[Editor’s Note: Before we say anything, this recap will obviously go into detail about last night’s episode of The Terror, so there are going to be a ton of SPOILERS. Beginning now.]
Two episodes in, I was impressed. Three episodes in and I’m sort of scared. No, really, I’m actually feeling nervous. The Terror continues to impress through its fantastic attention to historic detail and production value, aka its wonderful realism, but also through it’s masterful surrealism. This shit is literally terrifying on every level; and the fear it creates is austere, cold, and pure. This isn’t cheap gimmick jump scare through musical cues and hackneyed violins: this is primal, fight or flight (or just fucking fright) fear.
There’s no need to try to assess The Terror with any type of smarts, it’s obvious why it works on many levels. The promise behind the title is fulfilled with he basic premise: two ships of men are stranded in the arctic, frozen in the ice, without hope of rescue or salvation. They’re well equipped and well stocked, so it will be a slow evolution into chaos and desperation. Similarly, knowing one of the two ships is named The Terror would have been enough to satisfy me further on that front; I get it, you’re being clever, well done. Starvation. Exposure. Freezing. Drowning. Disease. Isolation. Hopelessness. Winter is coming done already came. It’s scary. Now add in some man-eating polar bears. Scarier. Now make it supernatural? Just plain silly scary.
“The Ladder” delivers everything the series had hinted at thus far, and then some. Deliberate pacing that traces Sir John’s inability to heed the advice of others who’ve already faced the challenges he faces now (through flashbacks and current action on the ice). Ignoring the recommendations of his second in command the send a party to seek rescue (on an 800 mile, 3 month trek over the ice), Sir John seeks to ride it out and hope for the best.
But, I’m pretty sure the eskimo who got shot in the face in episode 2, who reappears as a very dead corpse in episode 3, was hoping for the best, right up until the penultimate moment when said face met with said bullet. It didn’t do him much good either.
This episode seems to focus on and punish the good natured (or ignorant) idealism and hopefulness of the Captain of the Erebus and leader of the expedition, Sir John. He ignores a man from his past who warns him to enhance his preparations for the arctic (including developing an escape plan). He ignores the advice of his second, Captain Crozier, a man who has imminently more experience in these conditions. And he seems to ignore, or disregard the needs of the remains of the slain eskimo and his surviving daughter (or at least loosely).
As whatever besets the sailors seems to take a human sort of revenge upon them in their killings also seems to take pity on the woman (even going so far as to order her some take out, a la one dead baby seal–so cute), it appears we’re getting some sort of allegorical moment wherein the white men are beset upon by supernatural doings for their misdeeds. In this case, what are their misdeeds? Being in the arctic? Being white men? Perhaps being men in terribly silly hats? They hadn’t done much “wrong” when the (we’ll call it a polar bear for now) bear first showed up, thus leading to the accidental shooting.
Obviously, when the polar bear rips off Sir John’s leg and drags him to the ice hole to drop him, alive, into the freezing water below, is definite recompense for the disposal of the murdered (accidental or no) eskimo’s body by means of the same hole. Dialogue tells us that the eskimo system of beliefs wouldn’t allow for this, but the men do it anyway. I don’t know about you, but their needing to form another 10 foot hole through the ice was ample justification for using the existing hole, at least in my mind.
That’s when the deliberate pacing pays off big time. When the attack does come. We all know it’s coming, but there are multiple moments that build towards it that don’t, quite intentionally, deliver it. You’re almost past waiting for it when it does happen. It’s effective reduction of expectation and it makes the ultimate reward that much the sweeter.
The Terror, 2 weeks and three episodes in, continues to be some of the most complete and best programming on television–kudos, AMC.