clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Terror’s first season was a magnificent enigma

The AMC miniseries takes TV horror in a new direction — all mood, atmosphere, and waiting for death.

The Terror
The Terror’s bleak, empty landscapes were a big part of its appeal. So was Jared Harris as Francis Crozier.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The final image of The Terror, one of the best new series of the year, is a man waiting for a thing that might never come. He sits over a small hole in the Arctic ice, watching for a seal to swim by below, spear at the ready.

The series holds on this image for an agonizingly long time. Will he spot something? Won’t he? Does it matter? The act of waiting, in and of itself, might be the point. This is a man who has been changed inside and out, and who has, by his very presence in this frozen landscape, changed things irreparably. Perhaps his only penance is to sit and wait endlessly.

The Terror is about waiting. It follows the real-life Franklin expedition — two British naval ships, outfitted to the teeth with technology, that went into the Arctic in the 1840s in search of a Northwest Passage and never came out. (The ships were found at the bottom of the ocean a handful of years ago, thanks to global climate change, which opened up the ice enough to properly search, and modern technology, which allowed for better scans of the ocean floor.)

Absolution, not certain but hoped for, is what the man waits for — not a sea creature, but an ending that must inevitably come. The weight of death hangs over The Terror from its earliest frames (which bring explorers in search of the Franklin expedition in contact with the Inuit locals, who know very bad things have happened), but it only grows heavier with every new hour. There are 10 in total, and the series takes its time, with long, languorous looks at men who are doomed.

The Terror, then, is a series about how we’re all waiting for death, and some of us more actively than others. It suggests some combination of our own hubris and simple bad luck could end any one of us at any time. And there’s nothing to be done about it. Spoilers for the entire miniseries follow.

The Terror is a horror story that relies on mood and atmosphere more than screeching jolts

The thing that makes The Terror special is how careful it is to avoid the trappings of most TV horror, which too often substitutes big jump scares for something more thoughtful. There’s good reason for this: The kind of buildup required to create a horror tale that’s more psychologically disturbing than viscerally terrifying needs lots of real estate, but not too much.

In a two-hour film, building to a massive climax with, say, an hour and 40 minutes of carefully calibrated setup feels just about right. But for The Terror to do the same thing would mean it essentially lived in a space of waiting for something to happen for around eight of its 10 episodes.

And, yes, the early hours of The Terror are far more about atmosphere and character-building than, well, terror. That’s made them a tough sit for many, who would prefer something happening. But those hours are still peppered with incident, including the sudden, brutal death of the expedition’s captain, John Franklin, at the hands of the series’ mysterious, supernatural antagonist, the Tuunbaq, which happens in the third hour. And any time the series’ showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh need to create a sudden sense of sweeping menace, they can set the series’ gaze out on the alien, icy landscape, watching for whatever lurks there and never spotting it.

But for a show that sends the characters marching toward the grave early and often, The Terror is not as depressing as it could be. Bleak, sure, but the men of the Franklin expedition find a kind of exhilaration in their continued survival because it’s so unlikely. By the time they’re stranded on an inhospitable spit of land, carving into each other’s dead bodies to find enough food to survive, there’s a kind of grim pragmatism to all of it.

The Terror
Adam Nagaitis stars at the brilliantly villainous Hickey, and no, you do not want to know what he’s eating.

The Terror argues that, deep down, everything you believe in is a lie but your own survival. You, too, would chow down on human flesh, would walk off into the wilderness, would try to tame an ancient bear-shaped god, if it meant living another year, or another week, or another day.

But the series isn’t as certain of humanity’s selfishness as all that. There are moments of supreme tenderness scattered throughout the show, to the degree that one late episode opens with a lengthy scene (almost seven minutes — an eternity in TV time) in which two former antagonists examine the firm friendship that has formed between them in all those years out on the ice.

They know they’ll both probably die, but that certainty has pushed them closer together, rather than farther apart. Instead, the one named Crozier (Jared Harris) will go on to be that man waiting over the hole in the ice, living on but no longer as himself, while the one named Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) will die a sad, pitiable death.

