Photo: Sian Brooke and Greta Scaachi (Credit: Aidan Monaghan/AMC)

“All of us in this room know that John was not your first choice to lead this expedition. Nor your second. Nor even your third. We all know John. He’s as wonderful as he is fallible.” After hearing Lady Jane Franklin say all this while trying to persuade the Royal Navy to mount an expensive and treacherous attempt to rescue her missing husband and his crew, you’d be forgiven for thinking she’s not exactly giving them the hard sell. Please do whatever it takes to save my extremely expendable spouse! 

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But the brilliance of this scene — one of two in “Punished, as a Boy,” written by series creator David Kajagnich and directed by Edward Berger, that actually shocked me with their quality — lies in Lady Jane’s recognition that insulting her husband is the best way to bring him back alive. Played by Greta Scaachi, whose charisma is undimmed by her immersion in an ocean of period-appropriate winter garb, Lady Jane proves here to be the true politician of the Franklin family — a born operator who treats her nominally social role, a captain’s wife, like a career in the diplomatic corps. It was Lady Jane who encouraged her husband to lead the new Northwest Passage expedition, telling him that success would redeem his past political failures. It was she, too, who firmly shut down the courtship of her niece Sophia by Captain Crozier, Sir John’s second in command, adding steel to Sophia’s own half-hearted objections about his unpredictable job, his middle-class background, and his Irishness.

And now that the expedition has not been seen or heard from for months, it falls to Lady Jane to rally Sir John’s superiors to his cause. Running down his skills in front of the men who could make or break his career is an unfortunate but necessary course of action if she wishes to adjust their “pounds now or men later” cost-benefit analysis in her husband’s favor. “Help him now,” she tells them when they try to blow smoke up her ass about his talents, “and praise him later.”

This is not to say that her negotiating tactics are entirely without emotion. In a visceral mini-monologue, she recalls attempting to understand what Sir John goes through in his voyages through cold climates by standing outside in the snow for as long as she could bear. After taking off her shoes, she says, she made it two minutes. Could even a seasoned sailor like her husband withstand far worse conditions for “more than a million minutes,” as he has already? “No one can convince me optimism or confidence are warm enough,” she adds bitterly.

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Nor does the fact that all these men have themselves survived such perils speak to Sir John’s chance of success, which Lady Jane again unpacks in elegantly cutting fashion. “Most of you gentlemen have written your memoirs — I’ve read them,” she says. “The past tense is a very sturdy thing. It’s earned, but it does take for granted that one has survived. The present is a different case entirely.” Couple this neat explanation of survival bias with Jane and Sophia’s earlier demonstration that they know all about the geography of the region where Sir John is stranded, thank you very much, and the perversity of their dilemma — trying to convince these unfeeling men of dangers they themselves understand even better, despite their lack of first-hand experience — becomes clear.

In the end, Lady Jane and Sophia walk away with nothing, unless you count the promise to search for the missing ships in three years. The building is visibly cold as they proceed to the exit, discussing the launch of their own privately funded rescue expedition instead. The smart staging, incisive writing, and deft acting transform a normally thankless role in a strictly utilitarian plot beat — worried wife begs for help — into something active, engaging, revealing. It makes Lady Jane a person, not a type. Frankly, it puts almost every other worried-wife scene I can think of to shame.

The episode’s other standout scene similarly conveys complexity and nuance in the face of life-or-death stakes that lesser work would use as an excuse to simplify and dumb things down. As the ice tightens its grip on the badly listing Terror and its more stable sister ship Erebus, booze is following suit with newly minted commander Captain Crozier, while the predatory bear-thing whittles away at the ships’ crews with ruthless efficiency. (And showmanship; how else to describe its staging of the bisected remains of two different sailors on deck, one on top of the other, to simulate a single living person?) So you almost don’t blame roguish Cornelius Hickey, whose point of view gives us our first halfway decent look at the arctic creature, for calling an audible and mounting a mission to capture Lady Silence, whose camp within sight of the ships has been tolerated for months but whose link to the bear some of the men are beginning to question. At least it’s a break from the monotony of slow destruction.

