It has been two hours since I turned off AMC’s The Terror, and I can’t sit still.
Something isn’t right. Much like when I left the theater after seeing Annihilation this past January, I am unable to settle my nerves. It feels like there’s a centipede wrapping itself around my heart, its pointed legs fluttering against my lungs and throat. Something isn’t right. My mind is racing, replaying the scenes that I have just witnessed before my eyes again and again and trying to make sense of the uncanny valley I was just tossed into. Something isn’t right, and The Terror is to blame.
There were three scenes in this week’s episode that I can definitively say contributed to my unrest. First, there was a scene where Lady Silence is brought to the H.M.S. Terror to be questioned by Captain Crozier and Dr. Goodsir. Goodsir has been making progress with the indigenous woman in the month that she has been aboard the Erebus, even going so far as to start making a dictionary of the woman’s native language. The only thing she is hesitant to talk about is Tuunbaq, the beast that is hunting the men of the doomed mission. Unfortunately for the young woman, Captain Crozier is determined to get some answers about how to stop it from hurting any more of his men.
This scene is memorable for two reasons. First of all, the ships have been slowly moved by the ice that they are now stuck in. We were warned about this fact in the second episode of the series, but this is the first episode where it has become distractingly noticeable. Every scene looks as if it has been shot in the funhouse at the county fair. It causes an uneasiness in the viewer, almost to the point of nausea in some scenes. The characters are centered in frame, but the backgrounds are jutting off diagonally like the Captains tried to find the Northwest Passage in Dr. Caligari’s famous cabinet. Never is this more evident than in the Captain’s quarters while Crozier questions Lady Silence. They sit opposite each other, a heavy weight of mistrust tainting the air. In-between them is the Captain’s table, askew and tied to the ceiling with a rope to keep it from sliding. The doors of the wall cabinets and the wainscoting slash diagonally across the screen behind the pair like an angry swipe of Tuunbaq’s claws. It lends the proceedings a sense of unreality. These men are in mortal danger, but it feels like an acid trip. Like we have been sitting with Crozier, downing whisky and regret for hours until our eyes begin to cross. During the conversation, we learn a little bit more about the beast and what exactly Lady Silence thinks of the men that have her. It becomes clear that she has remained on the ship without an escape attempt because she, too, is afraid of Tuunbaq. After realizing this, one of the best interactions of the series occurs between Crozier and Lady Silence:
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Crozier: “Help us stop it, or you leave!”
Lady Silence: “And who is going to stop you? You use the wind to carry you here. You use the forest to hide inside. You use all this and don’t even want to be here. You don’t want to live. look at you. Even if I could help, you don’t want it. Why do you want to die?”
It’s a shocking statement that hits Crozier in the gut. He is drinking himself into oblivion, and he knows that he is incapable of leading. He hasn’t even been to a leadership meeting in months. He sits in the dark, alone, draining bottle after bottle of whisky. He lashes out at Fitzjames, who conveniently entered the room at just the right time, punching him in the face and causing a quite the gentlemanly skirmish. Embarrassed, Crozier sends Thomas Blanky, his best friend and most loyal officer, above to give him a “full report on the ice”. This actions leads us directly into the second scene that affected me this week.
As soon as Blanky hits the icy Arctic air, screams cut through the darkness. Tuunbaq is here, and it is attacking the men one by one. The marines fire their rifles, but they can’t see where the beast is. In their haste, they knock a spare mast onto the hatch door, trapping themselves on the deck with the animal and keeping their reinforcements below. Blanky has just listened to Lady Silence describe Tuunbaq as a spirit, a spirit that dresses like an animal. He has heard the term before, but he still doesn’t know what to expect. He only knows that he is afraid. He has every right to be.
Tuunbaq finds his way onto the deck of the ship and we see its claws clearly for the first time. It’s a brief glance, partially obscured by low light and wind, but its unmistakeable. Those are not the claws of any polar bear known to man. These massive, white-furred claws have long, sharp fingers. They flex on the snow like a pianist about to start his solo. Just as your eyes begin to recognize the finger-like claws of the beast, we see something else. Does Tuunbaq have… opposable thumbs?
Seeing no way out of this mess, Blanky takes to the masts. He tries to lure Tuunbaq away from the others so that they may get a good shot at it. He climbs higher and higher into the darkness and frozen winds. The beast is right behind him, but we don’t get the usual horror music playing over the scene. It’s a slow, almost melancholy score that plays in direct juxtaposition to the frantic climb of the officer. We want to feel rushed, we want to get free, but the music holds us in place. We are in the open, under hundreds of miles of open sky, yet I’ve never felt so claustrophobic. The score wraps us up like a rug and holds our eyes open like we are undergoing the aversion therapy in A Clockwork Orange. We are frozen and made to watch as Tuunbaq corners Blanky, ripping into his leg with his hand-like claws. That’s when we see it. Tuunbaq’s head and face is in full view as it reaches for the officer. It is a bear, all right, but much like the Nightmare Bear in Annihilation, it is so much more than just Ursus maritimus. It is almost human. Its eyes, its mouth and its jaws give it the look like something trying to imitate a bear. Like a human wearing a bear costume, or like Lady Silence remarked, a spirit that dresses up like an animal. Blanky is a true hero, however, and lights the bear on fire with the remainder of his lantern so that the marines can get a cannon sighted. They take a shot and it’s a direct hit, making Tuunbaq fall to the ice, wounded, but alive.
This leads to the third and final scene that wormed its way into my soul this week. Directly after the fight with Tuunbaq, Blanky is taken belowdecks for a fun little amputation. The beast has ripped into the officer’s leg and it obviously has to come off. Crozier watches all of this unfold, a man possessed with guilt. His drunkenness, his shame, his self destruction led directly to his best friend losing his leg, and maybe his life. He sits in his quarters with Fitzjames, Little, McDonald, and Jopson after the surgery and asks them for a favor. He knows that he doesn’t deserve one, but he asks them for one anyway. He is going to be ill for a while, a week, maybe more. He needs them to lead the men, and to care for him until he is well enough to command again. He is going cold turkey, and though it might kill him, he knows that it is the only way he will be able to lead the remainder of his crew to safety. It is a beautifully nauseating scene, played with a physical sickness and anguish by Jared Harris. We feel the slosh of the sour whisky in his belly as he begs for help. We feel the room spin as he fights the guilt that is broiling inside his heart. Crozier is disgusted with himself, he hates what he has become, and he is afraid. He is so afraid. He gives his gun away, knowing full well that he will want to use it on himself before this is over, and hands the reigns of the mission to Fitzjames.
So ends the fifth and finest episode of the best show on television, AMC’s The Terror. There is so much more going on in between the scenes I have described for you, from potential lead poisoning to Hickey’s nefarious machinations, but they seem lost amidst the disorientation those scenes caused me. It has now been three hours since I finished watching “First Shot a Winner, Lads”, and the disquiet has not yet begun to subside. I will go to bed thinking about this episode, and it is sure to keep me awake for quite a while. The Terror has taken a hold of me, and will not let me leave until it has shown me its true nature. As I feel the centipede tighten around my heart, slowly and deliberately cutting into the soft tissue, all I can feel is awe and gratitude for this gift that I have been given.
We will continue to recap each week’s episode of AMC’s The Terror, so be sure to bookmark our homepage at Nightmare on Film Street so you can ride along with us. Also, be sure to head over to Facebook and join our group, Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street, and let us know what you thought about this episode, and the series as a whole. See you net week, Fiends.