This review of The Terror contains spoilers.
The Terror Season 2 Episode 1
In this new age of anthology genre series, AMC’s The Terror continues to carve out its own niche with its signature brand of historical horror, creating an atmosphere of dread so thick you could cut it with a knife. Season 2, subtitled Infamy — a direct reference to the attack on Pearl Harbor, which will come into play by the premiere’s end — tackles one of the darkest moments in American history: the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Unsurprisingly, The Terror‘s second season feels more relevant than its first, a story about immigrants that reflects our own horrible (and insane) reality in which history is repeating itself.
“A Sparrow in a Swallow’s Nest” explores the community of characters about to be unjustly caged, while also establishing an intriguing ghost story straight out of Japanese folklore. For the most part, this combination works, although there are points during which the episode struggles to weave together its family drama and horror aspects. At times, the premiere feels a bit unruly, a patchwork of scenes that don’t really flow from one to the next, brought down even more by the script’s stilted dialogue. The pacing really feels off for much of the hour.
It doesn’t help that the show’s somewhat unlikeable protagonist, Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio), also falls a bit flat, even though it may be his own “sins” before the start of the episode that trigger the evil spirits in the first place. Chester is the first-generation American son of Japanese immigrants Henry (Shingo Usami) and Asako (Naoko Mori) who struggles to balance the promise of the American Dream with his own heritage. This inner conflict makes him contemptuous of his father, who has spent all of his life in America as a humble fisherman in San Pedro, working for “scraps,” according to Chester, who dreams of a life beyond his family’s fishing village — his own acre, his own family on the mainland. While Chester’s struggle feels real, Mio isn’t the most captivating in the role, which is unfortunate since most of the story unfolds through his perspective.
It’s up to Usami to do much of the heavy lifting in their tense father-son scenes, and he’s excellent. Usami (seen mostly on Japanese and Australian screens) brings emotional weight to every scene he’s in as Henry, whose grave demeanor cuts right through his son’s more petulant tendencies. Throughout the episode, Chester’s rebelliousness is met head-on by Henry’s more traditional beliefs, many of which are admirable while others are informed by the white men who actively work to keep him down as a lowly fisherman (in Chester’s mind). Chester despises the way his father keeps his head down when Stan Grichuk forces Henry to sell his fish to the cannery at a lower price than the going rate, but Henry seems content with his life and with the automobile (only one of six in their neighborhood) he worked 20 years to earn. In these moments, when these two men clash over their conflicting views of what the American Dream is, the episode is at its very best.
Complicating things further for Chester is his relationship with Luz (Cristina Rodlo), a Latin American college student who is pregnant with his child, a secret they carry throughout the episode, although it begins to come to light by episode’s end. We don’t get to see much of Luz, as she’s unfortunately relegated to “problem that Chester needs to fix so he can leave San Pedro,” but it’s comforting to see Luz reject Chester’s grand gesture to leave together instead of letting herself be pulled from one direction (abortion) to the other (housewife) by her disinterested lover.
In fact, it’s Chester’s plan to acquire a potion for Luz from the ill-fated Masayo Furuya (Yuki Morita) that seems to bring down a curse on the community. Masayo is herself a victim of man’s worst tendencies, suffering beatings from her alcoholic husband, Hideo, who pays dearly for his transgressions. These interconnected storylines offer up most of the episode’s creepy sequences. As far as the horror goes, “A Sparrow in a Swallow’s Nest” leans a bit too heavily on cliche moments of body horror, from grotesque contorting bodies to possession-induced lobotomies, to be effective. The scary moments don’t land quite as organically as last season’s The Thing-inspired horror on ice, but at least Kiki Sukezane’s spooky Yuko, the enigmatic spirit that haunts the community, injects a level of eerie-ness to the proceedings.
“A Sparrow in a Swallow’s Nest” doesn’t make a strong enough case for its sequences of supernatural horror, and the episode is at its most interesting and horrifying when tackling history head-on instead of through a genre lens. The episode’s climax, in which all the Japanese-born men in San Pedro are taken away in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, soon to be shipped to concentration camps, is gut-churning. Truly, the biggest scare in The Terror season 2 is our own modern history in which all of this is happening again.