Photo: Paul Ready (Photo: Aidan Monaghan/AMC)

You don’t need to get clocked on the head by a hailstone the size of a grapefruit to think that there was something playful about The Terror this week. For one thing you wouldn’t have much of a head left, but it’s more than that. Titled “Gore,” the episode creates a sense of anticipation that something terrible, or at least disgusting, is going to happen from the start. This isn’t wrong, but it also isn’t the whole picture. In shades of the series title’s double meaning, Gore is the surname of the lieutenant to whom the horrible thing happens. What’s more, his death and disappearance at the claws of a huge, elusive bear takes place after eight months of nothing happening, apparently: Between the final shot of the premiere and the first shot of this installment, eight months have elapsed. A series with the confidence to take such a huge narrative leap this early in its run, and to make gallows-humor puns about the inexorable doom approaching all its characters, is a series worth watching.

Picking up the action in the spring of 1847, after the crews of the Erebus and the Terror have already spent months locked in ice and waiting out the winter, “Gore” shows what happens when those characters at last have an opportunity to start moving again. If they get lucky, and the lead teams they send out by foot in the cardinal directions are able to detect a thaw in the ice, they’ll be setting sail again within days. If they don’t…well, that’s the kind of sentiment the expedition’s leader, Sir John Franklin, won’t entertain unless he has to.

What makes actor Ciarán Hinds’ performance as Sir John so impressive is that even when others suspect, and you yourself know, that he’s wrong to be optimistic, he makes you want to believe right along with him. It’d be so easy for a character like this to come across as infuriatingly arrogant and pollyannaish. Through Hinds, with his big eyes, warm voice, and verbal dexterity, Franklin’s positive attitude is made to feel like part of a hard-earned, three-dimensional worldview. When one of the team leaders staggers back from their failed trek, half-starved and half-frozen, he tells Sir John “I’m sorry to disappoint you, sir.” (That someone in that situation would treat his own plight as a personal affront to his boss tells you about the men’s affection for the guy.) “Oh, not at all!” Franklin replies, as if the sailor had been apologizing for nothing more serious than showing up to dinner a few minutes late. Franklin adopts a similarly rosy outlook when discussing the voyage’s prospects with his glum and self-isolating second, Captain Francis Crozier, gently chiding him that while nature may indeed be hard on them, “nature’s author” is surely on their side. “Explorers are made of hope,” Sir John tells his niece in a flashback. “They breathe hope.” He’s got his own number, that’s for sure.

But the context of that statement is key. In that flashback, Sir John is talking to his niece, Sophia, about the need to let down a particularly ardent suitor from the Royal Navy more firmly than she’d done so far, lest his innate explorer’s optimism draw out his would-be courtship of her indefinitely. That suitor, we learn, is none other than Captain Crozier, who overhears Sir John and his wife Lady Jane coaching Sophia on the need to reject him as he slinks out of their home following his latest failed marriage proposal. Small wonder that Francis has apparently stayed ensconced on the Terror nearly all winter, despite the mutual admiration he and Sir John nevertheless feel for each other as sailors. Showrunner and writer Soo Hugh’s deft dialogue points to this schism without making a major production out of it: “Would it help if I said I made a mistake?” Franklin asks Crozier when he approaches him about spending more time together as the expedition continues. He’s talking about his bad decision to ignore Francis’s advice regarding how to prepare for the coming of winter a few months back, but you can tell that Sir John’s opposition to that romantic union back home is on both their minds, and that’s the “mistake” the Captain wishes his commander would apologize for.

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If it seems like I’m spending a lot of time on the intricacies of character relationships, that’s because, well, I can. The Terror has gone to great pains to avoid cliché in establishing its survival-horror cast of characters—or even the expert sketched-out shorthand used by Aliens, The Thing, The Descent, and other successful stories from this subgenre, as good as they are. Sir John is pigheaded but so kindly that you want to forgive him. Captain Crozier is a self-defeating drunk who just so happens to be right about everything so far. Sir James Fitzjames has nothing nice to say about Crozier, the superior officer between himself and Sir John, but his concern for how Crozier’s bad attitude could affect Franklin is heartfelt and genuine. Doctor Goodsir, the surgeon who accompanies the lead team that the unseen bear attacks, is kindly without being cowardly, intelligent without being all-knowing and without cracking when confronted with the unknown. There are no “types” here.

Even Cornelius Hickey, the troublemaker who nearly gets caught having sex with a crewmmate, comes across like a real person rather than an Evil Gay stereotype. You get the sense he’d be his smirking, quick-thinking self no matter who he was fooling around with, and that it’s this born-survivor nature to which Captain Crozier toasts as much as to their shared Irish heritage when the two share a drink in his quarters. “You’ve gulled the world,” Francis tells him. “I applaud you.” The moment Crozier leaves, Hickey puts his drink down and pushes it away. He’s gulled the Captain, too.

But if we’re going to be true to the titles, we’ve got to talk about terror and gore eventually. The two primarily afflict the lead team led by the titular Lieutenant Gore, a mensch of an officer in the Sir John mold. Director Edward Berger lavishes attention on the eerie aspects of the landscape they explore: the wall of piled-up ice that marks the shoreline where the frozen water ends and the rocky land begins; the stone cairn where past explorers have left notes marking their presence; the enormous hailstones that drive the men under cover. A glimpse of two humans off in the distance and the rumbling growl of an unseen alpha predator alert them to the fact that they’re not alone out there, but when they attempt to kill the latter, it’s the former they hit instead. In the chaos that follows, the bear assaults Gore and drags him away, leaving behind footprints 20 inches wide, which is…worrisome.

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Racing back to the ship in an attempt to save the life of the Netsilik Inuit man they’d shot—Goodsir receives permission to treat him only after assuring the officers that he had nothing to do with Lt. Gore’s death—the lead team brings his grief-stricken daughter (Nive Nielsen) along. It’s clear that by dying, he’s passing along some kind of responsibility to her, one for which she says she is not ready. (“Tuunbaq will not obey me!” she warns him.) As one of several crew members who can speak her language—which comes as a shock, given the stuffy vibe of all the officers—Captain Crozier tells her the name that her people gave him during past expeditions. She doesn’t give her own in return, asking only that they take their boats away, which Crozier explains is impossible as long as they’re iced in. He and the other observers translate her response: “If we don’t leave now, we’re going to…disappear.”

Then, in apparent homage to her father—whose tongue had been surgically removed for reasons unknown—the woman reaches in her mouth with her fingers, pulls out something invisible, and tosses it away. Premonitory sequences such as this are a dime a dozen in horror, and even The Terror can’t quite escape this sense of familiarity, but her gesture is so striking, so final. On this strange, silent note, the episode abruptly ends, leaving us as disoriented and discomfited as the crew of the Terror itself.


Stray observations

  • I remain very impressed by how the show utilizes commercial breaks for artistic purposes. The contrast between the Netsilik woman’s silent sign-off and the break that preceded it, which crash-cut to black in the middle of Dr. Goodsir screaming over the bear attack, is especially striking.
  • As far as euphemisms for toilet facilities go, let’s bring “seat of ease” into widespread usage.
  • Neither sweepingly orchestral nor burblingly electronic, the late Marcus Fjellström’s otherworldly score is like nothing else on television.
  • My favorite character beat: the tense moment between when Hickey (Adam Nagaitis, lively and unpredictable) tells Captain Crozier (Jared Harris, dignified and desperate) “You give the rest of us micks hope” and when Crozier decides not to take umbrage at his underling’s candor.
  • You know things are bad when hailstones you could comfortably use as cannonballs rank, like, seventh or eighth on your list of problems.

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