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The Terror plays a song of ice and fire

Illustration for article titled The Terror plays a song of ice and fire
Photo: Alistair Petrie (Aidan Monaghan/AMC)
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“Think of the Carnivale. It will sort us all out. I have no doubt.” Truer words, eh, Dr. Stanley? Whether due to lead poisoning, cabin fever, a Shining-esque supernatural siren song, or some combination of the three, the Franklin Expedition’s chief surgeon soon turns this chipper prescription for positive thinking, which he issues to distraught diver Mr. Collins, into a dark prophecy. Dressed in an old costume made even creepier by his ghastly white face paint, Dr. Stanley seals the men of the Erebus and Terror into their desperately festive Carinvale tent, a morale booster ordered by Captain Fitzjames at the end of the company’s second winter frozen in place. Using oil and booze as an accelerant, he sets fire first to several of the tent’s compartments, and then, in full view of the horrified crew, to himself. Soon another half dozen men are dead—consumed by flames, trampled in the stampede to escape, or in the case of his kindly colleague Dr. McDonald, accidentally stabbed to death by Mr. Hickey in the uncharacteristically well-intentioned act of tearing open the canvas wall to set his crewmates free. It wasn’t until long after the smoke cleared and the sun—the first springtime appearance of which the Carnivale was intended to honor—rose and set again in a matter of moments that I realized Dr. Stanley had, in his macabre way, helped set The Terror free, too.


While true to the grim spirit of Dan Simmons’s fine but flawed source novel, David Kajganich and Soo Hugh’s adaptation has made several important changes for the better before this point. Some are relatively minor, like altering the timing of and cause for Mr. Hickey’s lashing; in the book it’s a punishment for his all-too-familiar polar bear costume at the Carnivale. One is major, and it’s an alteration I’d hoped for since the project was announced: obscuring the nature of “the thing on the ice” and its relationship to the Netsilik Inuit shaman Lady Silence until relatively deep into the action. The book reveals both so early that only hundreds of pages of painstaking detail about the expedition’s slow march toward catastrophe are enough to keep the suspense going.

Written by Vinnie Wilhelm and directed with the customary blend of horror and restraint by series mainstay Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, “A Mercy” applies both kinds of changes to the Carnivale. In this version, Captain Francis Crozier is little more than a slightly dumbfounded bystander to the ill-fated celebration; Captain Fitzjames arranged it while Crozier was still sequestered in his successful attempt to break his alcohol addiction, whereas Crozier’s counterpart in the novel was up and running and gave the party his permission, if not his approval. The structure of the Carnivale tent is also far less directly indebted to Edgar Allan Poe’s symbolist masterpiece “The Masque of the Red Death,” a fever-dream short story about a wild party staged in a multicolored series of rooms by aristocrats enjoying their ability to insulate themselves—all too briefly, as it turns out—from a plague that has ravaged their hapless peasantry. Simmons preempts accusations of too-direct homage by citing Poe as an inspiration within the text itself, since the architect of the tent bases its set-up on a dimly remembered reading of the story while stationed in America, but it’s probably wise for the show to avoid the comparison altogether.

The cause of the conflagration is the biggest, and most successful, change of all. The novel lays the carnage at the paws of the Tuunbaq, who crashes the party and kills and maims at will and initiates a mad dash for the exits that topples torches and sets the tent alight; a brief but bloody fusillade by the Royal Marines fells several more men in an attempt to take down the beast. Here, however, the inferno is entirely manmade, deepening our understanding of the characters and increasing their primacy in the plot even as it adds a morbid new wrinkle to the story’s survival-horror savagery.

The fire allows us to see Dr. Stanley himself in a whole new light. He’s long been a stiff, unsmiling, occasionally mean-spirited presence on the show (my notes usually refer to him, Janitor-from-Scrubs-style, as “Mean Doctor”), but prior to his death in this episode he graduates to a new level of unfeeling arrogance. First he dismisses Mr. Collins’s pained attempt to seek help for his obsessive and depressive mental deterioration. Then he blows off the news from his underling Dr. Goodsir (or Mr. Goodsir, as Stanley insists upon calling him) about the crew’s years-long ingestion of lead from tainted food tins, which would bring on exactly Mr. Collins’s symptoms. Stanley ignores these warnings despite Goodsir’s abundance of proof—provided by the Expedition’s monkey mascot, who went crazy and then died thanks to his high lead levels—insisting that as the ranking surgeon, only he has the right to inform the officers of the crisis, at a time of his choosing. (At this point in the proceedings I turned to my partner and said “Jesus, they’d be better off with no doctor at all.” Surely a finger curled closed on that dead monkey’s paw.) When the identity of the man who’s preparing to set the Carnivale on fire finally becomes clear, the revelation is a mixture of “oh no!” and “of course.” This switch-flip is aided considerably by actor Alistair Petrie, who transforms from arrogant to insane so seamlessly you wonder if it’s a distinction without a difference. The christlike pose Stanley strikes after self-immolating adds mythic power to the mass murder; I’m sure that image will flash before many a sailor’s eyes before the end.

The change made to the cause of the fire goes hand in hand with altered timing for several key events and character beats, too. As mentioned above, this is Crozier’s first public appearance since quitting whisky cold turkey, and his arrival on the scene visibly fills the men with a mixture of surprise, admiration, and apprehension. While it’s clear he disapproves of the revelry, he tempers any anger or disgust he might feel, working with his one-time rival Fitzjames to gently put a halt to the party and use it as an occasion to announce their decision to abandon ship and make the immensely long trek to safety when the weather warms up. If it weren’t for Dr. Stanley’s decision to burn down the house interrupting it, Francis’s rally-the-troops speech, praising their work on constructing the Carnivale and enticing them with memories of home that the party already helped kindle, would probably have worked like a charm.


