Now here’s a sentence I didn’t expect to write today: The season finale of The Terror: Infamy moved me to tears.
Wait, what? We’re talking about the same The Terror: Infamy that squandered its predecessor season’s goodwill by shoddily cobbling together warmed-over J-horror with real-world historical atrocities? The one that employed a central supernatural metaphor that appeared to place the blame for Japanese Americans’ political predicament on Japanese Americans themselves rather than their racist captors? The one that was haphazardly plotted, jerking from location to location and time period to time period with seemingly no sense of narrative balance or emotional logic? The one where the main character chose the moment when he and his family are rounded up by the American government as potential traitors to tell his mom that he got some lady in a family way? That The Terror: Infamy?
Yes, that The Terror: Infamy.
Written by co-creator and showrunner Alexander Woo and directed by Frederick E.O. Toye, “Into the Afterlife,” the final episode of the AMC anthology series’ second season, is an extended grace note for a story that up until now had just been banging on the keys at random. Attentive to the historical import of the time period it chronicles, generous in spirit toward its characters both living and dead, and driven in large part by the season’s most effective and poetic imagery, it nearly makes up for all the dross that’s come before. It left me imagining a season that had lived up to this standard from the start, and wondering how much more impact a finale like this would have had if it had.
The episode begins with a dream in which Yamato-san, George Takei’s supporting character, approaches a Magritte-esque figure in a black suit carrying an umbrella on a long stretch of empty road. When the man draws near, Yamato is thrilled to discover he’s an old childhood friend, an old man now just like him. When Yamato asks what became of him since they were kids, he tells the whole story of his life, career, and family…in Hiroshima. That’s when Yamato looks behind the man and sees his entire family, including a horribly scarred little girl, has joined him in the afterlife. We in the audience know what this means immediately; it takes Yamato being awoken by celebratory fireworks back in the real-world United States to uncover the horrible truth.
It’s a masterful sequence, emotionally. The weirdness and uncertainty of the initial vision; the guileless joy of two old friends reunited after decades apart; the horror of just the mention Hiroshima, brought home by the entire family laid waste by America’s atom bomb; the contrast between the Japanese Americans and the white people celebrating tens of thousands of deaths in the streets. It’s maybe the only thing that happened this season that’s up to the melancholy standards of The Terror’s first season.
When the rest of the episode gets underway, it’s not so promising. Chester and his parents are frantically hunting for Luz, who’s been possessed by Yuko the yurei and made off with her and Chester’s baby. In the cat and mouse game that ensues they discover that she killed a couple that pulled over to offer her a ride by possessing their daughter, whom they later find crying and distraught. The possessed girl has brought Chester and Luz’s baby to the cabin where Yuko has spent months preparing for her re-burial, with the baby in her arms.
Chester’s plan is to use one of his baby photos as an offering to Yuko, exchanging his own spirit for that of his son. Henry, his adoptive father, will have none of it—he rips up the picture and attacks Yuko instead, protecting himself with sutras to ward off her evil in the process. Eventually, Yuko peels the sutras off Henry’s arm—and peels the sutra-adorned skin off her own face—to get the better of her attacker. She forces him to shoot Chester in the leg, then kill himself.
But because she aims his shotgun at his stomach rather than his head for some reason (ah, there’s that The Terorr: Infamy logic at work), he’s a long time dying. In that time he spills an entire sack of sutras down into her grave, preventing her from retreating to the afterlife with Chester’s child.
But Chester, drawing from a well of moral fortitude that had previously gone untapped, refuses to try to destroy Yuko’s body alongside his devastated adoptive mother Asako, or to simply trap her forever in sutra-sealed limbo. Producing a photo of Yuko from when she was pregnant and still full of hope for the future (Luz found it in Asako’s effects), he offers to use the magic ritual of Luz’s abuela to bring her back to herself in that “perfect moment”—reuniting her with her lost children by melding her with herself when they were still in her womb.
In yet another lovely sequence, Chester and Yuko go back to that long-ago far-away moment. Yuko’s decomposing body merges with her former spirit-self. She walks out into a sea of cherry blossoms, happy at last.
Chester himself is graced with a half-memory, half-dream of himself and Henry during happier times on his boat. Henry says that at sea, he was able to forget all the troubles of the world, a feeling he couldn’t replicate on land until he held his son in his arms. This, too, is a beautiful moment of connection, and maybe that’s why it has so much power: As shoddy as the season has been, what else is it but an illustration of how dangerous it is when we disconnect from one another?
Years later, Chester, speaking to one of his many children, says much the same thing. “We have to make sure we keep remembering, okay?” he says during the Obon Festival, as lanterns honoring the dead are set adrift in the water. “Or else we forget who we are.” A series of photographs juxtaposing the cast and crew of the series with relatives who were interned or enlisted during World War II drives the point home, and for once I can’t begrudge the directness of the gesture. It’s well-intentioned, and at long last, the show feels like it’s earned it.
- As much as I enjoyed the episode, there are still a few loose ends. What became of the spirit of little Jirou, Chester’s dead twin brother, for example? The last we see him, he’s still trapped in Yuko’s simulacrum afterlife.
- And what about Chester’s legal status? The camps may be closed and the war may be over, but he still escaped military police custody.
- Fortunately the show didn’t go down the road I feared and use a nuclear bomb to dispose of Yuko. The solution they came up with was much more humane and meaningful.
- Amy Yoshida’s future life appears to be an interesting one. Still haunted by memories of killing Major Bowen, she becomes a cigarette-smoking beatnik while everyone else is forming families and living the American dream.
- At the risk of repeating myself, it really is amazing how much I liked this episode, considering how much I disliked all the others. Where was this show hiding this whole time?