THE TERROR Review: TV’s Coldest, Bleakest Adventure

AMC hits a home run with a historical fiction masterpiece.

AMC’s historical-fiction horror series The Terror reached its quiet, sombre conclusion last week, and I feel like it went underappreciated. The season finale closed out a frankly goddamn spectacular work of dread and despair, a smart adaptation of Dan Simmons’ novel, and one of the most well-made prestige TV shows in recent memory. By its very nature (telling the imagined story of a legendary lost Arctic voyage), the show clearly won’t receive a second season - but we can celebrate its near-perfect run nonetheless.

The Terror follows the crews of two 19th-century ships seeking the Northwest Passage in the Arctic Circle, and as such, it’s a fascinating study in survival and psychology at the end of the Earth. Indeed, through various crewmembers, the show examines what it even means to survive: historically, psychologically, and even supernaturally.

On its most basic level, and its most historically plausible, The Terror is a procedural drama about how 19th-century sailors survived in the Arctic. Taking place over multiple years, the show digs deep into the harsh realities of that era’s exploration. Cold is a chief enemy, of course: we witness amputations of frostbitten toes and larger limbs, while the seemingly endless Arctic night takes a more psychological toll. Their ships immobilised, the sailors are forced to haul sleds across ice and rock in search of warmer climes, friendly people, or indeed any sign of salvation. In terms of the decisions made by its characters, it’s like an adaptation of The Oregon Trail.

But the environment is the least of the crews’ worries. The ongoing story arcs all examine different ways things in the far North can go south, escalating to stomach-turning levels of anxiety and dread. As the expedition wears on, the crew grows sicker and sicker in both body and mind - eventually traced to lead poisoning from the cheaply-tinned food they’ve been eating for years, and with no other options, they suffer reopened sores, rotting gums, and delirium. One unstable crewmember foments discontent and stages a mutiny, leading desperate men to acts of cannibalism and eventually their deaths. Even the officers’ attempts to lighten the mood further lower it - most notably, a carnival at the Arctic dawn that turns into a literal inferno of horrors. And through it all, the crew is hunted and torn to shreds by an enormous, supernatural bear-like creature known as a Tuunbaaq. Death is everywhere.

Indeed, even when people aren’t dying, The Terror’s atmosphere is laden with dread and depression. The show’s visual imagery and dramatic vignettes illustrate primal despair: men covered in sores drifting into catatonic states; other men just laying down to die in the ice; a man near death clawing his way across an imaginary banquet table. Characters make horrendous decisions in order to survive a couple hours longer - or they simply decide not to live. If it all sounds depressing, it is, but nobody on the show would tell you that; its characters routinely exhibit identifiable symptoms of mental illness that, thanks to this being the 1840s, went undiagnosed. So instead, everything’s infused with a quiet, surreal sense of despair. 

The Terror is an exceptionally well-produced show, with poetic writing, gorgeous cinematography (incredibly, shot mostly on sound stages), and makeup that ranges from subtly deepening blemishes to horrific gore effects. But its potent atmosphere comes just as much from a supremely talented cast. Jared Harris is a stunning lead as Captain Crozier, embodying strength of command while maintaining layers of self-doubt, alcoholism, and empathy. Ciarán Hinds' Sir John Franklin is a compelling avatar for the British admiralty's hubris. As mutineer Cornelius Hickey, breakout star Adam Nagaitis is a blend of charisma, conspiracy, and creepiness. Utopia’s Paul Ready is the show’s tender heart as thoughtful ship’s surgeon Goodsir, and Game of Thrones’ Tobias Menzies gets one of the best story arcs as the rapidly upskilling Commander James Fitzjames. The show’s best moment belongs to Ian Hart as ice master Thomas Blanky, however, whose final scene is a triumphant and weird exclamation point. And as the show’s sole regular female character, the First Nations woman nicknamed Lady Silence, Nive Nielsen is a well of stoically-masked emotion.

As might be expected from a show about finding the Northwest Passage, a theme of colonialism runs subtly throughout The Terror. With the exception of Crozier and Goodsir, who trust and respect the indigenous population, most of the crew's actions towards the First Nations people are awful. When they're not spreading superstition and fear, they're actively attacking them and looting their corpses - to say nothing of the arrogance of storming through someone else's country with manifest destiny in your sails. Britain's obsession with locating the Northwest Passage is the reason for the deceasin’: even the endlessly-debated rescue operations are largely motivated by the fabled Passage. At one point, Goodsir attempts to explain the mission to Lady Silence - but concepts like “economy,” “trade,” and “empire” are alien ideas. 

The Terror changed plenty in its adaptation from page to screen, and pretty much entirely for the best. It smartly leans further away from the supernatural, understanding that the terror coming from within the crew is far more compelling than any CGI creature could be. Various plot details are altered here and there, but most importantly, the show’s denouement is considerably reworked. Not only is much of the book’s mystical exposition removed, Crozier’s ending is left more ambiguous - a vast improvement on what was the novel’s weakest point.

Smart, self-contained series like The Terror are few and far between. I’ve rarely been more completely gripped by a show than by this one - partially thanks to my love of historical fiction, but mostly because it’s just that well-produced. It’s got the soul-shuddering dread of The Thing and the period authenticity of Master & Commander. If that sounds like your kind of thing, it probably is.

The Terror is now available on Amazon Prime Video. Get out there, and wrap up warm.