“We have heard, from tolerably good authority, that, in the event of nothing being heard of Sir John Franklin and his gallant polar voyagers next year, the Government will fit out three separate expeditions very early, to be despatched different routes in quest of them. The admiralty still feel no reason to be alarmed for the safety of the gallant hero and his companions; for they do not expect to hear from them till next year.
The men stare out at the barren ice, trying to impress their commander but trepidatious of whatever it is that lies just beyond their reach, as they await its capture. “Educate this creature as to the dominion of the Empire, and the will of the Lord behind it,” Sir John Franklin jovially tells them as he walks the line. Victory, it seems, is there as long as they’re patient.
And then suddenly, they’re gone. Six men, wiped out by an unseen force that ripped through their makeshift barracks like it was tissue paper.
If any of the men had a moment to think, it might’ve crossed their mind that this was a sign; neither their Lord nor their Empire was out there on the ice. Just some white Englishmen, alone with nature, way out of their depths, far beyond hope and help.
That’s not to say they weren’t wholeheartedly convinced of themselves. As The Terror, an hour-long drama that aired its first season AMC in 2018, trudges on, one of the themes it returns to again and again is the creation of stories, and how that sort of legend can ultimately propel itself far beyond where it was useful, while providing fuel for the men who buy in all the same. It’s there when military men stand up in a theater to thunderous applause for their trumped up colonialism being portrayed on the stage. It’s there when they stare into the eyes of a beast only to be spared without explanation. It’s there when Sir John Franklin and his men get snapped up by an unseen force, and it’s there in the very reasoning behind the expedition, to discover a Northwest Passage that will lead England to the Pacific Ocean.
Sir John, when we meet him, is particularly attuned to the power of lore, whether it’s an almighty power or the undending might of the Commonwealth. He soaks in applause just for being adjacent to the people celebrated for their expeditions, and understands how that social myth can ensure his standing. By all appearances he is the open-hearted hero, beloved by his crew, seeking compassion for Francis Crozier, his cantankerous first mate. Fluent in a culture that values those seeking valor, all he needs is this final expedition before he can sail through the rest of his days.
But even as the men of The Terror may champion him, he’s still just a product of his culture, a man who couldn’t imagine a version of this story that plays out badly. “A captain is due his candor,” Sir John says to Crozier, asking for his concerns about the mission. And yet, when faced with legitimate facts about the odds of their survival the captain quickly retreats on his request, sure as ever that they are exactly where they need to be: “Is nature’s author nowhere in your tally?”
Even the camera seems to put blinders around Sir John, as he and the captains are frequently shot against their tight (and private) quarters, while the lower-ranked men are caught against the magnitude of the foreign place they’ve found themselves, dwarfed by the almost martian landscape around them. Cocooned in the thin layer of security that separates him from facing the ferocious nullity of his surroundings. During the pilot’s funeral scene, shots of Sir John contain him amidst those at his command, the men and the ship. It’s Cornelius Hickey and other lower-ranked officers who go to land to bury the body, and find themselves speck-like against the rocky terrain.
It’s an imbalance that none of the men can maintain. For as the title might suggest, the terror is all around us.
For so long the men treat the expedition as an orchestrated fantasy, one that will undoubtedly reward their efforts—and, technically, this show is a fantasy of sorts. A very well-researched one.
It’s based on the real life expedition of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, sent to discover the passage through the barren arctic void, about which not much was known until fairly recently. The two ships set out in May 1845. They were seen as late as July, waiting to cross into Lancaster Sound. And then they were never heard from again, despite 11 years of search parties seeking their whereabouts. All 129 men, gone.
What few tidbits could be scraped together over the years came in fragments: relics and stories from local Inuit who claimed to see their bodies floating; a note left at King William Island; the graves, bodies, and other physical evidence left on Beechy Island confirming that while pneumonia and tuberculosis might’ve done them in, the men were also severely weakened by lead poisoning.
