“Ma,” says Chester Nakayama to his mother, “this may not be the best time to tell you this, but I’ve been going with someone.” All around them, Americans of Japanese origin or ancestry are being frog-marched by armed soldiers. “Her name is Luz.” These soldiers, or soldiers like them, had previously forcibly evicted all these people from their homes, and now they’re being forcibly evicted again. “Her name is Luz Ojeda.” The troops had already taken all men born in Japan and whisked them away to parts unknown. “Ma, look at me.” Everyone with so much as “a drop of [Japanese] blood” is subject to this discriminatory relocation regime. “Luz is pregnant.” Chester and his mother and everyone they know who hadn’t already been disappeared by the government are now being herded onto a racetrack. “She’s going to have my baby.” They’re going to live in horse stables.
Yeah, Chester, this may not be the best time to tell your mom all of this. Actually, let me put it a different way. Yeah, makers of The Terror: Infamy, you were right, this is most definitely not the best time to have your main character tell his mom all this.
Unless the point is to demonstrate why this iteration of AMC’s anthology series isn’t working, in which case the timing is perfect. Titled “All the Demons Are Still in Hell”—it’s taken from a characteristically stiff line about evil spirits, which in context indicates the opposite of what isolating the phrase as the title implies—the second episode of The Terror’s second season is a lot like the soldiers in that ridiculous scene. It marches the characters from place to place, forces them to make various declarative statements, and then whisks them onward for the next round. Subtlety, nuance, and (god forbid) scares are all in short supply.
A two-scene subplot involving Chester’s father Henry (Shingo Usami, who acts as if he’s been given better material) and his elderly friend Yamato (George Takei, admittedly a treat to see in a role that doesn’t require him to play off his pop-cultural image) is a case in point. As part of the first group of Japanese Americans to be swept up by the government, they’re subject to the greatest scrutiny and suspicion. Being superstitious types (actually, Henry was pointedly un-superstitious last episode, but he changes his mind in a single scene), they’ve got suspicions of their own: They worry a malevolent supernatural entity from the old country is stalking their community. “Any face we see can be that of a foul spirit,” Yamato says, in the fantasy-paperback locution that passes for Japanese folk wisdom on this show.
Naturally, they suspect that the youngest member of their work detail, a garrulous fellow named Nick Okada who speaks unaccented English, might be the infernal interloper. So when they’re sent out ice fishing, they isolate the young man on ice a few feet farther out from themselves, then start banging away at the thin surface to force him to confess.
Why this would present any menace whatsoever to an evil spirit is never explained, but it’s a moot point. Terrified, Okada admits he isn’t what he pretends to be, though he isn’t a demon either. He’s just a spy, sent undercover by the government to ferret out Japanese intelligence assets here in the States now that the war is on. He’s been falsely accusing various men who subsequently vanish just to keep his job. Justifiably furious, the older men leave him on the thin ice to sink or swim.
But they leave us no reason to care which. Nick’s rise and potential fall happens so rapidly that the audience is given no chance to formulate our own suspicions about his origin or intent, or to develop any feelings about him whatsoever beyond “oh, there’s the chatty young guy from earlier in the episode again.” We don’t know who he is, we don’t even suspect who or what he might be, and we’re given no reason to care until the ice is already cracking. When the older men turn on him, we have no skin in the game. It’s not quite as clumsily done as Chester telling his mom he got some girl in a family way while they’re being forced into a concentration camp, but it’s up there.
Chester himself fares little better. Before his family is moved into the makeshift camp at the racetrack, he visits his photography professor to ask about the distorted images in his recent photographs, running a gauntlet of hostile stares from the white students at the college. Cornily and nonsensically, the professor says that the photos probably reflect his own dismay at the plight of his community. If this guy really thinks a photographer can blur or black out individual faces in his photos just by being upset, I’d want my tuition back.
But the professor is a nice guy, if nothing else. So when Chester and Luz (Cristina Rodlo; please watch her in Too Old to Die Young), whose encounter with child-snatching soldiers at her orphanage has deeply shaken her, need shelter, they come to him…and get ratted out instantly, by the only neighbor we see, one scene later. Once again, there’s that sense that the filmmakers are in a hurry to shuttle us from one point in the plot to the next, no matter how much those points get dulled in the process.
I suppose this simplistic approach to pacing does make what few mysteries remain stand out more clearly. In the episode’s climactic scene, the Nakayamas’ family friend Mr. Yoshida sees Yuko, the community’s menacing spirit. (Chester earlier confirmed that no such woman works at the brothel where he first encountered her, while drunk and abusive Mr. Furuya flashes back to seeing her face superimposed over the sun when he went blind.) Yoshida immediately warns Chester to get out of there, then assaults a guard and steals his rifle to commit suicide by cop with a demonic assist.
How did Yoshida recognize Yuko? Why did seeing her cause him to warn Chester? True, the ensuing dialogue is as purple as ever: “There is evil around you,” Mrs. Yoshida balefully intones. “It has already taken my husband. Leave before any more misfortune befalls us.” “What evil?” Chester pleads in response. But for once, the episode lets these questions breathe rather than answering them a scene or two later.
Which is not to say there’s no evil in the scenes that remain. The episode ends with the Japanese Americans being relocated a third and final time, to the Colinos de Oro internment camp in Oregon. They cruelly force Amy Yoshida (a lively Miki Ishikawa) to leave her father’s belongings behind as they load the buses, which roll into the camp as an American flag unfurls against the sunlit sky. Depicting the cartoonish, slovenly evil of American racism is the one and only point in which Infamy’s inclination toward the obvious works in its favor.
- When the Furuyas’ son tells Mrs. Nakayama that their new horse-stable residence stinks, she simply squares her jaw and says “Then we have work to do.” When Mr. Nakayama rehearses the case he’ll make for himself to his interrogators, he literally refers to himself as “a simple fisherman.” It is truly galling how Chester’s parents are written to be the most bog-standard immigrant parents imaginable. They shoot right past upstanding and righteous and wind up saccharine.
- “It’s not romantic, it’s not inspiring, but at least it’s a plan.” Luz is talking to Chester about her plan for their baby, but she might as well be talking about how the show treats its plot.
- One intentionally funny bit: When Mr. Furuya raises his pickaxe to deliver the killing blow to the ice holding the spy Nick Okada up, Mr. Nakayam stops him. “It is not our decision to make,” he says. “It is for the spirits that inhabit this land…wherever we are.” “North Dakota,” Okada informs him, on the edge of panic. “We’re in North Dakota.” “Then I hope the spirits of ‘North Dakota’ treat you more kindly than you’ve treated us.”