Is it a rule of open spaces that the more interminable they are, the more claustrophobic they feel? An expanse of nothingness is the first vise gripping the men of the Franklin Expedition. But, against this barren landscape of ice and rock, creep so many additional horrors.
The title of AMC’s The Terror is both singular and a litany. In 1845–48, Captain Sir John Franklin led an Arctic expedition in search of the Northwest Passage aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. Stuck in the icepack with no thaw in sight and unable to venture on, he and his crew of 128 men were ultimately lost to the terrors both within the ships and without.
The series, created by David Kajganich and Soo Hugh and featuring Ridley Scott among its list of producers, is based on Dan Simmons’ novel of the same name, a fictional account of the dangers these men met and the circumstances that brought them to their end. Many of the fated elements of the expedition have been suggested by historical record, while others have been fabricated in the record of Simmons’ intrepid imagination.
Enter Tuunbaq, a bear-like monster of enormous size and incredible speed, as relentless as the Arctic wind. Like a sub-zero Grendel, Tuunbaq ravages the English party at will, and the men count no Beowulf among their number to keep the creature at bay. Tuunbaq is a fiction of Simmons’ making, loosely derived from Sedna, Inuit goddess of the sea. In The Terror, Tuunbaq holds a central but mysterious place in the shamanic practices of the Netsilik Inuit, those native to the frozen tundra on which the adventurers trespass. To the Inuit of the series, Tuunbaq is both familiar and strange, protector and dangerous, a tooth-and-claw embodiment of the unforgiving place they call home. For the English, Tuunbaq is the vengeance of a land that does not welcome their stay nor their purpose.
Early episodes employ sudden attacks from Tuunbaq as opportunities to stage scenes of action, heroics, and gore, punctuating the quieter tensions among the men as rivalries and psychoses simmer and putrefy. But, by the latter half of the series, the threat Tuunbaq poses from the outside seems tame compared to the evils that have festered inside the ranks. As madness and mutiny take siege of the sailors, the mythic Tuunbaq appears righteous and natural compared to the horrors the men inflict upon each other.
There are many lives to be wasted among a party of 128, and The Terror indulges a variety of devilish ways to dispense with them. The cast is thus large and sprawling. With characters’ faces often obscured in a mess of fog, headscarves, and gnarly facial hair, it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of who’s who, but three period-piece regulars captain both the crew and the drama: Ciarán Hinds (Silence, Game of Thrones), Tobias Menzies (Outlander, Game of Thrones), and Jared Harris (The Crown, Mad Men). It’s no surprise if those names don’t immediately ring a bell, but their faces certainly will and, with that, comes the assurance that this ensemble cast is expertly piloted.
Don’t get too attached, though. The series begins with the doomed declaration that all lives will be lost. The Terror isn’t about hope; it’s a confrontation with despair. How did these men meet their maker? Was it with composure or indignity? The truth may be worse than the fiction.
AMC has announced a second season to continue the exploration.