As one AMC juggernaut sees its ratings dip, along comes another series that just may very well blow all other series out of the water (no pun intended).
The Terror recently wrapped up its 10-episode first season. It’s rare for a show to start off with a bang and not only ride that momentum but build off of it throughout the duration of the season, but that’s just what this fantastic adaption of a Dan Simmons novel does.
Before we dive into the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean, let’s take a quick look at the actual story and the Simmons-penned tale of Captain Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition.
In 1845, two ships embarked on a journey into uncharted waters to find the last undocumented chunk of the Northwest Passage. Those ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were manned by 129 men including Captain Franklin. Tragically, every man on the two ships were lost to a wide variety of deaths, namely hypothermia, starvation, lead poisoning and scurvy. We’ll skip past the cannibalism for now. While a mountain of investigations, documentaries and scientific research have pretty much buttoned up the ill-fated voyage at this point in time, fiction authors will do what fiction authors do. Enter Dan Simmons.
Simmons’ 2007 novel, The Terror, is a hell of a read and one I wholeheartedly recommend. Not only is it written with an incredible depth of knowledge and respect for the story’s true origins, but it also puts a spin so fantastic and terrifying on what is already a horrifying series of events that one can’t help but wonder did something else happen to these men?
Fast forward to 2016 and AMC had just ordered a 10-episode season of the critically-acclaimed novel, with David Kajganich (screenwriter for the upcoming Suspiria and Pet Sematary remakes) and Soo Hugh (co-producer of Under the Dome) joining forces as co-showrunners. The first big coup was nailing down Ridley Scott as executive producer. Casting news ushered in another wave of excitement, as Jared Harris, Tobias Menzies and Ciaran Hinds signed on to portray the three main characters on the series.
This leads us to the absolute best part of this show: The acting is second to none in this series, from top to bottom. Thanks to scripts ripe with character development, the gentlemen (and lady) of the series stretch out and truly show the heart of the characters they are playing.
Jared Harris submits a performance worthy of award recognition as Captain Francis Crozier, a man we watch fall into the valleys of alcoholism and selfish cowardice only to reach the pinnacle of leadership as the season moves along.
Menzies is Commander James Fitzjames, a man simply looking for himself. He may have the most emotional moment of the entire show when we find out there’s more (or less) than meets the eye to the man who is Captain Sir John Franklin (Hinds) right hand man.
But the real show-stopper in this series is none other than Paul Ready as Dr. Harry Goodsir. The man absolutely shines as the moral compass of the show while also making the most badass decision of the series.
When we first meet the men that will embark on the voyage, there is hope and vigor amongst the camps. It doesn’t take long for things to go south, starting with a damaged propeller on one of the ships that leads to the first terrible decision made by Franklin, much to the frustration of Crozier. The first episode gives us the most stomach-dropping and mesmerizing scene in the entire series as we watch one of the ship’s men lowered under water and ice to inspect the damage done to the propeller. While down in a truly gaping abyss, the man is nearly hyperventilating with anxiety—and that’s before he sees a dead body! As he desperately screams to get brought back up, the audience is left gasping for air as well.
As ice is wont to do, it doesn’t budge much as the ships try to press forward through the Arctic Circle and soon the ships are stuck, frozen in their place with no signs of relief anytime soon. The months pass and when summer arrives (mind you, we’re talking Arctic summer here so put away the bathing suits and sunscreen), Franklin sends out parties by foot to look for open passages. While the groups don’t find any blissful waterway to send them on their way, one of the groups accidentally kills of an Inuit man who just so happens to be the shaman of a terrible beast called Tuunbaq that promptly takes out one of our groups’ officers. While we lose an officer, we do meet Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), the companion of the dead Inuit man. Predictably, she isn’t very interested in hanging around with the white men who killed one of her own and also seemingly brought on the reign of terror of an ancient evil. She leaves the shipmates, devastated by the turn of events.
Time continues to drag on. The ships are stuck, morale is down, and rumors of an invisible monster have festered into the Erebus and Terror’s men’s brains. Or it might be the lead poisoning from the expired canned goods they’ve been eating three times a day for nearly a year now. Either way, the men are literally rotting from the inside out, with illness and with a different kind of madness.
Francis insists that a rescue team be sent out if the men have any chance of living through what has now become a grim ordeal. Franklin, however, has had enough of Francis’ suggestions and it’s finally brought to the forefront that the two men have quite a tense history between them. While the two can’t agree on the best way to get themselves out of their current predicament, they seem to certainly agree that something must be done about the creature haunting the crews. Franklin steps out into the blustery abyss with a group of armed marines, fully prepared to shoot down the monster and bring peace of mind back to his men. It wouldn’t be a horror series without the monster attacking Franklin, who promptly loses a leg in grisly fashion before being pushed down an icy hole, lost forever in the frozen water beneath his men’s boots.
