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The Terror: Infamy reveals the secret of its sinister spirit

Photo: Kiki Sukezane as Yuko (Ed Araquel/AMC
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The people of the Colinas de Oro internment camp have met the enemy, and she is them. Ugh, I feel icky even writing that, but it’s the truth. Drawing its title from the “real” name of a character we already know well by another, “Taizo” reveals the origin of Yuko, the yurei who has been haunting photographer turned prisoner turned soldier-translator Chester Nakayama. Forget Pearl Harbor, the internment camps, or even the looming horror of the atomic bomb: This horror is way, way closer to home. In fact, it’s in the bloodline, literally, a fact that’s especially uncomfortable given the “one drop” rule that landed these people in the internment camps in the first place.

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In an extended opening flashback, we discover that Yuko (Kiki Sukezane, doing the series’ best work) was the “picture bride” of Hideo Furuya, the drunken lout she would later blind and then partially devour in her incarnation as a yurei. Wowed by her beauty, he becomes incensed when she reveals she’s already pregnant with another man’s baby, and throws her out.

Months later, she’s living on the streets of Los Angeles and realizing she can’t properly care for her infant son, Taizo. So she gives the baby up for adoption and commits suicide by jumping off a bridge, though she’s nearly stopped by a kindly woman (Natsuki Kunimoto) wearing traditional Japanese clothing.

Then things go haywire. Yuko wakes up in a serene home with a carefully manicured and tended garden, as if she’s back in Japan. Her host is that mysterious lady, who treats her with a generosity that borders on smothering. But when Yuko accidentally steps on the sand being raked by a mute, constantly working servant, the smothering gets real: the ground opens up and a corpse’s hands reach out to pull her into the quicksand.

Soon, Yuko puts it all together, with a little help from her alternately recalcitrant and blabbermouthed host. She’s dead. This is an afterlife constructed by the woman, one of her family’s ancestors. Only people in the family’s bloodline can come here. The woman killed her daughter—that’s the corpse in the sand and floating in the nether-house’s koi pond—and sees Yuko as a replacement. Yuko escapes this scenario—sort of a cross between Groundhog Day, the sandworm bits of Beetlejuice, and a hodgepodge of elements from Syfy/Shudder’s late great Channel Zero—by tricking her host into the sand and then running down an unfinished path to a doorway that opens into a grave—her own grave. As her rotted, contortionist corpse emerges from the dirt, a caption reveals that what seemed like just days in the afterworld took over twenty years in our own. It’s the most striking, unnerving detail in the whole episode.

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The info comes flying fast and furious from there. Chester returns home to the camp after being medically discharged due to last week’s jeep-hijacking incident. (Presumably he was cleared of any wrongdoing.) While his parents are thrilled to see him, their friend Mrs. Yoshida complains that he is the target of the spirit that helped kill her husband. (It was he who originally hooked Furuya up with Yuko way back when.) For his part, the unexpected absence of Luz, which his parents hid from him until he was home as if this would ease his suffering rather than intensify it, preys on Chester’s mind.

But when his mother begins first to comfort him and then attack him while speaking with Yuko’s voice, the truth starts coming out. The spirit that has followed him from one end of the world to the next—though how it evaded detection after crawling out of the jeep rubble and speaking to him in front of dozens of heavily armed soldiers is never discussed—is that of his biological mother. The woman he believed to be his mom all his life is actually her sister, who traveled from Japan after Yuko’s suicide to find and care for his son—though how she found out about the suicide and located Chester’s orphanage isn’t discussed either.

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After finding the body of the yurei in an open grave with a stolen baby she’d tried to bring into the afterlife with her (it doesn’t work, since only members of her family can enter), Chester brings it to his parents and Yamata-san, George Takei’s village-elder character. After a sufficient period of exposition, they perform a rite and attempt to burn the body, which would destroy the yurei spirit. But back in the afterlife, a terrified Yuko risks running through the grave door—which now opens into the burning cabin where her body is being cremated, a legitimately haunting visual—and back into her body once again.

Perhaps by now you’ve seen the problem with all this: The allegory at work here is an absolute muddle. The prisoners in this internment camp are being stalked not by some punishing avatar of the crimes of American empire or even those Imperial Japan, but by…a spiritual representation of their own community’s small-mindedness and provincialism, derived from their own mythology and belief system. Horror logic does not have a strict one-to-one relationship with reality—and you shouldn’t trust any polemical horror story that does—but essentially, they brought this particular horror on themselves. Why set the story in an internment camp when you run the risk, unintentional but still very much a factor, of implying that internment is punishment for some original sin?

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Indeed, by divorcing the central supernatural premise so totally from the show’s sociopolitical framework, The Terror: Infamy effectively argues itself right out of its historical context. After all, had Japanese Americans never been rounded up and held in concentration camps, wouldn’t Yuko still have risen from the grave to seek Chester and extract revenge against those who wronged her? She’d be just as much the ghost of his suicidal mother if the war never broke out and they were all back home on Terminal Island happily fishing, or even if they’d been permitted to get on board with the war effort like every other American subculture instead of being treated like the enemy within. Why bother with the internment camp setting at all?

The storytelling problems don’t stop there. After half a season of teases, finally getting an explanation of Yuko the yurei is a fine development, even a welcome one. But that’s not all we get: Chester returns home from World War II, Chester finds out his girlfriend has left him, Chester visits the grave of his infant sons, Chester is attacked by his possessed mother, Chester finds out he was adopted, Chester finds out his biological mother is the yurei who’s been attacking him and his community, Chester finds out the yurei is his adoptive mother’s sister, Chester find’s the yurei’s physical body in a grave with someone else’s baby, Chester takes the body to his family, Chester and his family burn the body. That is a lot to rush through in, like, half an episode!

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What we have here is that exceedingly rare case when a little prestige-drama bloat is called for. A full episode about Yuko’s death and afterlife, one that drew out the macabre mystery, followed by an episode about Chester’s return home, his readjustment to life in the camp, and his unraveling of the mystery would have been a better choice. In the former case, the Channel Zero–esque imagery of a placid but eerily unchanging afterlife with a sea of horror underneath could have been better developed. In the latter, the discovery of the truth about Yuko’s identity, and the shattering impact of that discovery, could have been given more room to breathe.

Instead, the episode felt like Yuko, running through that burning door, damn the consequences, full speed ahead. I don’t know if the show will make it out intact.

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Stray observations

  • While I wouldn’t call anything in this episode scary per se—which is, you know, a big problem for a horror show—the notion of being stranded forever in a one-building “paradise” got right under my skin.
  • I also appreciated the use of Fourth of July fireworks to cover for the fire Chester and his family set, so that no one in the camp would notice until it was too late to stop.
  • The CGI for the bridge suicide sequence was obvious and fake-looking. I wouldn’t bother pointing it out if the scene didn’t call for painful sincerity on every level, including the visual.
  • Man, the dialogue poor Derek Mio is forced to deliver as Chester. “She’s right—a spirit does follow me. It followed me across the Pacific. That jeep crash was no accident. It tried to kill me.” This is supernatural-procedural levels of prosaic and flat, and to borrow a concept, Mio isn’t up to the task of reanimating it.
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