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.
“Don’t indulge your morals over your practicals.” – Cornelius Hickey
It Was The Worst Of Times
Peter: We open the penultimate episode of The Terror back in London, as Charles Dickens (yes, Mr. Great Expectations himself) introducing Lady Jane Franklin to an audience of arts patrons she hopes to rope into a crowdfunding campaign to rescue he husband and his men. Little does she know, Sir John is long dead, and the men once under his command are perishing at an accelerated rate.
Susan: While it was the spring of hope for Lady Franklin, it was most certainly the winter of despair for her departed husband’s expedition. Lady Jane’s ignorance of the horrors bestowed upon her husband’s voyage works to her advantage to attempt to furnish a ketch to rescue the voyage. As her pep rally continues we see a close up on her face with a concentration on her mouth – sharp cut to maimed head that’s been relieved of all but the lower jaw, a stark juxtaposition to the society woman’s delicate features, and a macabre metaphor for the rapidly deteriorating mission.
Peter: The day after Lady Jane’s pitch to investors Crozier, Fitzjames and John Bridgens (now the closest thing to a medical officer on Terror Camp) take a corporeal inventory: 32 men died during the combination mutiny and Tuunbaq attack, while 23 remain unaccounted for. Such a volume of corpses can’t be properly laid to rest. There will be no more burying, and the sledging party isn’t well enough to double as a man-hauled herse.
Susan: As Crozier put it, they’ll also be carrying grief with them on their attempt to get home. Hickey’s taken off with his mutineers and taken Mr. Goodsir captive, and with the crooked comrades, the beast, the utter lack of food, and you know, the whole lead poisoning thing, it’s not looking great for team Crozier. The remaining loyal crew leave the crackling and flame engulfed bodies of the departing behind as they make their way south.
South. The both literal and figurative direction this expedition heads.
You Cannot Walk Away
“You’ve got holes in you, James.” – Captain Francis Crozier
Peter: Seeing James Fitzjames screaming in the bow of a whaleboat as it’s pulled across King William Island is bone chilling. The sustained pain he experiences, as his scurvy opens up his old war wounds and wreaks havoc on his senses, is almost tangible. The makeup team once again shows their chops, making Tobias Menzies look absolutely zombified in his final hours on the show. Of course, nothing compares to the romantic horror of the man’s last scene, gently euthanized by Captain Crozier, who massages his throat so he can swallow poison.
Susan: There’s a lot that’s tough to swallow in this episode as we see the men’s situation get more desperate – the salted meat is totally depleted and the weight of the situation is doubled by the extra weight being pulled by the sick men. As Crozier puts it, there is a “reasonable logic” to leaving the sick men to die while giving the well men a chance, but Crozier wouldn’t do his boys like that, he wants to return to England a man, not a thing. He would never walk away from his crew.
Crozier won’t walk away from his men, and Lady Silence can’t walk away from Tuunbaq, or so a fellow Netsilik man tells her. He likens the appearance of these men as previous imbalances in nature: one year too many caribou, the other too many bear. They’ve disturbed an equilibrium Lady Silence needs to help restore.
Peter: Yet another foreboding irony. Just as the men of the Franklin Expedition were doomed from the outset by virtue of their historical fates, we know that whatever havoc the Tuunbaq delivers to white colonizers will not be enough to prevent the terrible violence of the Crown.
Susan: For the Queen!
“There’s no game here, but we’ve got food.” – Cornelius Hickey
Peter: Well, it’s finally here: fresh meat’s back on the menu for the mutineers as Cornelius Hickey has his former lover Billy Gibson cut up by Goodsir and served by Mr. Diggle (which, by the way, is the perfect name for a cannibal cook).
Susan: Mr. Hickey might have been okie-dokie with literally stabbing his lover in the back after Billy’s not well enough to pull the next day, but he still will not be the butcher. Goodsir’s been sourced out for this job due to his surgical skills, Hickey’s sharpest tools are that of his twisted mind, and despite Goodsir’s reluctance, Hickey ultimately blackmails him into butchering poor ol’ Bill.
