The Terror is an American horror drama anthology television series. The series is named after Dan Simmons’s 2007 novel, which serves as the basis for the first season. It premiered on March 25, 2018 and the second season, subtitled Infamy, premiered on August 12, 2019.
The first season was developed by David Kajganich and is a fictionalized account of Captain Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition to the Arctic in 1845–1848. Featured in the cast are Jared Harris as Captain Francis Crozier, Paul Ready as Dr. Harry Goodsir, Tobias Menzies as Commander James Fitzjames and Ciarán Hinds as Franklin (both of HBO’s Rome fame).
It’s an adaptation of Dan Simmons’ 2007 bestseller about the imagined fate of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, which went missing along with 129 crew in 1845 as Sir John Franklin led them in a search for the fabled North-West Passage through the Arctic. Now, the tale of two ships and their men trapped for two winters in unyielding pack ice, bored, isolated and made increasingly paranoid and unstable by the uncertainty of rescue, makes for entertaining viewing. It also takes liberty of having a supernatural creature stalk the already paranoid and exhausted men.
Season 1 begins with a title card informing us that Sir John Franklin’s Arctic expedition was never seen again. In the opening sequence, James Ross is speaking to a Netsilik man in a tent who encountered the expedition’s last survivors, under the leadership of Captain Francis Crozier, and informs Ross they were being pursued south by a creature called “Tuunbaq” and are now “dead and gone.” Four years earlier, in September 1846, Captain Sir John Franklin’s Royal Navy expedition aboard HMS Erebus and HMS Terror are attempting the first crossing of the Northwest Passage in the Arctic Archipelago. The expedition runs into difficulty when a collision with an iceberg damages Erebus’s propeller. Francis Crozier, captain of the Terror and second-in-command of the expedition, becomes concerned about becoming stranded in the pack ice above the Arctic Circle through winter, and recommends to Franklin that they shift all men from Erebus to Terror and steam south aboard Terror to avoid becoming trapped in winter ice. Franklin overrules Crozier’s concerns and presses the expedition further west in the belief that the ships can complete transit before the onset of thick ice. Before the ships can reach open water, however, they become frozen and trapped.
In June 1847, after a winter stranded in the ice, the ships Erebus and Terror remain stuck. Franklin sends out parties to find leads (open water passages) through the ice. The party that treks east finds nothing, but the party heading to the west travels into dangerous territory and accidentally shoots an Inuit man, mistaking him for a polar bear. During the chaos, a massive, unseen creature kills their lieutenant, Graham Gore. The surviving men from the expedition to the west return with the wounded Inuit man and his companion, an Inuit woman. The man is a powerful shaman without a tongue to speak and the woman is his daughter, and he communicates that after his death she must control the “Tuunbaq.” After the Inuit man dies of his wounds, the crew apologize to the woman, whom they call “Lady Silence” because she refuses to speak to them, for killing him. Until now, it’s the elements that have mostly been the cause of terror in the show.
The crew bury the Inuit shaman in the sea through a hole in the ice, and Lady Silence sets out alone on foot to return to her people. In a flashback, we see that Franklin and Crozier had once been friends, but in England Franklin had denied Crozier permission to marry his niece. They angrily debate their crews’ future and disagree sharply about Crozier’s suggestion that they send out a party on foot to seek help. Franklin joins a group of armed Royal Marines who have set a hunting blind for the creature, but it ambushes the group, killing a marine and Franklin, who drowns after the creature tears off his leg and tosses him into the same hole where the British had buried the shaman. Crozier later sends out a party across the ice to seek help, despite the protests of James Fitzjames (now captain of Erebus). Alone in an igloo, Lady Silence hears the creature outside and finds that it has left her a seal carcass to eat.
By November 1847, as the creature continues to kill members of the British expedition, the crews of Erebus and Terror begin to consider it supernatural. Cornelius Hickey leads an unauthorised expedition to abduct Lady Silence, bringing her back to the ships in the belief that she is controlling the creature. When Hickey disputes his punishment during a debriefing, Crozier orders him subject to a more severe lashing than his fellow abductors, ordering him to be “punished as a boy” (whipped across the buttocks rather than the back). An increasingly alcoholic Crozier announces to Terror’s crew an opportunity to transfer to Erebus due to Terror’s precarious location on a fault in the ice, and all but ten of Terror’s crew depart for Erebus.
