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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Living hand to mouth: The Terror enters its terminal stage with intimacy and brutality

Illustration for article titled Living hand to mouth: The Terror enters its terminal stage with intimacy and brutality
Photo: Adam Nagaitis (Aidan Monaghan/AMC)
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“You construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men.” Barbara Kruger’s influential work of feminist agitprop may not have had murder in mind. But murder exists on a continuum that spans the rowdy-boy horseplay her image depicts, the societally approved homosociality of the playing field and the locker room, and the “rum, sodomy, and the lash” trifecta of life in the Royal Navy. The sailor-on-sailor killings, mercy or otherwise, in this incredible episode of The Terror can be seen as that continuum’s logical endpoint. The taking of life, up close and personal, is a form of male intimacy like any other.


These thoughts raced through my head while watching “The C, the C, the Open C,” the penultimate installment of this relentlessly intelligent and austere horror story. Once the idea stuck, I couldn’t shake loose of it. How could I? So much of The Terror’s imagery and iconography is based on isolation—all those shots of lone or scattered figures against the seemingly endless slate-gray and bone-white backdrop of the arctic nothingness where Captain Francis Crozier and his men are stranded. When that infinitude is bridged for any reason—comfort, camaraderie, killing, and in the end, cannibalism—the break from the norm is profound. As the Franklin expedition staggers toward oblivion at an ever-accelerating pace as it does here, those linkages create even more of an impact.

Think, for example, of the death of James Fitzjames. By the time he’s reached his final hours, his one time enmity with Captain Crozier feels like a thing of the prehistoric past. Fitzjames’ role in the episode begins with him marveling aloud at Francis’ magnanimity, when the Captain decides to leave supplies behind in orderly piles to make it clear that, should the men who’ve lined up behind the mutinous Mr. Hickey return to sack the camp, he wants them to use the supplies to survive—even if the sentiment is not returned. “More than God loves them,” James says through a faint smile, in awe at the unconditional support Crozier offers.

But before long, James begins to succumb to the lead poisoning and general malnutrition and fatigue that is slowly destroying all the survivors. The old bullet wound from “the sniper story you’re so fond of telling,” as Crozier puts it, has reopened in his side. His face goes sallow, his eye reddens with burst vessels, a sheen of blood coats his hairline. He winds up too weak even to kill himself. So it falls to Francis to pour the poison into his mouth, then gently massage his throat to work the liquid down past his gag reflex and into his system. He does this with all the kindness and care he shows his former assistant Lt. Jopson, when he helps treat and soothe him by telling an old story about trying to ride a cow as a kid to pass the time. The show cuts to commercial in the middle of the fatal process; James’ death is less important to it than the tenderness with which it is bestowed.

In the camp of Mr. Hickey we find the flipside of this image. Having press-ganged Dr. Goodsir into his service during everyone’s terrified flight from the Tuunbaq (who lurks throughout this episode as a liminal presence, seen by scouts but never by the audience), Hickey watches him treat his former lover Gibson, who’s entering the painful final stages of lead poisoning and will no longer be able to move of his own volition. Quietly, Hickey grabs a knife outside, returns to the tent, and sinks the blade into his ally’s back. The blow is fatal, but not immediately so. With Hickey behind him and Goodsir in front of him, Gibson becomes the object of an awful tug of war. The outcome is certain the moment it begins; it’s more a contest between Hickey and Goodsir to exercise control over his dying moments. The three wind up in a perverse embrace, Goodsir resting a hand on Gibson’s head as if to say “no” and Hickey holding fast with a responsorial “yes.” Again, a cut to commercial arrests the action in the middle of this contact, not when it breaks apart.

Contrast Hickey and Gibson’s farewell with that of the show’s other couple, John Bridgens and Henry Peglar. Co-showrunner Soo Hugh, who wrote this episode, was wise to wait until deep into the season to introduce these characters; they’d have gotten lost in the shuffle at first, but as the crew is worn away by attrition, their love for another emerges and stands out. Now that attrition has reached them, too, as Henry collapses. Since he serves as doctor in Goodsir’s absence, John is able to attend to his lover in death, reading his journals (which include, heartbreakingly, a sketch of the tattoo on John’s forearm) and kissing his hand in farewell. Henry’s death takes away John’s will to live, and he wanders away from camp to lie down in the wilderness and die—but not without Henry’s journal, which he tucks in his pants to keep it close as he waits to join him.


