‘The Thing’ by way of ‘Master and Commander’ with a splash of ‘Alien’? I’ll take ten.
If you’ve ever thought to yourself: “Gosh, I wonder what could go wrong during a 19th-century Arctic expedition,” have I got a show for you. According to AMC’s The Terror the answer is everything: fucking everything can go wrong.
Executive produced by Ridley Scott and adapted from Dan Simmons’ fictionalized account of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, The Terror started life as a David Fincher project before making its way to AMC. The show condenses Simmons’ exhaustive (1000-page!) text into ten 45-minute installments. Contained, compelling, and remarkably well-paced, The Terror wisely takes the time to meticulously unravel its characters, shift scenery, and delight in every miserable detail. And boy oh boy are there a lot of miserable details.
The Terror cobbles together the bones of history to put a name to what it was, exactly, that led to the doom of the 129 men who set sail from England in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage, never to return. Undeterred by the coming winter—by the formation of pack ice and the rapidly plunging temperature—the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus became lodged in the ice of the uncharted, unwelcoming wastes of the North Atlantic. The details of their final days remain a tantalizing mystery, one The Terror endeavors to flesh out in grisly detail.
There cannot be enough praises heaped upon The Terror’s cast, rounded out by a thrall of British veterans who run the emotional gambit demanded by a 10-hour character drama comprised predominantly of hateful glances and unadulterated misery. Game of Thrones’ Ciarán Hinds portrays John Franklin, the well-liked and inept commander of the HMS Erebus, as a man of unflappable “we’ll be in Hawaii by Christmas” over-confidence. The Crown’s Jared Harris is Francis Crozier, the Irish captain of the HMS Terror who is as competent as he is downtrodden and distant. And then we have Outlander’s Tobias Menzies as Franklin’s self-obsessed but loyal Executive Officer James Fitzjames. Another standout is Paul Ready as the expedition’s surgeon Harry Goodsir, whose warmth is both a welcome relief and wildly out of place.
True to the grim reality of its subject matter, The Terror is a slow burn; preferring to prey upon the crew’s confusion and build tension through the aftermath of carnage rather than showing its hand outright. Carnage, you say? Yes, as if the threat of being crushed by the movement of an ice pack weren’t dread-inducing enough, the crew begins to suspect that there’s something stalking them in the ice, lurking in the slushy Arctic water, that’s far more terrifying than any polar bear. Turns out slashers cum period dramas are extremely my shit; there’s a peculiar delight to watching the pomp and decorum of admiralty fall apart just as quickly as anything else.
The production design of The Terror‘s Arctic vibrates with the same disconcerting allure of an uncharted planet, an unending desert, or the quiet vacuum of space. It is a wasteland, a collision of villain and atmosphere, and it is unnervingly beautiful. Wind wails, ice cracks, and snow sifts restlessly like frigid grains sand. The groans of the hulls are a constant reminder of the pressure that the ships and their miserable crew are under: these men are trapped, horribly, horribly trapped. The Terror is so leached of color that at times it almost looks black and white. Which of course makes it all the more alarming when things get bloody, giving even the most pallid of viscera the weight of a giallo red by sheer contrast.
“This place wants us dead,” the melancholic Crozier warns. A horrifying proposition, yes, but one that betrays a far more terrifying reality: a reckless hubris, a dangerous overestimation of human ability and import. As one character puts it: “nature does not give a damn about our plans.” And in its best moments, the insignificance of the crew and their glorious purpose is allowed to reverberate against the ice, bouncing silently against a land that does not care why they came, or if they live. This is the true terror implicit in the Franklin Expedition, and the closest the show brushes up against the unglamorous reality of things: that it all ended in a whimper.
Historical spoiler alert: the remains of the Erebus and the Terror were discovered in 2014 and 2016, respectively, at the bottom of the sea. In 1854, interviews with local Inuits told of a party of dying white men stumbling across King William Island who finally resorted to “the last resource.” At the time, rumors of cannibalism were unthinkable, but the knife-scarred, cracked-open bones recovered by researchers in the 1980s tell a different story. In 2015, a new analysis confirmed that the last surviving members of the expedition did, in fact, eat each other.
When I was young my dad (a tugboat captain) read Alfred Lansing‘s “Endurance” to me. “Endurance” recounts Sir Ernest Shackleton’s failed attempt to cross the Antarctic continent in 1914, and as the title suggests, despite being marooned in one of the most forbidding regions in the world Shackleton and his crew lived to tell their tale. The men of HMS Terror and HMS Erebus were not so lucky. The specifics of their misfortunes are lost to the ice, and their story will forever be steeped in some degree of mystery and conjecture. Which, morbid as it may be, is half the fun. And in any case, one thing’s for sure: the Franklin Expedition is no bedtime story. Unless you want nightmares. Beautifully shot, well-acted, nightmares.
‘The Terror’ premieres Monday, March 26th 9/8pm Central on AMC.