At the time, the admiralty was slow to action, even with Franklin’s wife and the public growing uneasy about the lack of communication; as of November 1847 they were still hoping that the men were en route, expected on the other side of the world the following year. They had no way of knowing that by June 11, 1847 Sir John was already dead.
It was only in 2014 that the Erebus was found deep, deep underwater; two years later the Terror was also discovered in similar condition. And though The Terror itself was based on a novel of the same name by Dan Simmons, it was these recent discoveries that continued to influence the creators of the show, changing things up to the day of shooting to keep up with it all. Cast members contributed their own bits of research; Jared Harris would give lines away if he felt like the information would’ve more realistically come from someone other than him, “leading man” status be damned.
And yet, for all those gaps filled in, they still withhold even that which they know. Like the explorers, the audience doesn’t know where the next threat will come from. We never find out if Dr. Stanley set a fire at the carnivale celebrating the first sun because he had lost his mind to a malicious extent or if it had something to do with the poison seeping into the bodies of the rest of the crew from the tainted provisions.
It’s this strategy that makes hope so hard to come by—increasingly so, as the show wears on. Solution after solution is cut off, whether it’s the discovery of the bones that once made up the crew sent as a preliminary rescue mission, or the mounting dire straits of their food supply. And as they wait through the years stuck in the ice, the men increasingly struggle to find a place for the prayers or the code of conduct that once dictated their actions; what good are tidy fingernails or rationing whiskey in the face of such dull, tormenting terror?
The Terror finds extreme pleasure in letting these characters’ motivations and fears overlap, bleeding into one another so that they can soak it all up like a sponge. It’s true at the cellular level for the characters as well as the audience: over the ten episodes, we all find ourselves without a compass, with nothing to lead us. We’re all given the tremendous opportunity to charge ahead, blindly or otherwise.
What is left in the void of answers is something of a guiding hand on the part of the creators: An unnervingly potent and eerie score that’s only ever supplanted by crunching ice, howling winds, and rock echo; death lurking in the form of supernatural creature Tuunbaq, if not just in the standard harms and horrors of the ice; and, sometimes, some semblance of society.
What The Terror strips away is the finery of all these motivations. It doesn’t matter if Sir John was in it for heaps of praise, and Captain James Fitzjames was in it for hardwon honor, and Cornelius Hickey was in it for himself. In the end, and also the beginning, they were all in it to find themselves somewhere else, and they all secretly thought the journey would come with a new high for them. And as the barriers between them break down in a way that fragments them along goals, pitting allegiance against mutiny, eventually they have no more lines to fray against. In this territory neither God nor empire can help them now.
It’s Francis Crozier who’s left to pick up the pieces following Sir John’s death. He’s the one who assumes command of the enterprise, who is left to eulogize their beloved leader, and figure out a way out of the arctic he had already been calling to leave.
If a show like The Terror is to succeed, it needs to rely on mood rather than just jolting horror. Both living and dying in the arctic can be interminable, and the fear that each generates has to be given equal weight. And it’s important to have someone like Crozier at the helm—someone who isn’t all that sure why he wants to be there, or be alive, anyway. Man vs. nature stories are built on this dichotomy, of finding a way to fight for life. But Crozier, played gently and exquisitely by Harris, has to go deeper; in order to succeed—to be specific in its trust of the audience about right and wrong, but loose enough that those decisions can really shift—the story requires an actor who can contain the massive shift in character smoothly and coherently.Though he’s bristlywhen first introduced, his final years aboard the Terror change the very outlines of his person.
There’s perhaps no bigger demonstration of this than in his final scenes with Captain James Fitzjames. What started as a boorish contempt for each other evolved through the codes of masculinity they rigidly commanded into a true friendship. In a seven-minute sequence, the two lay out their devotion through kind words of each other’s accomplishments, explaining secrets and motivations that have ceased to matter. When Fitzjames succumbs to lead poisoning, we don’t see the moment of his death, only him asking Crozier to stay, and Crozier, lovingly, accepting. The death of Fitzjames is not as important as the kindness that preceded it.
