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The Terror, season one (2018) review

Watching AMC's The Terror (2018) season one, I found myself thinking of movies like The Edge (1997). In that movie, a billionaire and his film crew are stranded in the Alaskan wilderness while also being pursued by a giant bear (eat your heart out, Shakespeare). The beast is certainly a problem for them, but the bigger issue is the land itself. The Edge  was set in Alaska; The Terror  occurs in Antarctica, a cold, desolate place that makes the former look tropical. There's also a monster involved that's anything but a bear. I enjoyed The Terror  very much, and for reasons I didn't foresee going in. I'll explain those in a moment.


Fair warning: I'll be spoiling the hell out of this show. If you haven't see in it yet, watch it blind first. You'll thank me later.

The year is 1845. Two ships—curiously named Erebus (the Greek god of darkness) and Terror—sail for the Frozen North, bent on discovering a passage to America. For them, it's an adventure. Alas, these sailors are in for a bad time. I geussed as much, given their dangerous mission and their jovial, religious captain, Sir John. What can go wrong will. However, the level to which this misery unfolds is more than brute fangs and claws (read: killer yeti). The worst enemy isn't even the cold, which is bad enough by itself; it's the men to each other.

Sir John ignores the signs told to him by his wiser second, Francis: the frigid North winds are bringing a chill that will trap them in the ice if they stay where they are. "God will see us through!" Sir John says, with his third officer James nodding feverishly next to him. Alas, the ice freezes, trapping the two ships inside an impromptu glacier. They weather the first winter, and prepare to look for land come spring. When they do, the search party—on edge from a "bear" having overturned their supply boat—shoots an Eskimo by accident. They take him on board with his daughter, and he dies. Shortly after that, they are attacked by an unseen threat. When Sir John leads a hunting party against it, everyone is killed, leaving Francis in charge and James his unwilling second.


Except there's a rogue in their midst. Meet Mr. Hickey. A short weasel of a man, he ignores the rules, and demonstrates himself asincreasingly unpredictable. He's not completely evil, but he isn't a sailor. Eventually his disdain for the rules when trying to "help" Francis leads him to being flogged "like a boy"—on the ass—with a cat-o'-nine-tails. This does not improve his ataxic disposition, and eventually he plots revenge against Captain Francis.

Note: My only real problem with Hickey is how he's portrayed sexually. He's clearly the human villain, yet stressed as homosexual in ways that are highly pejorative. I can understand the historical context of a homophobic 19th century England. But still, why make such a flagrantly vile person homosexual and frame that sexuality as sordid (in the eyes of good Christians, of course)? Would it have killed the writers to have a queer character in the show who wasn't a total psychopath?

What's great is how all of this unfolds. We start with the cold, then the monster, then the cold, again; mutiny is foreshadowed, and begins to play out more and more. Worse, the commanding officers are forced to lie when their rescue team is found dead a short ways outside of camp; and again when they learn the bulk of their provisions—canned food—is contaminated with lead. The latter not only wastes the men's bodies, but their minds; they start to go mad.


This madness boils over during a carnival thrown for the men. Francis is coping with his alcoholism, so James takes command. As captain, he decides to give the men their bread and circus before Francis evacuates the ships (another poorly-kept secret). James plays a Roman general; the men around him drunkenly feast and debauch on par with luscious Antiquity. And like the civilization that came before, the sailors are wasted by lead, the carnival tent burning to the ground like Rome did for Nero. A lot of men die in the flames, including both ships' doctors (one of whom started the blaze to begin with). Only Mr. Goodsir, the Terror's surgeon, survives.

Out on the ice the sailors begin to revolt, and things go sideways at a glacial pace: abandonment, murder and cannibalism. And what's more, you grow to care for these sailors before they crack; you learn their names and what makes them tick. They earn your love, because you're not meant to like their company but eventually do. All the more tragic when the writers utterly destroy them. No quarter here, folks.


Probably my favorite example of this is James. At first he sides with Sir John, serving as a foil to Francis. When Sir John kicks the bucket, James eventually admits he was wrong about Francis. Slowly he and Francis bond, sharing some heartfelt moments. James' nuanced backstory surprises with moments of extreme and vulnerable honestly later on. And, like the other men, James slowly begins to die from eating the ship's contaminated food. Before he does, he fights with the beast more valiantly than his peers, and I rooted for him despite my initial disdain. Then he, like so many others before him, dies in tragic futility.