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But good god, does it piss off Captain Crozier. Undoubtedly, Francis sees much of himself in Mr. Hickey — too much. They’re both Irish, but Hickey can pass as English while Crozier cannot, to his personal and professional detriment. Hickey led an expedition to battle the bear menace and succeeded, while Crozier’s ended in the disastrous death of the ship’s boy he took with him to keep the kid from feeling too frightened. Hickey went AWOL in hopes of helping the crew, something Crozier himself had planned to do before Sir John’s death and his own assumption of command rendered the point moot and made his decision to send out a rescue party an official act instead of insubordination. Hell, Hickey only did what Francis and his second, Sir James Fitzjames, were preparing to do themselves: bring Lady Silence back to the ship to question her about the creature. But he did it with none of the noblesse oblige they’d have undoubtedly brought to their interactions with the Inuit woman — and the juxtaposition of this episode with another flashback to Francis’s rejection by Sophia and Lady Jane implies an emotional connection to that humiliation, too.

“You’re in command,” Sir James told the Captain earlier in the episode; “Of what?” Crozier sneered back, half in his cups. But Mr. Hickey’s kidnapping of Silence at last gives the Captain something he feels passionate about commanding: punishment. Hickey’s co-conspirators are lashed ten times each across the back.

But for his disrespectful conduct, for his extremely un-Navy-like speculation about the creature’s supernatural origin and supposition that Silence is some kind of sorceress, and for his overall affect as a smirk in human form — as well, one can infer, as his personal sexual habits, which are an open secret among at least a few members of the crew — Hickey gets the worst of it. He’s given thirty lashes, delivered across his bare ass: “punished as a boy,” as the title phrase goes. The goal is not just pain, but humiliation. And The Terror makes us watch it all, enduring the thirty lashes — more, since Crozier calls out an angry “Again!” every time the whip catches on something and thus softens the blow — right along with him. Actor Adam Nagaitis is both an empathetic and frightening presence during this extended scene of torture, bearing the pain with all the Christlike stoicism he can endure, but emerging in the end with hatred in his eyes as well as agony.

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I’m spelling all this stuff out in detail because the details are there, and the material is designed to withstand this kind of scrutiny. The Terror could be coasting on survival-horror staples and period-prestige clichés. Instead, it’s using these extraordinary circumstances as a crucible for revealing character, not melting it away for cheap thrills and meaningless misery. It’s a miracle on the ice.


Stray observations

  • As Lady Silence, Nive Nielsen has one of the great “you’ve gotta be shitting me” faces on TV right now. Her reaction to the food Dr. Goodsir brings her, and Goodsir’s own sincere attempts to be kind to her, is pricelessly incredulous.
  • Commercial breaks and cuts to black get a real creative workout here, as always. Abruptly ending the episode on the good doctor’s attempt to tell Silence his name — “Goodsir” — is a more provocative way to explore what being a member of the British Navy at the height of the Empire means than a more direct approach.
  • Goodsir also discovers that the singing sailor who conspiculously forgot his lyrics last episode, now suffering from a splitting headache that won’t go away, is also sporting teeth rotted black. Meanwhile, tinned food is turning up spoiled. That’s…not good.
  • The green light of the Aurora Borealis has never looked more menacing.
  • There’s a bit in A Game of Thrones, the novel, where King Robert shuts down a rumble between the savage Clegane brothers with a yell, leading poor old Ned Stark to recall how important a booming voice is to any commander. When Captain Crozier unexpectedly took charge of the chaos with a gunshot and a shout of “Everyone on your knees right now!” following Hickey’s capture of Lady Silence, the metaphorical Iron Throne was his.
  • Without going into too much detail, Hickey’s story of what he saw when he approached Silence’s camp — a bear three times the size of any he’d ever seen, with a strange head shape, seemingly responding to Silence’s wordless commands — solves a problem that hamstrung the book, which spelled out exactly what the thing looked like and what it has to do with Silence way too early.
  • When one of the men gets the top of his skull torn off, exposing the brain but leaving him alive, the doctors have a delightful exchange about it. “It’s a pudding, basically.” “I would have said ‘cathedral.’ I suppose it depends on the man.” You don’t realize how much you need these laugh-out-loud black-comedy moments amid all the tension until you find yourself guffawing at them like you’re watching a particularly strong stand-up set, not a bunch of guys performing primitive neurosurgery on a dude with his brains hanging out for all to see.

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