The underrated frozen hellscape that is AMC’s “The Terror”

September 11, 2020

Lost in the glow of “Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad,” AMC’s forgotten child, “The Terror,” remains one of the most underrated pieces of television ever ignored on the small screen. The 10 episode anthology series is a fictionalized account of Franklin’s Lost Expedition, a real life voyage of Arctic exploration undertaken by the British Royal Navy in the early 19th century. The mystery of the Franklin Expedition is one of the more harrowing tales of doomed survival one can find in recent history, and “The Terror” brings it to life in marvellous desolation.

In 1845, with the goal of charting the prized Northwest Passage for queen and country, 129 men set out into the unknown, supplied with the most cutting edge equipment of the time and commanded by some of the most respected and storied officers within the empire. They promptly disappeared. Artifacts from the expedition’s two ships were found scattered across the inhospitable rocky islands of the Arctic tundra, and Inuit accounts detailed sightings of desperate men on a death march south, resorting to cannibalism to survive.

Adapting Dan Simmons’ historical fiction of the same name, “The Terror” posits a more fantastical explanation for the expedition’s fate as the crew is beset by unforgiving natural forces and supernatural forces drawn from Inuit mysticism. This magical twist does service to the fatal folly of the real voyage: vainglorious men venturing blindly into an alien land they believe they have already mastered by virtue of their origin, thinking their nationality can keep them warm. It stays true to the allegorical lesson of the real world tragedy, spiritual soul eating polar bear and all. 

“The Terror” doesn’t even modify the characters. Each actor on screen plays a real person written with their real backstory, down to the ship boy and the dog. There is Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds), a well-liked but unrespected man whose fixation on how things should be going rather than how they are going drives the voyage into ruin, Commander James FitzJames (Tobias Menzies), a stuffy war hero so seems to be more story than man, and Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), a dour captain whose Irish lineage and realist attitude lead him to be ignored by his overconfident fellows. Every character, from the idealistic anatomist Mr. Goodsir (Paul Ready), the conniving and ambitious Corneilius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) and the mysterious Esquimaux woman Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen), all feel whole thanks to expert writing, complete story arcs and the impeccable acting of the entire cast from top to bottom. 

The whole show feels real in the most incredible way, to the point where it can feel like you are watching a documentary. Each new ailment or problem faced by the expedition’s crew presents a real possibility for what contributed to the demise of those 129 men. The story and world of the show is so manifestly engrossing and complete that on multiple viewings, you will find yourself discovering background characters who you didn’t even think had names go through fully realized and compelling story arcs. I have researched the lives of figures on the expedition, and their counterparts in the show are written so well that my knowing these unmentioned details about their lives adds another dimension to them, contextualizes their actions in entirely new and fascinating ways. “The Terror’s” vision is so thorough, its writing so gem-like in its polish, that this show might as well be what actually happened to the real Franklin expedition. I mean, what else would you expect with Ridley Scott at the helm as producer.

“The Terror” serves as a meticulous deconstruction of the follies of imperialism and the dissolving of artifice in the face of harsh reality. We watch these poor men weather hardship after hardship: the impossible cold, the spoiling of the canned food and the persistent hunting of hostile Inuit spirits which seek to expel them from the land as invaders. And these men think they can cling to the name of their homeland and outsmart and master this tundra better than the “savages” that already live there. 

We watch the inevitable collapse of the crew’s caste-like chain of command and the towering heights and the depraved lows men will be pushed to in the fight for survival. As bleak as the story is, especially in this lost year of 2020, I feel a tale about the failure of comfortable aggrandizing fantasy in the face of truth, and how hardship has a way of unmasking the best and worst of us, might be prudent.

As a horror story, it is flawless; its every fiber pervaded by a creep of impending doom, an intoxicating deterioration that eclipses the supernatural scares the series also provides. All of this is aided by a grossly eerie soundtrack. Like any tragedy worth its depression, “The Terror” has a charming knack for giving the viewer favorite characters, so our guts can be ripped out when they are killed. The series tells you at the start that everyone dies, and yet, despite your best efforts, you will grow attached to all the dead men walking. If it has one major drawback, it is that, by virtue of being a story about a bunch of white bearded guys all named “John” and “James,” it takes a couple of episodes to stop confusing characters with each other. 

While maybe not the most uplifting tale to watch in these trying times, “The Terror” remains one of the most incredibly compelling cinematic experiences ever to languish in anonymity. It is a captivating exploration of the hells we blindly charge into and ultimately find in each other. It deserves your viewing and recognition by principle.

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