Considering their captain just got tossed around like a rag doll in plain sight and not a single damaging shot has been landed on the monster, the men begin to rightfully assume they’re dealing with something a little more sinister than a bear here. Here’s where we also get some in-depth looks into another series star, Adam Nagaitis as Cornelius Hickey. From the get-go, Hickey seems to be a mischievous fellow who not only has a relationship with a fellow shipmate but also has dreams of a bigger future than the confines of the ship can hold. Ever the charmer, Hickey manages to lead a small group of men to find Lady Silence. Hickey believes Lady Silence has the ability to stop the creature from hunting down the party. While Lady Silence doesn’t get a warm reception from the ship’s crews, she does become a point of fascination by Goodsir (Paul Ready). Goodsir, as his name implies, goes out of his way to treat Lady Silence like a civilian, even going so far as to insist that the way she’s being treated isn’t the way a proper gentleman does things. He attempts to learn her language but doesn’t get too far. He also does all he can to keep her from eating any canned food, as he is well aware of the sickness breeding within the camps from the spoiled tins.
Here’s where I want to take a moment to acknowledge my favorite character of the series, one Thomas Blanky, played by Ian Hart. Blanky is a take-no-bullshit longtime friend of Crozier who has the chops to be a captain himself but prefers to earn his keep the old fashioned way—through hard work and attempting to singlehandedly take down a mythical creature that has laid waste to every person in its path. For his efforts, Blanky loses a leg and as the series continues, Blanky’s loyalty to Crozier and the expedition only grows fiercer.
During Blanky’s battle with the creature, Lady Silence is able to disappear from the group again, something Crozier watches from afar but chooses not to stop. Instead, Crozier gives up his newly minted responsibilities of captain of both ships to Fitzjames and decides to sober up after a lengthy and sad struggle with drink.
The ice continues to mount and scurvy keeps coursing through the men. What better way to cheer up the group while their captain has locked himself away to fight through withdrawal as the monster still lurks somewhere in the great beyond than to order a carnival be set up for the men. This is in hopes of building up the fellas’ spirits enough to lay it on them that the only way they’re getting out of their current situation alive is to make an 800-mile trek on foot to civilization. Fitzjames’s heart is in the right place, but the carnival becomes a scene of horror soon after. Dr. Stanley, the chief doctor of the ships who does everything he can to blow off Goodsir and his clear-as-day assessments that the men are slowly going to die from the poisoned food supplies, lights himself on fire, taking down numerous tents and several lives along with him. So much for any good juju as the men begin their long walk to safety shortly thereafter.
Crozier, back in good health after his locked-away sabbatical, and Fitzjames are co-captains of the walking expedition. Well aware of Goodsir’s diagnosis of the food supply, Crozier decides to keep the terminal news from the men, but Hickey catches on quickly enough. Soon, a plan of mutiny is hatched with Hickey at the helm. Cue Hickey’s horrific spiral into madness, which begins with him violently killing a lieutenant while on the hunt for food. To make matters worse, Hickey also murders an entire group of Eskimos in order to make it look as if the Eskimos were responsible for the death of the lieutenant. Of course, this poorly constructed framing is almost immediately found out by Crozier, Fitzjames, and Blanky to be complete bullshit. They now know they have a murderer with mutinous intentions on their hands. A quick and sudden death is planned via hanging, but of course good ol’ Tuunbaq rears its ugly head and crashes the party. Amidst the insanity that comes with trying to run away from an oversized polar bear from Hell, Hickey and his mutineers duck into the fog and suddenly there’s more than just the monster to be concerned with for Crozier’s men.
Of course, things don’t go well for Hickey and his rag tag group of men, which includes Dr. Goodsir. Goodsir is there against his will. Don’t you dare think Goodsir is a bad guy! While things aren’t really going great for Crozier and the “good guys” either, at least they aren’t resorting to cannibalism like Hickey’s team. Even more upsetting, the first man to be made into an entrée by the group is the former lover of Hickey.
Back on Team Crozier, the captain is struggling mightily with the loss of Fitzjames, who succumbs to scurvy and malnourishment. To make matters worse, Blanky reveals that his leg stump is severely gangrenous and he knows the writing is on the wall for him. In one of a number of emotional moments in the series, we see Crozier literally throw his hands up and cry as he realizes he is going to lose another one of his men. Blanky, ever the supreme bad ass, puts an arm around Crozier and yucks it up with his longtime pal, insisting on luring the Tuunbaq away from the group and wrapping himself in forks when the monster gets too close. In typical ironic fashion, Blanky ends up hobbling right up to…. The Northwest Passage. Of course, his friends will never know this because the Tuunbaq arrives behind Blanky shortly thereafter and an off-screen death (presumably) ensues. Around this time, Crozier is also kidnapped by the Hickey clan.
When Crozier arrives at Hickey’s camp, it is revealed to the captain that the men have resorted to eating the dead and he also learns just how far gone Hickey is. Things turn from really bad to worse when Goodsir reveals to Crozier that he knows he’s going to die. Crozier won’t accept this, but Goodsir has already made up his mind. This is one of the most beautiful moments of the series, even if it is heartbreaking to watch. Goodsir insists that “this place is beautiful to me, even now” and “there is wonder here, Captain.” Later that night, Goodsir washes himself in poison before chugging a deadly concoction and lying in his cot. To make it appear that he committed a more “normal” suicide, Goodsir slashes his wrists and dies with visions of purity before passing away. It’s a difficult and drawn out scene to watch, but it’s done in such a way that it leaves us relieved for Goodsir.