Mr. Blanky, too, takes a solo trip to his own demise. After James’ death, Blanky must finally inform the Captain that his leg, severed at the knee following his run-in with the Tuunbaq months earlier, has begun to go gangrenous. Francis reacts to the prospect of losing “another friend” with something close to a tantrum of sorrow, swearing and weaving and holding the back of his head with his hands. But while Blanky opts to die alone, he does so in hopes of drawing off and distracting the stalking Tuunbaq long enough for the rest of the men to escape. Perhaps because he’s choosing to lay down his life for his friends, he’s afforded the moments of grace and joy we associate with closeness to one’s fellow man. First, when he stumbles and realizes he can walk no further, he also realizes that the body of frozen water nearby is none other than the goddamn Northwest Passage. Laughing, he breaks out a pipe to celebrate. Smoke ’em if you got ’em, Thomas.

Blanky’s true moment of triumph arrives with the Tuunbaq himself. When he hears the beast approach from behind, he grins and growls “What in the name of God took you so fucking long?” His laughter is the last thing we see and here before the cut to the credits. What’s so funny? Per his last request to Crozier, he’s wrapped himself in makeshift barbed wire consisting of every fork the crew could spare. The creature may eat him, but the case of indigestion to follow will make the thing wish he hadn’t.


So we come to the meat of the story, pun absolutely intended. Hickey murders Gibson not just to free the mutineers of the burden of dead weight, but to feed the mutineers. By threatening to kill Lt. Hodgson, the weak-willed officer whose desperation to live leads him to compare cannibalism to his one and only ecstatic experience receiving the eucharist at “a papist church,” Hickey forces Goodsir to butcher Gibson’s body for consumption. The sheer violation this entails is made to warp the flow of time itself, first as action and dialogue overlap seemingly at random when Hickey makes his move to kill Gibson while discussing the need to eat whatever they can get their hands on, then again when Goodsir is given an hour to decide whether or not to comply and the allotted time passes in the space of a single disorienting edit. After the hideous meal, Hickey achieves apotheosis—standing out in the air in his skivvies, arms outstretched and christlike, looking as healthy as ever. Not at all coincidentally, Hickey’s right-hand man Sgt. Tozier chooses this moment to tell his chieftain that he believes he saw the Tuunbaq consume the soul of the late Mr. Collins along with his body. To quote Barbara Kruger’s rough contemporary Clive Barker, himself no stranger to intricate rituals of the skin: “This is the state of the beast…to eat and be eaten.” There are many reasons why Mr. Hickey would want to abduct Captain Crozier, as indeed his men manage to do in a gut-wrenching scene of betrayal by Crozier’s own ship’s boy near the end of the episode, but strange new ideas about how best to achieve an air of command could well be among them.

The horrors of consumption and isolation echo all the way across the Atlantic to England, in scenes that help bookend the episode. The hour opens with writer Charles Dickens introducing his friend Lady Jane Franklin to a crowd of do-gooders, from whom she hopes to solicit enough donations to fund a rescue expedition. Director Tim Mielants cruelly moves the camera from actor Greta Scacchi’s wide eyes—such a contrast with the bloody sunken sockets of the sailors that the bright arctic light keeps showing us at every turn—to her teeth, then cuts to the bisected skull of a dead man, his own teeth glistening white in the red ruin of his lower jaw, now exposed from front to back. The connection between the mouth and death is established before we even know what to look for.


Finally, Lady Jane’s niece Sophia Cracroft imitates her aunt’s own attempt to relate to the lost sailors’ plight by stepping out into the London snow, alone. Slipping out of her shoes, she digs her feet into the cold white powder; her face, when we see it, is a deathmask of despair. She’ll never again touch any of these men. No one they know ever will.

Stray observations

  • “It was an honor serving with you, sir. You’re a good man. There will be poems.” Bridgens’ farewell to Fitzjames is so sad in its sincerity and in its erroneous belief that his beloved captain will live on as anything but a cautionary tale.
  • It’s worth pointing out that Lady Silence, back among her own people, is facing a disaster of her own. Her boss in the encampment informs her that the presence of the men from England has driven all the wildlife from the island where they live, and that while another shaman will be called up to help locate the rogue Tuunbaq and try and set things right, her life and the creature’s are still bound together. “You cannot walk away,” he tells her, even as sailor after sailor in the expedition does exactly that.
  • Complimented by writing that’s both spare and lyrical (it’s how Westworld thinks it sounds), the performances on this show just get stronger and stronger as the situation gets worse and worse. Jared Harris, Tobias Menzies, Paul Ready, Ian Hart, Adam Nagaitis, Christos Lawton, John Lynch, Liam Garrigan, Sian Brooke—there are hardly enough superlatives to dump on these actors. (Though God knows I’ve done my level best here.)