Although AMC’s The Terror is adapted from Dan Simmons’s acclaimed historical novel and executive produced by Ridley Scott, with all the production value that implies, it is less a drama than a ten-hour nightmare, systematically listing all the different things that could go wrong during a 19th-century sea voyage and then visualizing them. Death by freezing, drowning, falling, suffocation, disease, animal attack: You name it, it’s here. This makes it sound as if The Terror, which premieres on Sunday night, is an unpleasant experience. It is. Oh, believe me, dear reader, it most definitely is. And there’s probably too much it. Two hours, four, even six, sure, but ten? You have to be a masochist to keep coming back.
I came back.
Showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh take their sweet time relating the story the H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror — which, in 1845, got stuck in the North Atlantic ice while traveling the last unexplored portion the Northwest Passage — expending much energy in each episode to detail the dynamics the crew. John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds), who commands the Erebus, is a likable man but clearly ill-equipped to lead an expedition this complex and important. Franklin got the job because his social class and connections, not his merit. Francis Crozier (Jared Harris), captain the Terror, is a superior seaman, but depressed and distant, at times as frigid as the water around them. He lacks people skills, as they say. He’s also Irish, a strike against him in a Navy weighted toward Englishmen. Third in the chain command is James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), a vain twit who recounts the same handful war stories at ficers’ dinners so ten that his colleagues could recite them in their sleep. The series does an excellent job observing the nuances hurt and resentment that pass among these stoic, protocol-conscious men. There’s a marvelous moment in the third episode when Crozier suggests a particular response to a crisis to Franklin, who’s sitting at a table on the other side an open doorway, and Franklin responds by casually insulting him; Crozier pauses for a second, then steps through the doorway before politely replying, a simple gesture that makes it seem as if violence is imminent.
The growing internal warfare on the ships is amplified by their dire circumstances. These men are trapped, and very soon it feels as if they’re in an icy purgatory, serving time for unknown sins. Misery after misery befalls them, and we see it all enacted in bitter detail. The filmmaking pays attention to the little (ten literally) atmospheric details, such as the way that saucer-shaped pieces ice float atop the gray Atlantic water like transparent lily pads, and the ominously loud creaks and groans the ships as they float on the ocean, the feeling collective hopelessness amplified by the way the noises carry in the dry, cold air. Many the sailors’ misfortunes are staged in the manner shocks from a horror movie in the late ’70s or early ’80s, like the original Alien or John Carpenter’s remake The Thing, or a David Cronenberg body-horror special. (We realize that a crewman has fallen ill when he starts coughing, and then a geyser shockingly red blood erupts from his mouth.)
Intimations the uncanny or supernatural are threaded throughout the series, starting with the opening flash-forward — which establishes The Terror as a story being told by someone else, in the manner a 19-century novel — through the middle section, where the crew starts to become worn down and terrified enough to lose their grip on sanity. There’s talk a monster that lives out on the ice, and in time, we also become convinced that it’s real. We see images that are probably hallucinations, such as an apparition that appears at the foot a sick man’s bed, and a corpse that floats toward a man who’s been lowered alongside a boat in a primitive diving suit, its arms eerily outstretched as if seeking an embrace. This is misery porn, beautifully rendered. Who is the audience for it? Me, obviously. Maybe you, too.