The first season of The Terror was frighteningly good, a profound and unsettling tale of an expedition gone wrong. But its horrors were just the tip of the iceberg—the hubris of the Royal Navy officers (and, by extension, the evils of British imperialism) doomed the crews of the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus as much as what was dwelling in the frozen tundra. That part of the story, adapted from Dan Simmons’ novel of the same name, could be interpreted as a successful thwarting of a colonial effort, which added another layer to an already gripping ghost story.
The second season of AMC’s hit anthology series, subtitled Infamy, also traffics in ghost stories and the specter of an invading force, but executive producers Alexander Woo and Max Borenstein subvert the latter notion considerably throughout. Instead of British explorers and settlers, Infamy centers on the Japanese American families who were steamrolled by World War II hysteria and, by Executive Order 9066, interned from 1942 to 1945 in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas. While remaining rooted in this tragic history, Infamy primarily focuses on the Nakayama family, led by Henry (Shingo Usami), a Japanese fisherman. His son, Chester (Derek Mio), is a photographer and college student who dreams of a life beyond Terminal Island, one in which he and his Mexican American girlfriend Luz (Cristina Rodlo) can date without breaking a law banning interracial relationships (for part of the 20th century, Mexican Americans were classified as white in the U.S. Census). Along with Henry, Chester’s mother Asako (Naoko Mori) encourages her son to spread his wings in an academic environment, but remains quite protective—and, as the season unfolds, is only given more reason to be so.
Infamy has the makings of a great family drama, one driven by intergenerational conflict and culture clash. Early on, Chester, who is a U.S. citizen by birth, is dismissive of Henry’s concerns about the limits of white Americans’ acceptance, essentially telling his father that bigots are things of the past. “No one thinks like that anymore,” Chester tells his first-generation parents not long before the Nakayama family and their Terminal Island neighbors, including the Yoshida family, are rounded up and sent to an internment camp. One of the armed soldiers who stands outside their home as they collect their things is an old drinking buddy of Chester’s who looks anything but conflicted. But for a while, Chester is convinced that he can prove his patriotism and worth–his “American-ness”—to regain his standing.
But history has shown us what awaits Chester and his family: human rights violations and an arduous purity test that they’re set up to fail. Infamy adds another threat, one just as malevolent as racism albeit less earthly. In the first half of the season, this combination of human evil and something older and less tangible generates a palpable sense of dread, an eeriness captured by cinematographer John Conroy and aided by Mark Koven’s (The Witch) melancholy score. Henry and Yamato-san (George Takei, who was interned from the ages of 5 to 8, and also consulted on the show) share the kaidan stories of their youth with Chester as they try to make sense of their plight. Chester initially resists these ideas from “the old country,” appearing even somewhat embarrassed by their belief in these ghost stories—little does he realize that he’s just as caught up in a myth, that of nonprovisional citizenship.
Infamy is most successful when it’s exploring the ways in which these notions of “new” and “old”—birth country versus adopted home, nativists (or nationalists) versus immigrants, keeping cultural heritage alive versus assimilating—clash and overlap. It offers a captivating mélange of culture and language (Japanese, English, and Spanish are spoken throughout). The new season is itself a fusion, what Woo called a “historical story told through the language of genre” while at the 2019 Television Critics Association summer press tour. In the hands of Woo, Borenstein, and their writers—including Shannon Goss and Naomi Iizuka—Infamy is a work of syncretism: Japanese folklore, with its shapeshifting obake and ghostly yūrei, informs the story just as much the myth of the American dream, but the show also invokes a popular Latin American folk tale about a vengeful spirit. When it shows interned neighbor turning on interned neighbor, though, Infamy goes full horror—think The Thing, only less gory and with a different meaning for “assimilate.”
Infamy is easily one of the most ambitious and topical shows to debut in 2019, but as it enters its second half, the season becomes a little too unwieldy. There is great compassion in wanting to explore everyone’s backstory, to explain their motivations—even the bigoted soldiers, led in part by Major Bowen (C. Thomas Howell), are afforded closer inspection. While carefully avoiding lending any weight or credibility to their “anxiety,” Infamy does reckon with the mindset of white Americans in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor. But when the series makes a big foray into a more supernatural setting, it struggles to make all of its pieces fit. The cast is able to smooth over these rough patches to an extent; Usami, Mori, and Kiki Sukezane as the mysterious Yuko give nuanced performances that demonstrate the passage of time better than a title card or even a change in locale. Ever reliable and genial, Takei comes across as both an uncle and an elder statesman, and as Amy Yoshida, Miki Ishikawa is a firebrand. Unfortunately, Mio isn’t a strong anchor for these interweaving narratives for the first half of the season; he doesn’t really come to life until the fourth episode.
The season only sputters in the second half; it doesn’t go off the rails. By then, it’s set up a number of storylines with great potential, which all converge to do more than entertain. Infamy shines a light on a chapter of U.S. history that’s often overlooked for not fitting with the “Greatest Generation” narrative that surrounds WWII—it is, to some extent, a refutation of that narrative. And, as Woo, Takei, and other members of the cast have already stated, Infamy is a parallel for the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, one that indiscriminately detains asylum seekers and other migrants (the current administration might not have established that policy, but it certainly delights in taking it to its most inhumane extremes). Infamy ties the past to the present in an effort to stop the next utterance of “this isn’t who we are.”
Reviews by Sean T. Collins will run weekly.