This The Terror review does not contain spoilers.
The Terror Episode 1
From the onset, there’s something deeply unsettling about AMC’s new, aptly-titled horror series. Like many of the best Gothic horror stories, The Terror begins at the end. In fact, the show gives away much of its ending in the very first minute, as a tale of icy death and a warning is delivered to the man searching for a Royal Navy expedition that’s gone missing in the unexplored Canadian Arctic. The Terror has the enviable freedom to tell you how this story is going to inevitably end because that’s not really the mystery at all. By the end of the first scene, we know that all of the men aboard the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are going to die. The question is: what horrors did they encounter along the way?
An adaptation of the novel of the same name by Dan Simmons, The Terror is actually based on the true story of an ill-fated expedition led by Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin (played with relish by Game of Thrones‘ Ciaran Hinds) in 1845. A veteran Arctic explorer – this would be his fourth and final expedition into one of the harshest regions on Earth – Sir Franklin led 129 men on two ships to their doom. The wrecks of both Erebus and Terror eluded rescue ships and search teams for almost two centuries before they were finally discovered in 2014 and 2016, respectively. (The show too was greenlit in 2016, although that’s just a very strange coincidence.)
There are many theories as to how the men on Franklin’s expedition perished. The safest guess is that the men succumbed to a combination of disease, starvation, and the harsh conditions of the Arctic. But there are other tales, too – much darker scenarios that involve mutiny, murder, and even cannibalism…
As if those terrible deaths were not enough, the novel and its adaptation present yet another scenario, something much worse waiting for these men in the ice. Terror beyond the men’s wildest imaginations. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The horror is slow to unfurl in The Terror‘s premiere episode, as it spends much of its first hour fleshing out Franklin and the officers directly below him, Captain Francis Crozier (Mad Men‘s Jared Harris) and Captain James Fitzjames (Game of Thrones‘ Tobias Menzies). The relationship between these three men is at the forefront of the story. It’s clear from the get-go that this relationship, which sometimes feels held up only by the chain of command and occasional niceties like very weak glue, is quickly deteriorating. Franklin is ambitious and terribly hubristic, Crozier is scarred and pessimistic, and Fitzjames is incredibly competitive and slightly rebellious. You can kind of see where the oil ends and the vinegar begins.
Hinds, Harris, and Menzies play off each other quite well, especially when all three actors occupy the same scenes. There are a few delightful bits that require you to read between the lines of casual conversation and tales of heroism and glory. Hinds is the biggest presence of the three, the man with the largest personality, and you can feel the weight of his every entrance onto a scene. His performance is excellent.
Harris is a personal favorite, especially in his roles on Mad Men and Fringe, and here he gets to practice the restraint most akin to the reserved and loyal Lane Pryce. Portraying Crozier should be like putting on a glove for Harris, and it indeed it is – with an added gravity to his character. You can almost slice the tension he introduces to every scene with a knife. This solemnity has earned him both the respect and ire (in at least one case) of the men in his command.
There are other highlights in the cast, especially Paul Ready’s (Utopia) honorable Dr. Henry Goodsir, who carries on with his duties with evident hesitation. He understands from very early on that something is not quite right with this expedition. Goodsir has a respect for the dead that his immediate superior, Alistair Petrie’s (Rogue One) petulant Dr. Stephen Stanley, doesn’t share.
While The Terror‘s first hour may not scare you outright, there are a couple of scenes that creep up to remind you that this is a horror show and not a straight drama about shipwrecked sailors. What stories “Go For Broke” begins to tell, it does so with the most sinister tone possible. After all, everything happening on screen is leading up to the fateful wreck. When the problems begin and the first whiff of the supernatural hits the cold Arctic air, it all happens at a deadly pace. There’s a sense by the end of the episode that certain relationships are already being spread too thin. It’ll be a joy to watch them deteriorate further over the next few weeks.
A tip of the sailor’s hat to director Edward Berger (Jack), who helmed “Go For Broke” and gave the premiere a welcome cinematic quality. Berger’s camera revels in the scenery, as the ships break through the ice into a new frontier. We get quite a few aerial shots that turn Erebus and Terror into little pins in the icy expanse. These sights complement this tale of doom well and elevate the episode to something we’ve not quite seen on horror TV before.
That’s not to say The Terror doesn’t wear its horror influences on its sleeve. In fact, it’s impossible to ignore the John Carpenter vibe on this show, just like it’s impossible to avoid being compared to The Thing when your scary story takes place in the desolate Arctic or Antarctic parts of the world. Here you’ll also notice the slow, methodical storytelling characteristic of Gothic writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley. There are also hints of Lovecraftian horror to be found, as the ice (a terror onto itself) bites down on the ships and threatens to swallow them whole.
Needless to say, I absolutely loved this opening hour. Because it camouflages as a historical drama, The Terror won’t be for everyone. AMC might not quite get The Walking Dead audience to cross over to The Terror, which may turn out to be a niche delight for lovers of the Gothic, but those who do tune in will more than likely find something to love about this horror show. Just sit back and let these characters break the ice.
The Terror premieres on Monday, March 26 at 9 pm on AMC.