It begins with a suicide. Cause of death: spectral possession/hair stick through the ear canal.
The deceased, one Mrs. Furuya, had suffered through a marriage so abusive that we’re told her husband would beat her, get blackout drunk, then beat her again for the bruises he left behind the first time, convinced they were delivered by another man. Yet the unnatural creaking and contortions of her neck and feet prior to her final act indicate that something more than a desire to escape the pain is animating her actions.
So begins The Terror: Infamy, the highly anticipated follow-up to last year’s sleeper masterpiece of survival horror. But it’s a follow-up almost literally in name only.
The first season of The Terror took its title from the Dan Simmons novel that creator David Kajganich and co-showrunner Soo Hugh were adapting. Neither Kajganich and Hugh nor anyone else in the cast or crew are back for this go-round, save executive producer Ridley Scott. All this iteration, from co-creators Alexander Woo and Max Borenstein, shares with its predecessor is its title and its historical-fiction approach to horror. The failed Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage in the 1840s that gave the first season its spine is replaced here by the plight of Japanese Americans at the outbreak of World War II nearly a hundred years later.
But as the story starts, just prior to the onset of hostilities between America and Japan, our protagonist, Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio), has more pressing personal problems on his mind. An American-born aspiring professional photographer who went to college in Los Angeles, Chester loves and respects his hard-working father and tradition-observing mother, but longs for an American life of his own. His secret relationship with a fellow student, a young Mexican American woman named Luz (Cristina Rodlo, a far cry from her terrifying character in Too Old to Die Young), is a step in that direction.
But Luz got pregnant, they both got cold feet, and Chester turned to Mrs. Furuya for a home-brewed abortifacient before she died. (An angry Mr. Furuya delivers the goods at his wife’s funeral.) Chester is convinced that her guilt over helping to terminate the pregnancy is what drove her to kill herself. At her funeral, he has a waking nightmare or daydream or vision—we don’t know which yet—in which he plucks at an errant thread from his shirt and winds up tearing open the skin of his wrist instead. Clearly he’s the kind of cripplingly conscientious guy who can find a reason he’s to blame no matter what goes wrong.
The rest of the story is one of culture clash, both external and internal. Chester’s father Henry, for example, is one of just six Japanese Americans to own a car in their tiny island community, but he has to eat the shit served to him by a racist white cannery worker to keep the money flowing.
During a dispute over the size of Henry’s catch, the bigot’s tie gets caught in a conveyor belt and he nearly gets his head chopped off by whirring blades; Henry saves his life, but not his job, so the guy forces Henry to hand over the keys by threatening to wrongfully accuse him of spying for Imperial Japan.
Furious at his father’s plight, and furious at his father for just going along with it to boot, Chester steals the car back. So naturally, when the guy shows up dead in the Nakayamas’ fishing net after dousing the ship with gasoline, Henry and Chester are the logical suspects.
Here the tension erupts into angry words between the two men. Henry says Chester has brought shame to the family with his sexual relationship (Mr. Furuya can’t keep a secret) and that they’re now being made to pay for it. Chester lambasts his dad for “spending half your life in this country and never leaving your tiny island, shuffling around, begging for scraps from a lousy drunk.” (The racist was a drunk, too, to the point where I wonder if alcoholism and the retreat to self-medication is going to be a running theme.)
But while they wait to talk to authorities at the naval base that administers the island…well, the date on the wall is December 7th, and the year is 1941, and the subtitle of the season is Infamy, so you can imagine what happens next.
After the attack on Pear Harbor, Henry is rounded up by the FBI that very night, along with all the other Japanese-born men on the island. “It’s okay,” he assures his son as he’s being carted off, in words that are as painful to hear now as they must have been then. “You’re a citizen, boy. You were born here. Show them you’re a patriot. Fight for your country.”
Yet another fight appears closer to hand. The same malevolent spirit that forced Mrs. Furuya to kill herself blinds her dirtbag husband by forcing him to stare directly into the sun, then apparently does something similar to the aforementioned racist cannery guy before dumping his body into the ocean. Chester’s mother suspects supernatural meddling from the jump, and eventually Henry comes around to her way of thinking as well. Chester is a skeptic, but the unexplained blurred faces in his latest photographs confound him nonetheless.
The spirit appears to be able to manifest both as a woman in traditional Japanese clothing named Yuko and as a strong wind. In the latter form, it upends Mrs. Furuya’s coffin at her funeral and spills her body onto the ground, and also wallops the racist cannery guy.