This lack of compunction might sound sadistic, but I loved it. So often the victims of these ordeals feel like meat through a grinder. That or there's too much drama and not enough horror. Not this time. Here, we're granted everything. And it's a bit much at times, I'll admit. I thought I'd become numb to this sort of mayhem, but here it hits close to home. When the man dying in front of you is someone you respect and care for, it brings a weight to the proceedings. And there's a lot of deaths—from the cold, the monster or the men.


The pacing and atmosphere are pitch-perfect, the cramped lower deck of the ship lined with pitiful windows leading out into the cold, not so different from Alien (1979). Likewise, the monster is revealed in steps, and piece-by-piece. Eventually it comes in full force, but by then the show is nearly over. The real joy is the shock-and-tease of a carefully written script, bolstered by handsome photography on par with Days of Heaven (1978). Maybe Ridley Scott, one of the show's executive producers, had something to do with it; I'm not sure.

The show also has many twists. For example, it opens with a second-hand account of the events we eventually see. When we do, however, things start to contradict themselves, playing in a different direction that originally promised. When I say this is a story that should by all accounts be obvious, I mean it. Except it isn't as obvious as you might think. When things transpire, they catch you off guard, even if you had a basic idea of what to expect going in.


For example, when the ship's doctor goes nuts and burns down the carnival tent, it's under the suspicion that someone's going to snap. Except I thought it'd be Mr. Hickey who did the deed, and for revenge. Nope, it's the doc, who burns himself alive to boot. Then there's the shaman during the sick boy's final moments in episode one. When I first saw him he seemed dangerous, with that freaky-looking mask for a head. But it turns out he's warding off the monster. We're told about it in the first five minutes: Tuunbaq—such an awesome-sounding name (the bear in The Edge had no name, but its actor animal was called Bart).

For a monster, Tuunbaq isn't bad. While its digital effects look cartoonish in ways that might disappoint some, much of it is framed in such a way to conceal the visual weaknesses. Tuunbaq attacks from off-screen, pulling men into the hoary night. It yanks them through canvas tents and chomps off their heads; it maims them and thrusts them into the ice, alive and screaming. Brutal. And when the beast is shown, it's concealed by the mist and the snow. It's dressed by blind corners and reverse points of view. You catch glimpses of it, but seldom the whole thing. And when you do, it's only for an instant.


However, there comes a point where Tuunbaq is shown in broad daylight. The last of the survivors battle the beast, which crushes them, ripping everyone apart. You might say to yourself, "They're showing too much!" But there's a point, here, to the tipping hand: Mr. Hickey, the rogue mutineer, is convinced no man is his equal ("You must be an exceedingly lonely man, Mr. Hickey." / "Not for much longer."). A treacherous, cocky bastard, Mr. Hickey sees the beast as divine, proof to the Irish outcast that his English lords are full of it.

While it rends his unhappy mates asunder, Mr. Hickey slices off his own tongue as the shamans do—to communicate with the beast. He is not  rewarded for his madness; Tuunbaq rips him in half, proving his views false. Nor does the creature prove him right in the end about being a god; it dies, poisoned by the men who'd consumed the spiked flesh of the kindly surgeon, Mr. Goodsir. It's a satisfying twist, demystifying the monster which the cold and the mist had presented as ephemeral, ghostly.


And if ever there was a death I did not want, it was Goodsir's. Goodsir was friendly and good—not that annoyingly stupid kind, but the sort from a clever head on capable shoulders. But there are others, their combined brotherhood tested during Francis' vigil as captain. As he lives, those around him die—Goodsir, James, Sir John. A bit like The Grey (2011). Then, by the show's end, we realize the story at the beginning was spurious: Francis doesn't die; he goes native. It's a great twist, and exceptional writing. But what really sells it is the pacing. Only partway through the final episode do we learn we are deceived. Audiences like to feel smarter than the writers, the two aiming to decieve each other. Here, the writers generally come out on top.

It's not all gloom and doom, though. The writers throw in bits of humor (the black-as-pitch-sort). For example, during an early attack, a man is struck upon the head. So powerful is the blow that it cleaves open his skull, exposing the brain underneath. Though comatose, the man does not die, and quickly becomes a weird mascot for the crew. During the carnival fire someone tries to carry his rigid body to safety. "Oh, come on!" another man cries, trying to get clear of the flames. "Drop the god-damned thing!" Out on the ice, hampered by misery and death, snippets gory hilarity lighten the mood. Good times.

***

For other posts by me, check out "Alien: Ore" Q & A Project (interview), The Autopsy of Jane Doe (review), Dragon Ball Super: Broly (essay), Mandy (review). Is Garfield Gothic? (essay).

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