[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
The men of Season 1 of “The Terror” are confined to their fates well before they realize it. Without detailing too much about the circumstances that end up befalling the Arctic voyages of the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, things only get more terrifying as that reality starts to set in for both them and those watching.
Their prospects don’t exactly improve much after, but the middle of the season delivers a particularly jarring one-two punch. After finally coming face-to-face with the creature that’s been lurking beyond the horizon up to that point, Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) proposes that a bit of celebration might put the crew in better spirits to receive the news that, with supplies dwindling, the only plan left is to leave their ships behind. “We need to give the men a last hurrah before we open their ears,” he says.
Even though the original Dan Simmons novel is drawing on the existence of the Franklin expeditions as a historical backdrop, the allegorical depth of “The Terror” as a TV adaptation proved to be one of its greatest strengths. Obstinance in the face of climate change, the erasing of indigenous cultures, the overwhelming toll of colonialism: all are fruitful readings of what the show puts forth. How fitting then, that one of the last faint glimmers of hope gets snuffed out when this group tries to numb themselves to the slow-motion horror unfolding around them.
Though the ill-fated carnival takes up less than half of the runtime of “A Mercy” — written by Vinnie Wilhelm and directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan — its ill-fated ending looms large in the overall scope of the season. Amidst a maze-like setting of painted canvases and costumes of all kinds (Fitzjames opts for a Roman centurion look), trouble soon arrives. By the episode’s end, that icy playground has become a pyre.
That the fire was started by someone who unilaterally decided that there was nothing else to be done and that the very act of saving dozens gives one of the show’s primary antagonists a chance to inflict even more harm gives the show even more prescience with each passing year. There’s an added layer of tragedy in knowing that even the recovering Captain Crozier (Jared Harris), as close to a capable leader as this group has left even in the throes of alcohol withdrawal, is powerless to stop the flames that interrupt what otherwise could have been a morale-saving speech. (Him pointing like Donald Sutherland in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” at the disaster mere seconds from unfolding is one of the more chilling images in the season.)
With even the very food they’re eating turning against them (what a cruel, appropriate twist of fate that one of the show’s biggest killers is the cost-cutting measure that turns the cans’ contents to poison), this is the point at which many of these men break with any notions of a happy ending. It’s an empire in decline in miniature.
On a weekend when we collectively lean into dressing up and facing our own fears, this episode is brutal and unsparing in showing a version of that party at the end of the world that goes full catastrophe. Whether for us it may come in the form of rising temperatures or a government that seems intent on abandoning its most vulnerable constituents or some other looming threat, “The Terror” is a portrait of how fragile this all is when things start to fray. It may be a fictional history, but it’s one worth remembering.
Pair it With: The second chapter of the audio drama anthology “Zero Hours” is a two-hander from a similar time period and a similar icy, polar setting. In 1821, a sailor’s encounter with a fellow traveler might hold the key to both of their survival, if he can realize it in time.
Other Fans: Sean T. Collins’ writing on “The Terror” is worth revisiting (even if the photos on each page are now gone). His review of this episode is both an insightful unpacking of the episode’s details, and also addresses some of the changes the show made from the source material.