Reviews · TV

‘The Terror: Infamy’ Review: The Specter of History Is Back with a Vengeance

‘The Terror’ returns with a damning indictment of one of North America’s more horrifying chapters.
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By  · Published on August 12th, 2019

There is a colossal wooden roller coaster in the second episode of The Terror: Infamy that towers in the background of a racetrack. I’ve ridden this roller coaster many times. It’s the oldest attraction at Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition. It overlooks the livestock stables at the center of the park’s grounds where thousands of uprooted Japanese-Canadians were interned after Canada declared war on Japan in 1942. The stables were converted from animal to human pens in only seven days. It was cold and crude; a holding area before internees were transferred to concentration camps in the remote interior of the province. Infamy doesn’t take place in Vancouver, and the showrunners could have easily removed the coaster digitally. But I’m glad they didn’t. Letting the real-life horrors of history speak for themselves is what The Terror does best.

Where The Terror‘s much-celebrated first season followed the misadventures of a disastrous arctic expedition, Infamy’s 10-episode season centers on a string of bizarre deaths in a small Japanese-American community. When they are forcibly removed from their homes and interned in a concentration camp, the mysterious deaths don’t stop, leaving the community to suspect that they are being haunted by something old, and angry.

When the second season of The Terror was announced, I was curious to see what thematic threads the show would continue to tug on. Season one was primarily framed as genre-tinged speculation into a real-life mystery: a famed wreck with a vanished crew and (since confirmed) rumors of cannibalism. Infamy pivots away from inquests into historical black boxes, but with no detriment to its central backbone. Season one was never concerned with uncovering historical truth, so much as underlining the human monstrosity at the heart of a larger colonial horrorshow. Even in a series that has featured a mystical, soul-sucking, man-faced polar bear, human beings will always be the scariest thing to go bump in the night as far as The Terror is concerned.

With Infamy, fans of season one will be treated to similarly contained, compelling, and well-paced installments that spool out character arcs and narrative twists at a steady pace. Much like its predecessor season, Infamy is a slow atmospheric burn that ferments dread and allows suspicion to simmer. Having watched the first six episodes, I am able to report that there are great rewards for the patient and attentive viewer.

Grounding a historical event whose scope might have felt overwhelming in less careful hands, the show anchors us in the personal story of the Nakayama family, whose lives are upended after the attacks on Pearl Harbour. While Derek Mio‘s Chester leaves something to be desired as far as an grounding protagonist, Infamy‘s supporting cast deliver some truly moving and nuanced performances. Shingo Usami is inescapably heartbreaking as Henry Nakayama, Chester’s stern, sensitive, and steadily traumatized father. Marcus Toji is another standout as Arthur Ogawa, a sweet, pragmatic, bubbly translator whose upbeat temperament is much needed by the time we reach his appearance mid-season. Another completely riveting and unmissable performance comes courtesy of Kazuya Tanabe. His scenes in episode five are a series highlight. Also of note is the powerful presence of George Takei, who was himself imprisoned as a child in two Japanese-American internment camps. Takei also served behind the scenes as a historical and story consultant, and the show’s determination to do right by history is palpable and deeply affecting.  

The creature this season—which I will not identify as that would ruin half the fun—is, to put it lightly: unnerving as all hell. Without saying too much, and do avoid trailers if you can, heaps of praise are due to whoever designed the creature’s sound and movement. Especially the movement. I’ve been around the yokai block, and my god the way this thing moves will make your skin crawl. Think Vincent D’Onofrio in Men in Black meets Train to Busan. Suffice to say: fans of Japanese horror, you will be well taken care of. And as for those of you new to the table—you are in for a real treat.

Even as the show’s bestiary expands (and, for my money, improves), the real baddies of The Terror still wear a human face. No amount of rending, shuffling, and squelching can compare. And trust me, there’s a lot of squelching. As in real life, man-made cruelty in Infamy comes in an array of shapes and sizes: in the incarceration of infants; in the xenophobic paranoia of the state; and perhaps most pointedly, in the cruelty we are capable of inflicting on one another when we decide that someone else’s life is worth less than our own; when other people become less than human to us.

This is, really, the crux of what sets The Terror apart in an increasingly competitive small screen landscape: stomach-turning supernatural scenarios that pale in comparison to human cruelty. Infamy is a damning indictment of a truly horrifying chapter in North American history. At the end of the day, it doesn’t need ghosts, ghouls, and yokai to be scary. 

The best horror, I find, is the kind that sticks a finger into grotesque wounds we’d rather forget or ignore. Be they interior afflictions, or sins of past and present. This goes without saying, but it is impossible to watch The Terror: Infamy without feeling the present-day connective tissue. American citizens are still being dehumanized, rounded up, and held captive because their race is seen as a national security risk. The show trusts us to connect the paranoiac racist dots, for as The Terror has repeatedly proven: the confluence of history and horror is paper-thin.

You can catch ‘The Terror: Infamy’ on Monday, August 12 at 9/8C

Author’s note: The video clip below contains the least amount of spoilers of all the trailers. If you don’t care about spoilers, you can watch the more recent Comic-Con trailer here

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.