The Erebus’ naval surgeon’s mate, Dr Goodsir, speaks with Lady Silence in an effort to learn her language, but has little success learning about the nature of the creature. Crozier becomes temperamental as his liquor supplies run out, and sends his first lieutenant Edward Little to pilfer bottles of whiskey from the private stores of Fitzjames aboard Erebus. The creature, revealed as a polar bear-like creature with vaguely human facial features called the “Tuunbaq”, attacks Terror and pursues her ice master Thomas Blanky up one of the ship’s masts, mauling his leg so severely that it later requires amputation. The men manage to wound the creature with a cannon and it flees, and Lady Silence escapes during the commotion. Crozier resolves to go sober, delegating command of both ships to Fitzjames while he suffers through alcohol withdrawal.
January 1848 finds the ships still trapped in the ice. Now in charge of both Terror and Erebus, Fitzjames plans to abandon the ships and lead the men back to civilization on foot. Blanky advises him to soften the blow of this news, so he organizes a carnival on the ice, reasoning that it will deplete the food and drink they will need to carry. Goodsir discerns that the poorly-soldered tins of food on the ships are giving the men lead poisoning and attempts to warn the Erebus’ surgeon, Dr. Stanley, who replies he has a “plan”. After weeks of withdrawal, Crozier recovers in time to visit Fitzjames’ carnival, and is disturbed by the breakdown in naval discipline. Crozier announces the plan to travel south overland to Fort Resolution, but is interrupted by a mentally unhinged Dr. Stanley, who traps the men in the carnival before setting fire to himself and the tents, killing himself and many other men including the two other doctors Dr Peddie and Dr MacDonald, leaving Goodsir as the last surviving surgeon left in the expedition.
On April 22, 1848, Crozier gives the order to abandon both ships. The men soon depart on foot, and a patrol, including Crozier, Fitzjames and Terror’s Sergeant Tozer, discovers that the party Crozier had sent ahead of them was massacred only eighteen miles from the ships by the Tuunbaq. Crozier, wanting to keep morale high, chooses to keep this from the men, along with the knowledge of the lead poisoning learned from Goodsir. After the crew reach King William Land, Hickey becomes aware of the bad tins and begins plotting a mutiny along with Tozer. While hunting for game, Hickey, Lieutenant John Irving, and petty officer Thomas Farr, come across a hunting party of friendly Netsilik, who provide Irving with seal meat. Hickey then murders both Irving and Farr.
Off-screen, Hickey lies to another hunting party, telling them that Irving and Farr were murdered by the Netsilik; the other party kills the Netsilik family in retaliation. After they return to camp a fog rolls in, stoking the men’s paranoia about a surprise Netsilik attack. Hickey and Tozer open the camp’s armoury and distribute weapons without Crozier’s permission. Crozier has Goodsir conduct an autopsy on Lieutenant Irving, sees that he had recently eaten seal meat, and deduces that Hickey was responsible for the deaths and is planning a mutiny. He sentences Hickey and Tozer to hang, but the Tuunbaq, provoked by the Netsilik massacre, returns and attacks the camp. The Tuunbaq kills many men, but is wounded by a Congreve rocket fired by Fitzjames. In the chaos, Hickey and Tozer rally the mutineers, steal supplies and a sled, and disappear into the fog.
Hickey sets up camp and murders one of his own men, William Gibson. Goodsir, abducted by Hickey’s men, is forced to cut up Gibson’s body so that Hickey and his men can use it for cannibalism. Crozier and his remaining men become malnourished and ill of lead poisoning, with many dying as they continue south. Fitzjames cannot bear the pain and is euthanized at his own request. Blanky’s leg stump becomes gangrenous, and he volunteers to sacrifice himself by luring the Tuunbaq away from the rest of the survivors. In the process, he accidentally stumbles across the Northwest Passage just before the Tuunbaq finds and kills him. Later, Hickey’s men ambush Crozier. After they kill one of his men, Crozier surrenders, instructing Little to take charge and lead the remaining crew south.