But the path to that kindness is neither short nor easy. Though they’re in the sort of place that men like those on the Terror and Erebussee as ideal for domination, passed through on their way to better places, fame and fortune, The Terror is teaching them a lesson. And it makes sure it hurts.
There is some selection about the pain: the creators of the show play something like a shell game with the brutality of the expedition. Scenes are shot and edited to selectively maneuver around the goreinherent to their lives, whether it’s John Morfin’s suicide, laid out while the men collect themselves around him, or Tuunbaq as an unseen force slicing through Sir John and his men. Like so many great horror movies have shown, there’s something inherently chilling about the act of not seeing that’s just as unnerving as too much exposure. We never peek inside the bag Hickey passes around to lure allies to his side but we know the crew’s dog is in there. Like Hickey’s story about mercy killing the dog once it broke its leg, it may not be gruesome but the whole thing is ghastly.
That philosophy is taken to its natural conclusion when Hickey kills Lt. Irving in episode 7 as part of his revolt against Crozier. The scene is stripped down to its bare essentials: As soon as Hickey explodes upwards like a churlish demon, the sound cuts to only Marcus Fjellström’s score, savage and coarse with its warped vocal samples and clanging bells. The audience, recently informed that Hickey is not Hickey at all (but some man who, somehow, took the real Hickey’s place aboard the ship) knows that his nefarious aims—he seemed to plunge into this spiral immediately after seeing the first sign of help in months, Inuit people who could offer fresh food. But the wild cruelty, the falsehoods he spinsabout the Inuit people in order to further his aims, and the way the camera won’t pull away from him even as the pit of your stomach falls away, has a particular glean of brutality to it because we haven’t been truly inundated with carnage.
It helps that The Terror has the luxury of avoiding straight villains and heroes. Piecing together the historical record, executive producer and co-creator Soo Hugh said that there’s “a sense of responsibility we all had…you don’t feel like you want to paint them in broad strokes, you feel like you want to get to know them.”
And so every character gets to be “right” about how they perceive the world: Francis, knowing he must march his men thousands of miles with poisonous rations and a crew increasingly wary of his command, has his officers hide information from the crew to help improve morale. And Hickey, leading the stirring mutiny against him, is right to question whether his secretive superiors have his best interests at heart, even if his thirst for power literally kills what could’ve been their last chance for survival.
That is the message The Terror turns over, again and again: these men are not only beyond their depths but beyond the bounds and protections of the society that reared them. Though they may have their wits about them there’s nothing that has prepared them for the horror of that void. There have been more successful trips to Earth’s moon than there have been successful European traverses of the Northwest Passage; standing out on the ice for 30 minutes in the winter, even with plenty of layers, still ran a high risk for heart failure.
Eventually, more ships and men would be lost in the search for this expedition than on the expedition itself. As the title of one oil-painting inspired by the ever-failing search for answers put it: “man proposes, God disposes.”And though a doctor with the Hudson Bay Company would report answers in April of 1954 after speaking with local Inuit, Victorian Britain would shun any suggestion that these men could break the bonds of brotherhood, especially in order and eat each other (Charles Dickens himself dismissed it as “vague babble”).
But The Terror, even with its peculiar invocations of mysticism, isn’t so sure. Because although the show frequently builds itself around the isolation of these characters, with wide shots of lithic tundras stretching as far as the eye can see and backing the lone survivors of the Northwest Passage expedition, it’s so often about their connection too. You cannot have these men out on the ice without each other, or their queen and country, or the decisions that led them there. When Goodsir sits alone in his tent trying to resist the calls to cut apart a dead man so other men may eat him, the camera holds tight around his face as the frigid wind blows the tent behind him. It’s as if the literal final walls of polite society are simultaneously closing in and coming down. The rhythm nearly matches the way a breath might catch in your lungs as you make a difficult decision, or breathe in for the last time.
