The Franklin expedition comes to its inevitable end in The Terror‘s masterful finale.
Is God here, captain? Any god?
And then there were none.
Sort of, anyway. I had been hoping for weeks, when I wasn’t preemptively mourning Mr. Goodsir, that he would end up starting a new life with the Inuit (and possibly with
Lady Silence Silna?) as perhaps the sole survivor of his doomed expedition. Instead, however, it was Crozier that got to live, and Goodsir who sacrificed himself by filling himself with poison for Hickey’s unwitting, cannibalistic crew. The image of our beloved doctor splayed out on a table with chunks of flesh removed was the most disturbing in an hour full of disturbing images, a season full of them. For ten episodes we’ve watched these men break — physically, emotionally, morally — and though the death march to the finish was inevitable (especially considering the tale’s historical nature), I hoped David Kajganich and Soo Hugh had a couple surprises in store.
On that, they certainly delivered, and with the same extraordinary level of craft that made me first fall in love with the series. The series’ final shot, showing Crozier (now with a family!) waiting motionless for a fish as the camera pulls back and back, accompanied by a powerful melody from the late experimental composer Marcus Fjellström, was remarkable. The former captain, dead to the rest of the world, becomes only a dark mark on an endless expanse of white. For Goodsir, this place was “beautiful to me, even now,” but he had the mind of a scientist and the heart of a theologian. For the haunted Crozier, it’s an opportunity to start over on the blankest slate possible. For the rest, the Arctic is an unforgiving and alien landscape to which the whole of the British empire is only a passing thing.
Hickey cautioned his followers last week not to “indulge your morals over your practicals,” but it’s clear in “We Are Gone” that that never applied to himself. Why did he murder the Real Hickey and take his place? He thought it was a one-year voyage that would end in the Sandwich Islands. Not everything he’s done on this expedition was to reach that goal; he was alternately tender and cruel with Gibson, was insubordinate with Crozier, led a mutiny, but saved men’s lives in the carnivale fire. He had caught on to the canned food slowly poisoning everyone on board, but also insisted that things were dire enough to eat the flesh of the dead despite it only exacerbating the poisoning. He was a walking contradiction with delusions of grandeur, and as boldly played by Adam Nagaitis, insufferably smug in a way that kept the character squarely out of the “love to hate” category. Ultimately, that arrogance, believing he was the only one smart/brave/mad enough to walk up to Tuunbaq and command it, was his undoing. I’m glad he was ripped in half.
That sequence was as nervy as anything The Terror had done to that point, which is saying a lot: Franklin’s disorienting death in “The Ladder” and Blankey’s adventure on the rigging in “First Shot’s a Winner” were feats of staging and editing. Here, it’s just raw horror as men get tossed up in the air and disemboweled, chains flying across the screen, while Hickey stands in the boat like a mad conductor. It’s a big year for demon murderbears (hello, Annihilation), and one does not simply walk up to Tuunbaq. “We were not meant to know of it,” Crozier says early in the episode. But eventually, feasting on poisoned white souls takes its toll on the creature. More interestingly, at the moment of its death, a bit of warmth returns to the color palette for the first time since the men abandoned the ships.
The rest of the finale is an extended denouement, as Crozier is tended to by Lady Silence and the pair make their slow journey back to her Inuit village. They pass all of the sailors’ camps, strewn with corpses, garbage, ragged huts, and worthless cargo that never should have made the journey overland. He encounters Lieutenant Little, somehow barely alive, but inexplicably with gold chains pinned onto his face like a deranged pirate (and yes, that’s a real historical detail). Winter is returning, and Silna will be exiled for losing Tuunbaq. Whatever hope or dignity is left for Crozier, he’ll have to manufacture it himself: “You must remember who you are,” the Inuit chief says, “And accept this also.” Two years later, he chooses not to alert Ross to his presence just outside the tent. As far as anyone needs to know, the story of Francis Crozier is over. The man who was once told he had “made himself hard to love” is long gone, and now someone new, someone at peace with himself, can take his place.
One of The Terror’s joys was how democratic the storytelling was. At any moment, an unheralded supporting actor could take center stage and deliver a big emotional moment. As brilliant as Paul Ready, Jared Harris, and Nagaitis were (and make no mistake, they were brilliant), it was fascinating to see so many more in the sprawling ensemble take their turn with killer monologues: Ian Hart as the jovial, steadfast Blankey; Trystan Gravelle as Collins, who was on a downward spiral from the moment he went underwater in “Go For Broke;” Liam Garrigan as the openhearted Jopson, whose promotion was a moment of sunlight for everyone. Every man stepped up to the plate when it was his turn, even if it took a few hours to tell their faces apart.
My favorite scene, perhaps of the entire series, was the seven-minute two-hander at the start of “Terror Camp Clear” when Crozier and Fitzjames took stock of their unlikely friendship. Tobias Menzies was heartbreakingly vulnerable as he recounted his bastard upbringing, which manifested in adulthood as a desperate need to hide his shame by only seeming valiant, decorous, and capable. Equally touching was the performance Harris gave in response; these two men were rivals, if not enemies, but circumstances forced them to find the humanity in each other, and Fitzjames’s rapid deterioration and final goodbye played my heartstrings with virtuosity.
The Terror has been floated by AMC as a possible anthology series, where each year a different production team might present a new story of historical horror. I have a hard time believing this will be topped. Not just for the quality of its cast and production — the stunning atmospheres that often evoked a fog-drenched Turner painting, or the seamless visual effects that made a studio-bound shoot look infinite — but for its thoughtful characterizations and careful deconstruction of masculinity and imperialism. The men of the Franklin Expedition believed it was their God-given destiny to find the Northwest Passage and expand the glory of Britain. Ironically, it would be the rescue parties that would do the mapping that would lead to the passage’s discovery. A century later, after the empire had collapsed, the long-lasting effects of the Industrial Revolution would melt the Arctic ice enough for the ships to be rediscovered. The margin between progress and self-destruction has always been thin.