Lady Silence isn’t silent anymore. Nor is she screwing around. “You don’t want to live,” the Netsilik Inuit woman shouts at Captain Francis Crozier, commander of the increasingly desperate expedition at the heart of The Terror. “Look at you.” Sure, why not: Rheumy-eyed and ruddy-faced, visibly drunk even at his steadiest and most commanding, he looks like the inside of a distillery smells. “Even if I could help, you don’t want it. Why do you want to die?” If you’ve been watching this long I’m sure you can fill in the blanks: the sting of romantic rejection by Sophia Cracroft, the woman he loves; commingled sorrow and spite over the death of her uncle and his one-time friend Sir John Franklin; bitterness over how his Irish heritage has stymied his career in the Royal Navy; combined rage and despair over the state the Erebus and the Terror are in, out here during their second winter frozen in place; the self-hatred of an addict. This last part is what Lady Silence homes in on in the end: “You know what you have to do and you don’t do it.” He has to get clean, or the whole crew will drown along with him.
His second in command, Sir James Fitzjames, barges in and picks up the thread where she leaves off, though he doesn’t know it. Furious that the Captain has been raiding the liquor supply of the Erebus, the more seaworthy of the two ships, Fitzjames echoes the cutting line he overheard Sir John deliver before his death: “Are you determined to be the worst kind of first as well?” Crozier assaults Fitzjames in response. The weather outside is so cold that teeth can explode in people’s mouths; the canned food is so full of lead that Mr. Goodsir discovers Lady Silence has been using its extruded pellets to draw with like pencil nibs; officers are physically fighting each other.
Then things really go wrong.
Written by Josh Parkinson and directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, “First Shot a Winner, Lads” gives us out first clear look at what Lady Silence calls “Tuunbaq,” the demonic bear-thing that’s been picking off the crew one at a time. Immediately following the altercation between Crozier and Fitzjames, it pursues and maims Mr. Blanky — perhaps the captain’s only real friend on board either ship — right up the mainmast before it disappears, badly wounded but somehow still living, into the endless ice. It’s been a while, but the characteristic of the book’s Tuunbaq that lodged in my memory was its elongated neck, a difference from the norm that’s more eerie than intimidating. Instead of this pleisiosaurian polar bear, the show builds up the beast’s, well, beastliness. Its massive size, its flattened and almost primate-like face, its elongated forelegs, and its relentless drive to pursue and kill place this Tuunbaq closer to the lineage of the cave troll from Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring rather than that of the zombified bear from Game of Thrones’ last season, the fact that they both get set on fire notwithstanding.
That said, creating a convincing CGI mammal is always an uphill climb. This goes double when the creature in question is a polar bear, where you’re only a digital strand of fur’s breadth away from an early-’90s Coca-Cola commercial.The Terror is aided in its need to make the monster feel like a real threat not only by the low-visibility weather and the chaotic circumstances of the fight — tried and true allies of the VFX beastmaster — but by the everyday perils of life in this sub-sub-zero climate. Every second Mr. Blanky spends with his skin exposed, every moment he touches anything with his bare hands, is a victory for the Tuunbaq and its wintery world over this interloper and everything he represents. By the time the beast is dispatched (however impermanently) by well-placed cannonfire and Blanky can finally be brought belowdecks for treatment, I found myself glad the doctors “only” needed to saw off his leg. His laugh-out-loud irony about feeling so close to the monster that it’s like they’ve gotten engaged, completely with a celebratory toast from the assembled crew, helps take the edge off as well.
That toast ties the episode’s two major storylines together. To the unspoken but obvious horror of the men gathered to help with Blanky’s surgery, Crozier brings out a bottle from his dwindling supply of whisky to administer the man’s old-school anesthesia. Everyone knows what this will mean for the future fortunes of their commander, and Crozier does as well, but he does it anyway. It’s our first sign that the captain is able to prioritize anyone or anything over his own alcoholism.
Crozier makes good on this moment of clarity in the magnificent scene that follows. Inviting officers from both ships, including the hated Sir James Fitzjames, to sit in, the drunken sailor asks them a favor. “I’m going to be unwell, gentlemen,” he tells them. “Quite unwell, I expect. And I don’t know for how long.” It soon dawns on his officers that he means to quit drinking cold turkey; the favor he’s asking is their help in covering for him in command, covering up the true nature of his illness, and above all refusing to let him talk them out of it. “We mustn’t stop until it is finished,” he says, drawing from an unexpected reserve of dignity and resolve, “and you musn’t let me.” His tone softens with rueful anticipation of agony to come as he adds, “I may beg you.” He slurs, shakes, grins, and cries his way through the scene, as if the ice of his addiction is slowly crushing the hull of his spirit, and he’s frantically trying everything he can to hold the ship together. Even Sir James seems deeply moved by the display, and considering the raw power of Jared Harris’s performance here, he damn well better be. If you’ve ever known an alcoholic who got sober, you know this moment. I do, and the recognition made me cry. There are all kinds of terror, after all.
- It says a lot about the strength of this episode that a scene in which a marine tends to the wounded, comatose comrade with the exposed brain, the protracted confrontation about a sailor who’s afraid to drag more bodies into “the dead room” because he thinks he hears them moving around down there, and the deliberate poisoning of an adorable pants-wearing monkey feel like afterthoughts.
- There’s a great bit where gentle Mr. Goodsir responds to his commanding officer’s mockery: He says Goodsir, who’s been learning Lady Silence’s language, should invite him to their wedding; Goodsir asks “Has anyone ever invited you to a wedding, Dr. Stanley?” in response. “Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?”
- Goodsir’s getting quite good at getting peoples number. When Mr. Hickey, whom Goodsir’s been advising about how best to treat the wounds from his lashing, blows a ton of smoke up his ass, Goodsir pauses and says “Does that really work with anyone, Mr. Hickey?” Actor Paul Ready is so decent as Goodsir that the insults feel like divine justice; actor Adam Nagaitis is so smirkingly insincere as Hickey that even his silence comes across as cutting.
- “Close your eyes and put out your hand. Relax, I’m not gonna have congress with it.”
- “How fares the Raft of the Medusa?” Deep art-history cut, Captain Crozier! And maybe one that cuts too deep, the way things are going.