The Terror has history on its side, of course. Even a cursory scan of the Franklin expedition’s Wikipedia page will reveal how starkly terrifying the circumstances of its disappearance were, and it only gets worse the further down the rabbit hole you go. It also has the Dan Simmons novel it’s based on and from which it takes many of its most memorable incidents.

But everything about it has been thoroughly rethought for television, right down to the ways it modifies Simmons’s book. The series’ ending is almost a complete invention, but I like it better, I think. The book ended with a much more hallucinatory dive into the coming, climate change-driven future, while also setting up Crozier with the story’s one major female character in a way that didn’t feel particularly earned.

The series exiles both Crozier and that female character from their societies — he to live among the Inuit, and she to live in the wilderness. They were both captains before their time — he of the expedition and she of the Tuunbaq — and though they did their best, they were no match for something as vast and unknowable as the ends of the earth.

The Terror is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen about codes of masculinity

The Terror
The men face off with the Tuunbaq in what seems to be an almost supernatural fog.

Naturally, a series about a bunch of men living in a rigidly hierarchical world where they only ever meet one woman will brush up against codes of masculinity and the ways they’ve both built and warped our society. It would be easy for a story like this to condemn those codes, too. After all, the hubris of these men and their colonialist, militarist society insisted that better technology (in the form of the best ships the Royal Navy could spare) could conquer the Arctic and knit the world together. Instead, almost 130 men died.

Shows about men sometimes come in for criticism from those of us who write about television, myself included, because the line between “this show is depicting toxic masculine behavior as it exists on this planet” and “this show is endorsing toxic masculine behavior” is incredibly thin. Even the shows that remain on the right side of it are often held up by some of their fans as endorsement of that toxic behavior (lest we forget the legions of Breaking Bad fans who excoriated Skyler White for daring to question her husband).

But the beautiful thing about The Terror is how it trusts its audience to understand that the dynamics of this expedition serve as both a condemnation of some aspects of masculine codes and an endorsement of others. The hierarchy and hubris of these men, which eventually leads them all to death, also keeps them alive far longer than they might otherwise have made it. Having chains of command — and, more importantly, faith in each other — allows a surprising number of them to brush up right against the edge of survival before succumbing to death.

It also helps that the series is set in a historical context where we can know some of what’s to come. We know the men on these ships will die and that the British Empire will eventually both fade and come to be seen as a colonizing force that didn’t bring purity and goodness to the world, as it imagined it did. We know the Arctic will melt. We know the homosexual relationships some of the men turn to — whether out of genuine lust, genuine desire, or genuine boredom — will no longer be as stigmatized almost two centuries later.

But the story taking place so long ago also allows us to view our own world through its prism. There’s a beauty to the way some of these men find themselves in the codes of masculinity they’re forced to live under, in the way Crozier and Fitzjames become fast friends where they might not otherwise.

But there’s also a harshness to the way some of the men become scattered against them and fall apart. The codes work when everything is going well, but when it’s not, their rigidity causes some men to fray, with no other outlet than losing their minds.

Indeed, the series suggests that this hubris and unearned certainty might end up being the thing that ultimately destroys the world. When the Tuunbaq dies in the finale, rotted from within by all of the opulently spoiled British souls it’s just gobbled, the implication is clear: You can’t stop progress, but you also can’t stop the way it eventually destroys things that really are beautiful and pure. There’s nothing right or wrong with that. It’s just true.

When one man barks with laughter to see the Tuunbaq galloping toward him in an earlier episode, it feels as true as anything else the show could say. Death is coming for us all, right? Better to see it trotting toward us than always feel it somewhere behind us, just out of sight.

That leads us back to Crozier, sitting on the ice, waiting. The series leaves him alive but without the definition of his old life. He’s trying to learn a new one, trying to unlearn the past, waiting for a beast that has yet to come. He’s waiting for a better world, but we know the ice he sits on is only going to melt.

The Terror is available to stream on AMC’s website.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.