heavily armed Terror Camp, and it’s decided that Lady Silence is safest if she stays away from the angry, lead poisoned men with guns. Poor naive Goodsir is the very portrait of white guilt in this moment, when he must bid farewell to his friend, promising that what she has witnessed isn’t what English people are like.
Susan: But I mean England in 1848, really? In all reality that would probably be the worst place in the world for Lady Silence considering the institutional racism and colonial headspace where particularly women of colour were paraded around like circus freaks, like the unfortunate Sara Baartman. Not to mention the fact London hadn’t even figured out sanitary sewage systems, with outbreaks of cholera on the way for L-town in the 1850s. London is a nice place for YOU Mr. White and Educated Goodsir, but would Lady Silence really find the people there “good”?
Peter: I’ve mentioned it before, but it’s important to understand this show within a modern context, because while the story is based on historical events, the speculative horror framework is built on the dramatic irony of two key pieces of information we have that the characters do not. First of those pieces of information is that all the men of the Franklin Expedition are doomed, regardless of their actions. The second is that the colonial ideology that brought HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to their watery resting places inevitably succeeds in an ongoing genocide. Like it or not, Goodsir’s genuine kindness to his Netsilik friend is not active enough to stem the tide of imperialism that brought us to a point where now, in 2018, the people of Nunavut are ignored by the Canadian media during a tuberculosis crisis.
Deus ex Ursa
Peter: Cornelius Hickey, in the golden fog with a noose around his neck and a smirk on his lips, is an iconic image for The Terror. Adam Nagaitis’ air of confidence makes delivering Hickey’s last words feel like the moments before a checkmate. And while I had no doubt Hickey could weasel his way out of the gallows, the series used the opportunity to treat us to a daytime Tuunbaq attack that served as a catalyst to move the pieces into the show’s true end game.
Susan: Hopped up on the cocaine and wine mixture nicked from the medical tent, Collins seems to seems to have a sense of gallows humour as he laughs hysterically in the fog. He brings with him the Tuunbaq who flashes in and out of misty landscape, creating enough chaos for the mutineers to make their escape. Collins meets calamity when he is struck down by the Tuunbaq, witnessed by Tozer who notices a curious detail to the departed’s death: an aura, similar in colouring and sheen to a bubble blown from dish soap, separates itself from Collins’ form as he dies. It does bring up the question of what exactly the creature wants when it attacks so many men at a time, as a more tactful predator would take its kill and drag it off for the meat.
Peter: The motivation of Tuunbaq is a fascinating topic. We haven’t seen the big bear-thing for what? Three episodes? And sure enough it comes to the slaughter after the colonists murder an innocent family who call the land home. I don’t think we have enough information to pin down the ‘why’ of the violent spirit, but it’s clear that narratively it represents an inversion of the violence the late Sir John brought to this place.
Also: can we talk about Fitzjames getting his fucking groove back within one televised hour? As soon as the court martial is interrupted by a bear-god, Mister “It’s all vanity” rushes to his tent and digs out fireworks to launch at the monster, holding the matchsticks between his lips like that’s just something people do.
Susan: Stella had to go to Jamaica, Fitzjames went on a ship trip with constant threat of death and the food supply slowly poisoning everyone. But I mean, some people really like cruises.
Flotsam & Jetsam
Peter: Those hungry eyes between John Bridgens and Harry Peglar are not a symptom of scurvy like that latter’s unexplained bruises. In Dan Simmons’ novel, the two men share a heartening romance that lasts the entirety of their respective story arcs. Too bad they didn’t go for the kiss. But there’s still time!
Susan: Despite the lacks of smooches, the love and affection they have for one another is totally palpable. Another love story is that of Mr. Goodsir and Lady Silence. Crozier makes the wise choice to send Lady S off on her own lest the men attempt to hurt her after the “murders” and you see poor Mr. Goodsir’s heart break in two when he has to say goodbye to his friend. “I wish I could show you London,” says Mr. Goodsir, in an attempt to explain that not all people of his kind are like this.
Peter: On a note of Fitz’s vanity, those scurvy sores are nasty. The makeup on this show is very subtle at times, but when they want to make you squirm it’s as easy as getting Tobias Menzies to take his shirt off.
Susan: We have to hand it to the makeup, props, and costume folks on this one. From viscera to bruise, the devil is in the details, and The Terror does this terrifically.
Peter: One final book note! The mutiny in the show is highly abridged from the book. While the component parts are all there – the massacre, the gun hoarding, the discovery of meat in Irving’s stomach – the actual fracturing doesn’t occur until the men are much closer to their destination, much sicker, and much more depleted of food. In terms of storytelling, this version works best for a shorter television series. But the abridged format has left me wanting a bit more body horror regarding the advanced stages of scurvy, hunger and lead poisoning.