In this way The Terror shares DNA with True Detective: Both are stories built around the evils of man, and specifically the evils of men left to their own devices. Both hinge their stories on the indeterminate amount of time our heroes find themselves stuck in them, weaving their answers somewhere along the journey rather than the destination. And both make a magic trick out of knowing how to direct the attention of the audience, twisting the point of view around and around until the narrative dizzily shakes out something extra.
But while True Detective (at least in its first and third seasons) loops its timeline and winds in on itself, curling itself into the belly of the society that created them. The Terror is a slow, methodical, and unceasing march towards the fate of those men on the ice. Even as they walk towards home they seem to always be further away than when they started. The show must ask its characters repeatedly, “What can you live with?” in order to make the ultimate question—whether you can live at all—that much more powerful.Time is tight in The Terror, but also interminable.
There is, after all, no taking survival for granted. Even if the men make it out of this foreign place, back to warm civilization, there’s a sense that not many of them will surely thrive. Crozier—Irish, not devout in his religious beliefs, and of humble origins—is denied the rank of admiral; Fitzjames is trying to outrun his ancestry; Hickey has been fighting his whole life to get the world to recognize the greatness he feels in himself.
As he’s tending to Crozier’s withdrawal, right-hand man Thomas Jopson tells him the story of how his mother got addicted to pain medication. And when Crozier asks what it was like to see her through recovery, clean and sober, Jopson pauses—it’s nearly imperceptible, cut off by the doctor coming round, but crucial. Making it is not a guarantee. Justice along the way, even less so. We don’t know if Jopson’s mother survived her withdrawal. And when Jopson’s lead poisoning overtakes him, he’s mistakenly led to believe that Crozier—the man he’s seen through sickness and health—left him for dead. And then he dies.
Even the expeditions that did make it, helmed by the very men in charge of dispatching a rescue mission for the Terror, came at a cost so great that one veteran says they came dangerously close to killing each other—or worse.
That “worse” becomes the Scottish Play hanging over the whole expedition, only getting name-checked seven episodes in, when one man says the carnival fire made his mouth water. It’s a grotesque thought; truly unthinkable in the sense that we cannot even comprehend the thirst for it. And yet, once the line is crossed, it’s too easy for the men to cut up their doctor as if he were just…meat. The image is truly surreal. And like all things inconceivable, The Terror doesn’t shy away from it, shooting the carving up of the deceased nonchalantly, off to the side as the hollow-eyed men savor the morsels they’re eating.
But it also shows just how much lack of faith the show has in the culture that presumably kept them from eating each other until then had. As the veteran said of the past expedition, their former captain “kept rank,” giving officers blankets, fresh salmon and stewards in their makeshift shelter, and leaving the rest of the crew to ice ditches and year-old biscuits. The implication is clear: nature isn’t the only thing man has to fight against. English Might may be rigid, but boy is it brittle.
“This place wants us dead,” Crozier warns his men.
But that isn’t true, as he comes to learn; the tundra doesn’t want anything. Like the universe, its apparent ambivalence towards your very existence is perhaps the most fearsome thing about it. That’s what makes this brutal and humane story so brutal and humane. As The Terror trudges into its last leg, it finally and enigmatically looks square in the face of the two things it cannot change: death and the arctic.
“We Are Gone” is the final hour that must make good on what history has already written, and so we follow the remaining few dozen men to their deaths. They happen in various ways—on screen and off, quietly and with great pain, knowingly and as a shock, poetically and wrong. But they all happen. That the act itself is splintered into so many acts seems to only strengthen its effect; each depicted facet of dying seems to get closer to a whole telling of the experience without ever presuming to know what it’s truly like.