The next morning, Hickey takes full advantage of his latest breakfast buffet and insists that Crozier partake in eating a piece of Goodsir. The night before, Goodsir told Crozier to only eat his heel (the toughest part of the foot) and Crozier obliges, preserving himself while the other men dig in. It’s a big day for Hickey and he’s intent on starting it off with a gruesome breakfast.
We learn that Hickey plans on meeting the Tuunbaq face-to-face, and he finally reveals exactly what his intentions are. See, Cornelius Hickey isn’t Cornelius Hickey at all. Rather, he’s a scumbag murderer who actually killed the real Cornelius Hickey and assumed his identity onto the Terror with delusions of a tropical getaway from his old life, only to be stranded on the ice with one hundred strangers. Hickey takes his men out to a clearing and is fully prepared to offer his dying minions as a sacrifice to Tuunbaq, believing he himself is some sort of godlike being now. When the monster arrives, it quickly dispatches of a number of men. Hickey cuts his tongue out, much like it was found that Lady Silence did earlier in the series in order to grow closer to the creature, and as Crozier fights for survival against the monster, Hickey offers his tongue to the beast. The beast, with a belly full of contaminated survivor meat, doesn’t take to Hickey’s offering and instead tears the criminal in half and begins to choke on the dead men (and chains) it has consumed during this massacre. Crozier is attached to the chain that is jutting from the monster’s mouth and thankfully the Tuunbaq dies before being able to wash down his meal with a handful of the captain.
Crozier faints from exhaustion and when he awakens, he finds himself being cared for by Lady Silence. The Eskimo woman found the dead monster and couldn’t bring herself to let Crozier, one of the few men aboard the ships who treated her respectfully, die in the cold. She cuts him from his shackles and pulls him to safety on her sled. Over the next few scenes, we watch with broken hearts as Crozier learns the fate of the rest of his men: two separate camps are destroyed, bodies, supplies and books scattered across the wintry rocks. Lady Silence watches on as Crozier comes across Thomas Jopson (Liam Garrigan), the young man Crozier himself promoted to lieutenant as a thank you for Jopson’s selfless care of Crozier during his battle with sobriety. We saw Jopson die earlier in the episode in another gut-wrenching moment as the man drug himself out of his bed, clinging to the last strands of life as the men healthy enough to still walk left the camp. Jopson calls out for his captain, the man he was promised would never leave him, believing that Crozier did just that. Jopson dies on the rocks, arms outreached, begging the men to come back for him.
The most haunting encounter comes at the next camp, when Crozier comes across Lieutenant Edward Little (fantastically portrayed by Matthew McNulty). Little is barely alive, seemingly frozen solid, but his eyes manage to have a bit of life in them still. His face is ravaged by piercings and chains attaching his lips to his face and ears. It’s a startling image and one that is rooted in the actual story of the Terror—the Inuit woman and her son who actually found the camp first recounted finding one of the men from expedition with chains attached to his face and if the chains were pulled, it pulled the man’s head up slowly. Chilling, to say the least.
With the fate of his men learned, Crozier heads back to the Inuit camp with Lady Silence, who is quickly banished from her group for losing the Tuunbaq. Crozier tries his hardest to find the woman who saved his life, but to no avail. He is given the opportunity to live amongst the Eskimos and accepts, going so far as hiding himself when a British rescue party finds the Inuit camp in 1850. The Inuit deny ever knowing the fate of Crozier or the men and Crozier is left to live out his days as a seal hunter, forever leaving behind a life that he could never return to.
The show is truly marvelous, complete with sprawling icy landscapes (done completely with masterful CGI) and a chilling score that really ramps up the nerves in the season finale. While the CGI is handled properly for the frozen landscape, one can fairly wonder if there was a little too much CGI used on the Tuunbaq. At one point in the series, Crozier states that his men should never have seen the Tuunbaq in the first place because they were never meant to be there. Perhaps it would have served the show well if audiences saw a little less of the Tuunbaq as well—the looks of the creature are odd, to say the least. But that’s like overanalyzing the smallest crack in what is otherwise an incredible achievement of art.
The series has plenty of scares and blood in it, but the majority of the show’s dread comes from the character development that is built up so masterfully only to be torn down so darkly. We watch our favorite men unravel and become unhinged, we are dropped face first into the paranoia of a lurking menace circling the camp. We are given enough on the men to truly appreciate, respect and even love them a bit (some of them, at least) only to watch them die terrible, terrible deaths. Besides Showtime’s Penny Dreadful from a few years back, never have I been so in love with a television series that ended on such a bleak note.
There are rumors that a second season of The Terror could be given the green light, but frankly, I’ve seen enough. You simply can’t top perfection.