Good horror television is difficult to come by these days. Sure, there is the exploitative and ridiculous American Horror Story, but not many that rely on a slow, atmospheric pace that creates thick-as-fog tension like AMC’s, The Terror, whose finale aired last week. The Terror introduces a new type of horror television, one that is disgusting, devastating, and thoughtful. It marries the supernatural with the potential of a desperate and terrified man, to create a freezing tapestry of unspeakable horrors.
Based on the 2007 novel by Dan Simmons, The Terror follows the failed Franklin expedition made up of two ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, from 1845 to 1848. Led by Captain Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds), their mission was to trek into uncharted Arctic territory in search of the Northwest Passage. However, Sir John was perhaps not the best choice for this journey, and his poor decision making leads to the ships becoming trapped in ice. What comes next is the slow unraveling of the ship’s crews and leadership, with help from a strange polar bear with a human face called Tuunbaq and something very wrong with their food supply.
The cast is an ensemble of strong performances, particularly by Jared Harris as leader Mr. Francis Crozier. Harris is able to encapsulate the struggles of a man who knows his crew’s doom while trying to cope with the horrors committed in the name of survival. Crozier is this story’s “hero” but Harris is able to make you question that status throughout the season, as he creates a conflicted character that is trying to do his best in the face of hopelessness. Two more standout performances are from Paul Ready as Dr. Goodsir and Adam Nagaitis as villain Cornelius Hickey. One of these characters, I won’t say who, has the most upsetting and heartbreaking deaths I’ve ever seen on TV.
While there is a heavy focus on the white male crew, Nive Nielsen steals the show as Lady Silence, an Inuit woman who watched the crew accidentally kill her father. She is taken captive by the crew, and it is discovered that she knows what exactly Tuunbaq is. Nielsen takes a character that had the potential of becoming stereotypical or two-dimensional, but instead, creates a woman who has a complicated relationship with her father’s murderers.
One of The Terror‘s most striking aspects is its use of body horror. Over the course of 10 episodes, the crew’s bodies are literally rotting due to scurvy and lead poisoning. While there are quite a few deaths at the paws of Tuunbaq, the most revolting moments are when the crew realize their bodies are literally falling apart. This raises the question of what is scarier: the monster or the poison running through their veins? This is one of The Terror’s greatest strengths; it creates dichotomies about fear and presents them in such a way that makes you think about what you’re seeing as more than just gore.
Despite these grisly elements, The Terror is gorgeous. The stark landscape, paired with a hazy light, makes every frame seem like a macabre painting. There is no denying the desolation of this place and of their circumstances. Yet, as the temperatures drop and the Northern Lights dance across the sky, you can’t help but contemplate the beauty in this bleak place.
Hands down the best show I’ve watched in 2018 so far. Led by strong performances, thoughtful body horror, and a bleak landscape, The Terror takes the viewer on a harrowing journey that shows the horrifying potential that breeds in desperation. If there’s a hole in your heart for Penny Dreadful or Hannibal, The Terror is sure to fill it.