It’s the kind of finale that bundles up all of its ideas into a knapsack and walks out the door, but refuses to tell you where it’s going; whatever combination of bad luck or man’s finest hubris brought these men out there are both inconsequential and the only thing that ultimately mattered. The windmill the show tilts at is a bigger one.
It never outright condemns the society that brought more than 100 men to die in the arctic. It never has to. As Crozier makes his way through the remaining camps of the men who he left while being held at gunpoint, men who he firmly believed would be rallied to his rescue despite instructions otherwise, he finds, instead, depravity. While Hickey with maniacal rule welcomed and enforced cannibalism, the remnants of Lt. Little’s exploits paint a more desperate picture. Crozier walks past a shin, flesh and shoe still on, sitting in a pot near a long-ago burned out fire. He finds Little, face pierced with the gold chains of a naval uniform, deliriously muttering: “Close.”
Quietly, he and Silna, the Inuit woman who was once his captive but became his ally, continue on their way. And just like that, Crozier sets himself on a path away from Queen and country.
The Terror is never as simple as a Heart of Darkness-esque loosening of societal morals. Even when Hickey and Crozier are put in direct juxtaposition, it wasn’t as simple as one man maintaining society and one man picking it apart. Hickey, for all his absolute treachery and exploitative xenophobia, taps into active survival mode, always pragmatic. And as opportunities grow bleaker and bleaker, Crozier reared up taller and taller. Without the crutch of Sir John’s rule or naval protocol, he found himself with a stronger call to arms, and a stronger connection with his men. He began as a morose drinker, and finished having lost all the men he turned into friends.
And whether he was undone by the military, a mutiny, white settlement culture, or merely compromised food thanks to a bid that could undercut the rest, it doesn’t matter. The rule that brought him and his men here can’t fix it. He knows that now.
It’s why, in the end, we return to the scene that opened the pilot, with the long-awaited rescue mission from the Royal Navy being told by the Inuit tribe that the crews of the Terror and Erebus have perished. As they take in the information, the camera pulls close, and bisects the frame with the officer’s face, forming a sort of triptych: on the one side, the dark safety of the hut he’s in; on the other, the door flapping from the tundra’s breeze. It’s only in the end that you learn that just over his shoulder is Crozier, literally turning his back on the last tendrils of civilization.
Like the tundra, the behemoth that is England’s 18th century is ambivalent to his existence; it cares only for how it can use him, abuse him, and lose him. We see this again and again, as he is denied access to higher society, love, and even (though he does not know it) a timely rescue. The high society of Victorian England could never find a place for him, just like Silna ultimately could not return to her people. Even when money has finally been taken up for the cause to bring those boys home, their would-be rescuers are told that it’s actually still about finding the Northwest Passage. There are some fabrics of society none of us can fight; as an Inuit elder tells Crozier when he presses the issue, “Everyone accepts this. You must remember where you are and accept this also.”
These men were left to their own devices. And unlike the Inuit village that Crozier joins, their devices are woefully underprepared and utterly savage.
The show does not go as far as to say that one civilization is better than the other. But unlike so much of the colonialist literature that features “humanity” (white men) breaking in the face of new environments, it doesn’t ignore that there are people getting along just fine within those very spots. Hickey is ultimately right that their empire “is not the only empire.” Some of the men—Crozier and Goodsir among them—always knew, but never stopped hoping that theirs could bring some reward nonetheless. As he sits on out on the ice for an agonizingly long shot, waiting, Crozier knows that place wants no part of him, no part of his eulogy for his crew, no part of his heart. That must be left out on the ice.
It’s ways like this that The Terror sauntered into the cold: Crozier was never Hickey’s diametric opposite, only his opponent. Their thinking was not all that different, and neither were their methods. All they ever saw for themselves was glory, and in the end, all they really wanted was survival. Ultimately, they ran up against the same beast anyhow.
Neither man is particularly pure or virtuous; both compromise themselves and those around them. To worship at the altar of their benevolence, you must accept this also.