Crozier is brought to Hickey’s camp and, knowing that Hickey’s men will eventually eat him, Goodsir poisons himself in an attempt to poison the entire group except Crozier, who eats the unaffected soles of Goodsir′s feet. Hickey reveals that he killed the real Cornelius Hickey and has been impersonating him on the expedition in an attempt to escape England, and subsequently sabotaged the crew’s efforts to return. The Tuunbaq returns, killing Tozer and most of the mutineers. Hickey cuts off his tongue in an attempt to control the creature, but it kills him before an injured Crozier manages to kill the creature, which had become weakened by the poisoned bodies.
After being rescued by Lady Silence, Crozier learns that the rest of his men, including Little, have died. He adapts to the Inuit way of life. Following Inuit custom, Lady Silence, whose name is revealed to be Silna, is exiled for having “lost Tuunbaq.” When members of a British search party led by Ross land two years later in September 1850, Crozier conceals himself from them and instructs the Inuit leader to tell them that everyone from the expedition is dead, that there is no Northwest Passage, and that they should not return. After eavesdropping on the conversation, Crozier departs to hunt seal.
Season 1 depresses the viewer more than it scares. The dynamics and characters of those in charge and of those they command are impressively dense and detailed. Franklin and Crozier’s relationship – its bonds and its strains – are gradually illuminated via flashbacks to pre-expedition times. One hardly need the horror element that is soon introduced into the mix. In some ways, the tension actually dissipates with the advent of a monstrous bear-cum-angered-Inuit-spirit. Once the creature starts tearing exploratory parties to pieces, there is focus and legitimacy to the fears of the trapped men. But it is surely the sprawling and deepening nature of these fears that provides the true horror for us all.
The second season takes place on the west coast of the United States during World War II and centers on the Japanese folklore of bakemono, “an uncanny specter that menaces a Japanese-American community from its home in Southern California to the internment camps to the war in the Pacific“. It is titled The Terror: Infamy and excels its predecessor in both quality and emotional depth.
Season 2 begins with a fresh examination of fear set against an entirely different historical backdrop. From new showrunners Max Borenstein and Alexander Woo, “The Terror: Infamy” studies the horror felt by Japanese-Americans who saw their own country turn against them during World War II. “The Terror” remains a thoughtful story of human nature, more haunting in its honesty than its ghosts.
But there are ghosts. “The Terror: Infamy” starts with an eerie sequence where a Japanese-American woman (Yuki Morita) in a soft, white kimono walks down a dock toward the ocean and ends her own life. Masayo’s unnatural movements before doing the deed speak to more than a simple sadness haunting her, and further evidence of supernatural interference quickly starts to stack up. At her funeral, Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio) tries to take photos for the family, but the developed prints show blurry faces next to clear ones. What’s happening is unclear, though its sinister nature is obvious.
Chester lives with his family on Terminal Island, a few miles south of Los Angeles and just off the coast of California. He and his father, Henry (Shingo Usami), are fishermen, but Chester wants more. He’s in love with a Spanish-American student named Luz Ojeda (Cristina Rodlo), and he can’t fathom why his immigrant mother, Asako (Naoko Mori), and father choose to remain confined to one small swath of the big wide world, especially after traveling so far for the pursuit of freedom. Henry and Chester sit at the nearby military base, a giant clock is perched above their heads, so when the sirens start to sound and the Navy men begin running to their posts, there’s no mistaking what’s about to happen: The war has come home, though that phrase takes on a whole new meaning for the Japanese-American population uprooted from their lives and shipped off to internment camps.
These camps serve as the predominant setting through the first six episodes, and yet it’s impressive how much movement is created, both through forward narrative momentum and various disparate locations. Much of “Infamy” is grounded within the Nakayama family, but supporting characters are built out and a sprawling cast is well-utilized. As a yurei, or spirit, plagues Chester during his quest to prove himself as an independent man, bouts of seemingly madness create gruesome scenes that can’t be simply explained away — unless you believe in Japanese folklore.
Season 2 dives headfirst into the kaidan genre of Japanese literature, creating new ghost tales exhumed from mythic philosophy. Relying on such cultural touchstones is a respectful gesture to the very real suffering of the interned immigrants, as well as an affecting source of terror, even if the latter doesn’t compare to the distress felt by the former.
“The Terror: Infamy” works best when it invests in the natural drama of its characters, rather than the supernatural. The horrors of the trauma of Japanese-Americans forced into living in camps, are scarier than the ghosts that haunt them. “The Terror” Season 2 can feel overly studious, with the supernatural horrors mixed in to keep you from spending each episode researching what really happened through Google. But through all the edifying, “Infamy” never forgets the human cost, or ignores the horrifying possibilities of what can happen when compassion is set aside out of fear.
