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Impractical magic: The Terror: Infamy muddies its supernatural waters

Photo: Derek Mio as Chester Nakayama, Alma Martinez as Abuela (Ed Araquel/AMC
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I’ve gone easy on The Terror: Infamy. No really, I have. As you fine A.V. Club readers and commenters have pointed out to me, last week’s installment, with its slapdash approach to how its characters handle for-certain knowledge of malevolent spirits, probably deserved worse than the C- I awarded it. As a horror guy, I can be swayed by shows that show a little bit of effort in that regard, and as such the gruesome opening skin-graft sequence was the episode’s saving grace.

This week’s opening sequence? It ends with a jump-scare crash-cut the moment Yuko the yurei opens her eyes—huge shock, I know, considering how we’ve watched this same undead woman skulk around, eyes wide open, everywhere from Oregon to Guadalcanal. Is it possible to telegraph a moment you’ve already delivered to the audience in triplicate? Apparently so, if you’re as misbegotten a series as The Terror: Infamy.

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Speaking once again as a horror guy, something about that moment really…well, almost insulted me. Are we supposed to be that stupid, we horror fans? Are we supposed to be scared just because what we’re being shown has assumed the scare-shape of a moment that’s frightened us before in other, better work? The unexpected eye-opening resurrection beat is a bit that’s been done to death (no pun intended); are we supposed to jump out of sheer Pavlovian conditioning?

I no longer really care what we’re supposed to do, not in The Terror: Infamy’s case at any rate. Titled “My Sweet Boy,” the series’ eighth installment is a hodgepodge of moments that make no more artistic or narrative sense than expecting us to be scared when the undead character reveals that, yes, she is in fact still undead. It’s a trite, lazy, condescending mess from start to finish.

Let’s stick with the horror elements for a bit longer. Out on their idyllic farm, Chester and Luz experience what passes for character development on this show: Luz can’t decide whether or not she even wants him to stay to work on the farm in once scene, and falls into bed with him the next. But Chester is still preoccupied by trying to find his lost twin, who doesn’t appear to be in any of the internment camps. (How his letter-writing campaign about this works, given that he’s a wanted criminal after escaping from one of said camps, is unclear.)

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Fortunately for Chester, word finally reaches Luz that her father, whom Yuko murdered last week (several months ago in show-time), is missing. And wouldn’t you know it: Her abuela just so happens to know a little magic that can help people commune with the earthbound spirits of the dead—perfect for determining whether or not his brother is still alive!

No attempt is made to reconcile this Mexican-American form of supernatural spiritualism with the Japanese-American variety. No one treats it with even the slightest skepticism, either. It’s just taken for granted that a curandera’s astral-plane spell is compatible with whatever old-world creepiness has befallen Chester Nakayama and his family. The matter—which includes the fact that Chester has never told Luz about his experiences with Yuko in the two freaking years since it happened—is broached and settled in seconds, with all the spooky-voiced solemnity of a Halloween haunted-house attraction: “Some who have crossed over never return—others never want to.” OoOoOoOoOoh! 

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Anyway, after a bit of extremely goofy-looking facial distortions and bodily convulsions by actor Derek Mio, Chester gets zapped into a pocket dimension of sorts, the moment caught in time by a photo of his brother as a kid—and despite how it happens, this is the one, and only one, place where the episode distinguishes itself. Chester breaks down in tears as he hears from little Jirou, who’s still just a boy and has no idea he’s now dead, about his harsh, friendless life in the orphanage, and how his brother got lucky by getting adopted out. The moment is so gutwrenchingly sad it left me wondering where the show has been hiding this kind of emotional power all these weeks.

But when the show needlessly cuts back to show us Chester in his trance, talking to his brother as if he’s talking to himself, it lets all the magic and tension out of the scene like air from a tire. In its place comes Yuko, who’s been lurking near the farm for a long time now; she commandeers Chester’s body, takes his place on the astral plane, and sucks Jirou down into her placid, perfect afterlife, where a basinet awaits Chester and Luz’s next baby. OoOoOoOoOoh! For one moment, the show had something, really had something, in its use of the supernatural to speak to suffering and injustice; then it threw it away for bad J-horror.

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The more down-to-earth material fares little better. Back in the camp, people are starting to be able to go free as the war winds down and the legal process against the interment system wraps up. We’re about a minute removed from hearing Major Bowen isn’t in the camp due to a sudden trip to Washington when he returns just as suddenly (why even bother saying he’s gone?), all smiles.

Our hero Amy Yoshida (Miki Ishikawa, better than the material she’s been given) is both frightened and relieved: frightened, because she assumes it was her surreptitious recording of the Major crowing about executing her boyfriend Walt that got him summoned to D.C., relieved because he’s not letting on and doesn’t seem to suspect her. Indeed, he passes up on the perfect opportunity to kill her with no witnesses when the two of them drive out of the camp to pick up party supplies from a broken-down truck.

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It’s only after the party is in full swing when, after a confusing bit of business involving glasses of punch we never see Major Bowen so much as look at but which we’re to assume he drugged, Amy finds herself tied up in a cellar on the outskirts of camp. It’s not exactly clear what Major Bowen’s plan here is, as he freely admits she’ll be discovered (presumably dead) in a few days; he seems temporarily satisfied with complaints about “you people,” broken up by breaking one of her fingers.

Eventually, Amy reminds him that he was once possessed by a vengeful spirit—must have slipped his mind—in an attempt to scare him into releasing her. When it doesn’t work…well, it’s not clear what exactly happens, because what happens is impossible. Basically, during a brief power outage in which there’s still plenty of moonlight shining in from the basement windows, Amy frees her wrists from the ropes tying her to a chair, grabs the chair, moves from directly in front of the Major to directly behind him, and wallops him on the head, all without making a single sound or even so much as a whispered movement of air. Seriously: Bowen just stares at the space where she used to be in the split second before she brains him, prior to drowning him in a puddle. I thought she’d just up and vanished into Yuko’s afterlife, that’s how total and ridiculous her disappearing act is.

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But that’s The Terror: Infamy for you. The genre elements make no sense. The plot mechanics make no sense. The behavior of the characters make no sense. (Two years!!!) Physics make no sense. The existence of this season, after last year’s masterpiece of pathos and tension and, yes, terror, makes no sense.


Stray observations

  • Once Jirou is abducted by Yuko, his image disappears from Chester’s photo like it’s Back To The Future. It was scarier with Marty McFly.
  • You learn Yuko’s on the prowl because Chester hears scary-sounding wind moving the farm’s weathervane. “That wind—that was you, wasn’t it,” he later says aloud to Yuko, whom he presumes is listening, in Derek Mio’s listless voice. Great detective work there, Chester.
  • As weird as it is that Chester didn’t tell Luz about Yuko for two years, isn’t it even weirder that Yuko didn’t do anything during that time until very recently either? And before you mention the time-distortion that apparently happens in the afterlife, keep in mind that we saw her footprints in the ashes of the burned-down cabin where they attempted to cremate her body. She’s been up and at ’em all this time. Why wait?
  • I really, really cannot get over the bit with the chair. If Arya Stark and Matt Murdock had a child, that child couldn’t pull that move off.
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