In the former guise, she appears to Chester at a brothel where he and some friends have gone for a bachelor party. She’s not there to have sex with him, since he’s uninterested, but to read his tea leaves. And she’s got his number, that much is clear: “You live in two worlds, but are home in neither.” She tells him he can still have the perfect life he dreams of if he acts now, so he attempts to reconcile with Luz. (Luz hasn’t yet had her abortion, but nor does she want to reunite.) And in the final shot of the episode, she stitches a torn flap of skin back onto her face without flinching, in case you were wondering if she was human or not I guess.
Setting a ghost story against the backdrop of a major historical atrocity is a high-risk, high-reward proposition. As to the risk, no one can fault the filmmakers for a failure to take this troubling subject seriously, even personally. Promotional materials for the show indicate that lead actor Derek Mio’s grandfather was imprisoned at Manzanar, as was director Lily Mariye’s. Her grandfather died there, while her father’s family was killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima; director Josef Kubota Wladyka’s grandfather survived the blast. And supporting actor George Takei, who also serves as a consultant to the show, was interned in two camps himself. So I believe the show is interested in chronicling and decrying this historical crime in and of itself, not merely as a backdrop for J-horror shenanigans, nor even as an easy allegory for the present-day horrors of the Trump Administration’s immigrant gulags.
But good intentions only get you so far. As a work of horror filmmaking, this doesn’t go very far at all.
The show’s biggest creep-out moment, Mrs. Furuya stabbing herself to death through the ear with her hair stick, comes so early, and is followed so quickly by Chester’s gruesome slit-wrist vision, that everything else—the blinding of Mr. Furuya, the death of the racist guy, the blurry photos, the Hellraiser-esque skin-stitching— feels anticlimactic. They’re broadcast-network paranormal-drama fare, not anything with real bite.
That needn’t be the case, it should be noted. Plenty of shows and movies throw the scary stuff right at you before settling back down for an atmosphere of slow dread, keeping you waiting anxiously for the inevitable follow-up. But the pilot is too busy with the hustle and bustle of establishing its characters’ types—and from “hard-working family man” to “abusive alcoholic” to “traditional parents” to “rebellious youngsters” to “estranged girlfriend” to “racist shitkicker” to “scary Japanese ghost lady” they are very much types—to build up the innate sense of wrongness that good TV horror requires.
And while I don’t want to say that the show’s problems run deeper than not being scary, since that implies being scary is an afterthought for horror rather than the prime directive, they do. The by-the-numbers character types described above are Exhibit A.
Lead character Chester, for example, has his inherent goodness drawn out in outmoded, perhaps even reactionary ways. He’s the one guy at the bachelor party not to patronize a sex worker, because good guys don’t do that kind of thing. He provides his girlfriend with an abortifacient, but then has second thoughts and races over to propose and start a family, because good guys do do that sort of thing.
I’ll grant that there’s an impetuousness to him that’s the closest thing he has to an unexpected character trait. He reverses course on the abortion in a way that would read as stupidly sudden to Luz, and he steals back his father’s car from the racist shitkicker without thinking how obvious a target for revenge his family would then become. A pure-dee babyface would do neither. But these actions don’t make him interesting, just kind of obnoxious.
The dialogue, too, leaves little room for nuance. When the coffin blows over, Mrs. Nakayama pronounces it “An ill omen, from across the sea. Not even the dead can rest.” Spooky! The racist cannery asshole (I am pointedly refusing to remember the guy’s name) speaks in villainous cliches worth twirling a mustache to; right before he dies, he literally says “What the—?!” like a perplexed bad guy on a children’s cartoon. Every line Henry speaks (sample quote: “I’m still the same man. A man who earned his Packard. Don’t tell me how to be a man, boy”) reinforces his blue-collar immigrant-father desire for respectability and Americanness. These stock traits leave him little room to become a real person in our eyes. In a story about dehumanization, that’s more vital than ever.
- The episode’s title is derived from one of the sinister spirit’s lines during her fortune-telling session with Chester: “You are a sparrow in a swallow’s nest. The moment you believe you are safe, the swallows will peck you to death.”
- While we’re on the subject, why would Chester take her up on the tea-reading offer? He’s a skeptic, and he’s already demonstrated his aversion to utilizing the services of the women at the brothel.
- This pre-coital exchange between Chester and Luz bugged me for both its anachronism and its cutesiness: “Let’s not and say we did.” “Or let’s, and not say anything.”
- But this line from Chester’s mom really got to me: “There’s war all over the world. So many people dying…Life is hard, Chester. You cannot do it without family.”