The show begins with the residents of Terminal Island are haunted by a series of mysterious unexplained deaths. Chester, a Japanese-American man, learns that his Mexican girlfriend Luz is pregnant and contemplates his future. The men of Japanese ancestry are arrested after the news breaks that Japan has attacked Pearl Harbor. An evacuation order is given for the residents of Terminal Island who are to be held in internment camps following the Pearl Harbor attack. Chester wants to leave with Luz but is later arrested after a local resident reports him to the FBI. Luz decides to join Chester after telling the FBI agents that she is carrying his child.
Chester and his family start to settle into life in the internment camp. Some of the residents believe that a bakemono is responsible for the events that have transpired. Luz meets with Yuko who is a posing as a midwife at the camp to assist with her pregnancy, but she is unaware that Yuko harbors a strong interest in her unborn twins. Furuya is arrested for assault and tells Chester that he wasn’t responsible for his actions and that something had possessed him. The camp’s children discover Furuya’s body the next day in the nearby woods after Yuko kills him. Chester then accepts a translator job with the army and departs the camp.
Chester is stationed in Guadalcanal where he works with the U.S. Army. While on assignment to locate a missing sergeant, Chester uncovers a secret code on a belt of a dead Japanese soldier. Believing he may be haunted by a Yūrei, Chester takes pictures near his camp and closely examines them. Yuko possesses an MP named Nessler and forces him to jump from a watchtower, killing him. Major Bowen believes that Nessler was drunk from contraband sake and orders a crackdown in the camp. Luz is heartened by Chester’s letter and thinks about what life would be like when they have a family of their own. Asako takes Luz to see Dr. Kitemura after she goes into labor, which leads Yuko to possess Nurse Hasegawa so she can assist with her birth. But after a difficult birth, the twins don’t survive.
The Japanese Americans are forced to undertake a humiliating exercise that divides the community. Luz, stricken by grief after the tragedy, is forced to make a choice that has her leave the camp. Chester returns home to his family, only to find that Luz is gone. Henry and Asako are faced with a difficult decision. The Nakayamas have been torn apart, and Chester searches for the person he believes can help, even if it means taking drastic action. A tuberculosis outbreak in the community forces Amy to act, though she’s caught between doing what she’s told and doing what’s right.
And so it goes…I won’t be giving out the whole story as that would ruin it for you. The supernatural horror of Infamy comes mostly from an otherworldly antagonist named Yuko (played by Kiki Sukezane), who is introduced in the first episode. She’s an unsettling yet frustratingly vague menace. Is she a ghost? A demon? Is she a culturally specific villain who requires a basic familiarity with Japanese folklore, or is she more of a typical, vengeful spirit? Even the Japanese words that the older characters use to describe her shift, utterance by utterance—obake, yuurei, youkai, bakemono—as they try to figure out what she is.
Beyond issues of taxonomy, Yuko’s powers are inconsistent. In some scenes, she appears only as a creepy interruption, while at other times, glimpses of her cause characters to go insane or hurt themselves. And yet, it is hard to take Yuko seriously when it’s unclear how she fits into the story or how she can affect the characters. Even when the series develops her further, Yuko primarily inspires speculation and confusion—an effect that dampens, rather than amplifies, the show’s horror.
In sharp contrast to its treatment of Yuko, Infamy renders the internment in painstaking detail, as if to suggest that this is what should really scare audiences. The forced relocation and detention of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II was shameful, and Infamy depicts the many indignities an entire community suffered. Beyond the educational sort of horror offered by Infamy’s faithful rendering of history, there is another, more subtle kind of danger that the show reflects on: the danger of forgetting. Various story lines interrogate both personal and communal notions of home, legacy, and memory. The presence of Yuko suggests the show’s Japanese Americans feel haunted by the country they left behind.
In this way, Infamy may evoke a recognizable dread in the Japanese American communities whose past it depicts. For them and for others, the contours of this history may be too familiar for the show to inspire an emotion as shocking—or as alien—as terror.
“Watch The Terror to understand that the ghosts and monsters within us are worse than all the supernatural terrors one can create.”