Men Are More Monstrous than Man-Eaters as AMC’s ‘The Terror’ Comes to a Chilling End

AMC’s “The Terror” ends on a cold note of honor. The horrors of survival are buried in an ice-hole. The secrets frozen in time, protected from the elements just as the Northwest Passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans is protected by a code of silence surrounded by a barrier of arctic freeze. There is wonder in the middle of nowhere, as much as there is terror and danger. The Eskimos know this and employ shamans to bridge the gap, much like the great wall on Skull Island keeps the natives safe from the mighty King Kong. All gods are beasts, callously indifferent to the needs and care of their all-too-human followers. All beasts are gods, insensitively chomping prey because they are hungry or threatened.

The crew lost their god-but-otherwise-fearless leader, Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin, played by Ciaran Hinds, who played Caesar on HBO’s “Rome” and the king beyond the walls on “Game of Thrones,” early in the season. Sir John was an early victim of the arctic predator and his death leaves a power struggle that ultimately pulls the crews of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror as far apart as the Tuunbaq ripped the admiral. At first, the stranded shipmates circumnavigate between the leadership of the expedition’s  second-in-command, Captain James Fitzjames, played with a stiff upper lip by Tobias Menzies, who played Brutus on HBO’s “Rome” and Edmure Tully on “Game of Thrones,” and Jared Harris’ Captain Francis Crozier, a veteran explorer who has ventured this far north for the British Navy before.

In spite of their differing styles and backgrounds, the two officers are able to keep the crews subordinate and united, aided by the outside threat of the Tuunbaq, the creature only the Eskimo shaman Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen) can communicate with. But once the crew is forced to abandon the ice-grounded ship, the men are divided by mate Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis). The final episode reveals Hickey to be a man on the run who impersonated the crewmember to get out of England to the sunny beaches of Tahiti. Never expecting to spend more than two years on ice, the former criminal turns his able shipmates against each other, because he has nowhere to return.

He has help. Men left to their own devices away from civilization will give in to natural urges soon enough. The ship’s doctor Dr. Stephen Stanley (Alistair Petrie) puts out some small psychological fires while the men are still bound to the ship. But after a fire is set during a carnival meant to lift their morale, the men become unmoored. The rations are not only insufficient, but the ship’s surgeon Dr. Henry Goodsir (Paul Ready) also notes that they are tainted by lead, which is eating at the men’s minds. Meanwhile, the men begin dining on each other. Goodsir offers himself up as a cannibalistic farewell dinner, but only to further the ends of his own sense of civilization.

Goodsir is the liaison between the British and the shaman. While he can’t get her to give him intelligence on the creature who is hunting the crew, it is his sense of duty to a higher civilization that keeps the moral compass of the explorers on course.

The special effects are very realistic. The wounds and cutting are painful. Small details like the skin that is pulled by makeshift piercings or broken by glass in the doctor’s suicide appear so realistic in their simple presentation that they are wince-provoking. The larger effects, such as when the Tuunbaq bites off a head or a leg, or a wonderful mid-season scene on a mast that was almost a trapeze ballet, are effective in building suspense. But they also bring the instant gratification of catharsis, even as each violent thrust builds to greater danger.

The Terror” is an adaptation of the novel by Dan Simmons, which told the true story of an 1845 Royal Navy expedition that went missing in the Canadian Arctic, costing 129 crewmen their lives. The two ships from the original expedition were discovered in 2014 and 2016, but the excavation didn’t answer what happened to the crews. Director Edward Berger ends the series by keeping that secret sacred, surrounded by a code of honor and forever frozen in wonder.

The Terror” finale aired May 21 on AMC.