Peter: As is everything with Hickey, the cannibalism has a cold practicality to it, but the emotional horror seeps through the uncanny supper scenes, culminating in a mystical midnight monologue by Lieutenant Hodgson, speaking of the first and only time he received the Holy Eucharist. Susan, as a fellow student of the Ontario Catholic School system, I was immediately glad to have the excuse to talk with you about the religious experience of cannibalism we both experienced as children.
Susan: The fact we tell kids when they are eight or so they have to go to church and eat the body and drink the blood of a their god is fucking terrifying, so no wonder lil’ Hodgson found it so chilling as a child. At the time I thought it was fine, I got to wear a pretty white dress and I think I got some cash out of the deal.
Peter: Yeah, plus, communion tastes good. As it turns out, if the miracle of transubstantiation actually transforms host wafers into human flesh, well, I guess I like eating human flesh. On a more literal level, though, it seems like long pig is at least more appetizing than the leather boot Hodgson attempted to eat at the top of the hour.
Susan: Another food source we discover is that unlike the man meat starting on the menu for Hickey’s men. Solomon Tozer shares what happened to Collins when he was attacked by the Tunnbaq – that this animal eats souls.
Forks and Knives
Peter: Many, many people die over the course of this hour. Most of them loveable characters like Harry Peglar and his secret lover John Bridgens, some of them difficult to remember like poor Hartnell who was shot in the climatic abduction of Crozier, others heartbreaking like the euthanized Fitzjames. But nothing, not even having read the novel from which this show is adapted, could have prepared me for the final badass moments of Thomas Blanky, covered in forks, all but screaming into the Tuunbaq’s face: “Eat me!”
Susan: Also his stump was also another great special effect/makeup job! I can’t help but connect the fork Hodgson uses to eat man meat for the first time and the fork trap Thomas makes of himself. One man unwillingly dead by knife and fork seen as a sacrifice to keep the other men alive; and another man baiting himself to help his men, using forks and a knife to slay the beast.
Peter: As a swansong for Blanky, “The C, the C, the Open C” is wonderful. The sickening special effects you mentioned, a tearful farewell, and genuine laughter between him and Crozier as Blanky suggests his suicide Tuunbaq trap. Genuine laughter! The most doomy show on TV deprived us of the sound for weeks, and Thomas is the one to bring it back just before he leaves us. As a parting gift, the showrunners bless Thomas Blanky on his deathmarch: alone under the Arctic sun, the indomitable ice master becomes the first British explorer to lay eyes on the fabled Northwest Passage.
Flotsam & Jetsam
Susan: Do we think Mr. Hickey was always this insane, or is his mind becoming slowly twisted by the lead infused (dog or horse?) meat? He’s not showing any physical signs, despite looking a little pale, but his gums aren’t bleeding, nor does he have the deep bruises.
Peter: It’s difficult to say if he was this unhinged, but given he’s operating under an assumed name in the first place it’s probably safe to say he was never a moral paragon.
Susan: Why does Mr. Hickey want Crozier so bad? Eat his brains gain his knowledge?
Peter: That’s a good question. In the book, Hickey just attempts to murder Crozier. But the abduction in this episode makes me think he’s got plans. If Hickey’s the vengeful sort we’re probably going to see some as-a-boy style flogging in the finale. Though I personally like the zombie plot you’re pitching here.
Susan: I mean Hickey did put his finger in a man’s brains not so long ago, and there is something about losing humanity and eating humans that’s a touch close to the zombie genre.
Peter: A longer version of this show would probably have given us more time with Bridgens and Peglar, helping build greater emotional attachment for their romantic and heartbreaking ends tonight. As it was, though, the images of the old man carrying Peglar to his death bed in the bow of a boat and subsequently lying down on the rocks to die were truly haunting.
Susan: It’s such a desperately sad moment in the show, and you have to wonder if Bridgens was planning to do this as soon as he saw how sick Peglar was.
Peter: With only one more episode to go, the show has made decisive deviations from its source material. Heading into the finale, it’s hard to know what to expect. Here be monsters.
Susan: Like in AMC’s other horror series, The Walking Dead, the general underscoring message of The Terror is that it’s the people who are the real monsters.