Crozier’s isn’t the only major comeback staged here, either. After finally luring the Tuunbaq to her encampment after its weeks-long disappearance following the battle with Mr. Blanky in the previous episode, Lady Silence carves out her tongue as an apparent offering as the beast’s troublingly humanoid face looks on. She then stumbles bloody-faced into the Carnivale tent just minutes after Crozier’s arrival, a coincidence the crew will undoubtedly note. And that sliver of springtime sun, rising and setting inside of a minute like a mockery of the crew’s hopes and dreams, is the perfect anticlimax for the whole gruesome affair. In the book, Silence’s mutilation occurred before the crew even met her, and the party was staged as a New Year’s celebration rather than a rite of spring. Add up all the changes and the result is a work of dark magic, improving upon what was already one of the story’s standout sequences.

There’s one final alteration to pay close attention to, and that’s the deeds of Cornelius Hickey. A consummate outsider, seemingly determined to be unhappy and unappreciated even when given every chance to cut lose with his mates, Hickey is away from both the celebration and Crozier’s impromptu all-hands meeting when the fire breaks out. (He is, in fact, literally pissing on the rest of the crew’s hard work.) This means that when he notices the first signs of the blaze, it’s he who discovers the tent has been sealed shut, with everyone else inside. Working against type, he frantically tries to help his crewmates escape, clearing boxes away from the outside of the canvas wall opposite the fire, where the entire crew has jammed together for safety. The roar of the crowd and the flames alike is so deafening that no one can hear him shouting for them to back away from the wall so he can cut open an ersatz fire door for them. The thrust of his knife saves nearly every man left alive, but it kills Dr. McDonald, who was pressed against the canvas on the other side McDonald was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and there’s guilt and sadness as well as fear of discovery on Hickey’s face after the fire goes out and the corpses are gathered together.


Between this and the lashing he received for taking the initiative to find and capture Lady Silence for questioning, “No good deed goes unpunished” could well be Hickey’s house words. The accident may have helped him free dozens of people, but in the process it’s sealed him further away from them than ever. To do character work this deft within a magisterially frightening set piece is impressive. For it to be just one such element among many is even more so. For all of it to come together in a sequence that symbolizes the entire story—grand plans laid disastrously low, or as the title of another harrowing work about the Franklin expedition puts it, Man Proposes, God Disposesand for none of it to blunt the blow of all that death and fear in the slightest? That’s a mark of great horror, and that’s exactly what The Terror is.

Stray observations

  • There’s so much going on during the Carnivale that you might not even notice how it conveys the strength of the crew’s whisper network. Mr. Hickey gets interrupted in the middle of warning a crewmate about the impending decision to pack up and leave the ships behind when Crozier shows up, but beyond that, at one point Mr. Goodsir is visible having an inaudible but impassioned conversation with Dr. McDonald. We’ll never know, but it’s possible he decided to risk breaking rank and reporting his concerns about the tainted food to someone who might listen.
  • Present at the party: the braindead marine whose skullcap was clawed off by the Tuunbaq, propped up near the head of the banquet table and crowned as King for a Day. The moment where the friend who’s been tending to him all this time cries and screams as he loses his grip on the man during the stampede is, well, crushing.
  • Speaking of that poor patient, there’s a cut between Hickey gingerly probing the guy’s exposed brain (mercifully out of sight) with the monkey dipping his fingers into the poisonous food that would make the editors behind the various Samwell Tarly gross-out gags on Game of Thrones envious.
  • Mimica-Gezzan does powerful work as director throughout the episode, but the decision to silhouette Mr. Collins’s head against Dr. Stanley’s lamp as he relates the symptoms of his mental illness, the light making the man hard to see, is some of the smartest staging and lighting I’ve seen this year.
  • While tending to the still-ailing Crozier, his assistant Jopson tells a lovely, sad story about caring for his mother, who became addicted to laudanum following an injury. It’s lovely because of the obvious tenderness Jopson feels toward the woman, and it’s sad because of the unspoken unhappy ending to the story, which Jopson keeps from Crozier despite being asked. “A Mercy” indeed.
  • Worth noting: This episode introduces a seemingly more romantically committed and ethically up-and-up couple to the existing pairing of Hickey and Gibson.
  • Because I haven’t elsewhere, I want to praise the performance of Tobias Menzies as Captain James Fitzjames. This is a difficult role, requiring him to be the least sympathetic of the expedition’s leaders, but at the same time never allowing him to rest on the laurels of total inflexibility or outright villainy. You have to believe this guy is capable of being a good friend to Sir John even when he’s constantly running down Captain Crozier, then believe he’s the kind of person who can put previous bad feelings aside and work with Crozier as a partner and a friend. Menzies’ deeply lined face and rumbling voice make him convincing on either side of the ledger. On this episode in particular, Menzies sells Fitzjames’s shame and despair over the fate of what he’d hoped would be a rare night of happiness for his men with quiet ferocity. His confusion over his spontaneously bleeding scalp is one of the hour’s most discomfiting details as well.
  • The constant growling of the ice and Marcus Fjellström’s fabulously disturbing score do a one-two punch on the ears at any given moment.
  • Dr. Goodsir is neither a doctor nor a sir, though he is good. Discuss.