Many of the best shows of the year so far have been the old-fashioned miniseries, or “limited series,” as they’re now called, and AMC’s The Terror turned out to be no exception. This outstanding chamber piece set in the middle of the Arctic during the 1840’s was a master class in suspense, mood, subtle and precise acting from some terrific British veterans of the craft, and yet it’s just so harsh.
Not that that’s a bad thing necessarily, but this one may be tough to binge. Based on a novel by Dan Simmons, Ciaran Hinds leads a crew of explorers set to discover the notorious Northwest Passage, but winds up a victim of his own hubris as the doomed ships HMS Terror and Erebus ultimately meet a horrifying fate. The first two episodes of this ten episode series are a slow burn, with the various crew members introduced, and the origins of the expedition established, but we’re treated to some top notch acting from Hinds as Sir John, Jared Harris as Captain Francis Crozier and Tobias Menzies of Outlander fame as Commander James Fitzjames. It takes a while to set up the action, but the haunting quality of the atmosphere permeates quickly, and a permanent feeling of dread soon entrenches the proceedings.
There’s a monster of some kind deep in the snow surrounding the frozen ships, but the nature of it is a mysterious entity that confounds even the natives of the area. The show is wise not to show too much of it, preferring to let the terror (so to speak) linger around the frame as crew members are picked off one by one in the neverending darkness of the frozen landscape. By the end of the shocking third episode, you’ll probably be hooked on the mystery and horror of it all, but this is a series that is rich in characterization and personal conflict as well. Jared Harris steals the show as the alcoholic yet highly capable captain as he’s faced with no good options and forced to make one ill fated decision after another, while the villainous ship’s mate Cornelius Hickey (deliciously played by Adam Nagaitis) proves man can be a greater evil than any physical beast in existence.
There is one female presence in the series in Nive Nielsen as “Lady Silence,” the local Inuit who has some contact of her own with the beast and acts as a semi-guide in some episodes, but this is a story about the British Navy in the mid-nineteenth century, so an all male, Master and Commander-type environment is to be expected. The performances rise above though, as aside from Harris, I especially enjoyed Menzies and Paul Ready as one of the ship’s doctors. I can’t stress enough however, the unrelenting bleakness of the show’s tone. This a dark, pessimistic view of both human nature and the nature of survival, which makes the act of getting through it feel like something of an accomplishment in itself. Yet the skill with which it’s achieved is astonishing at times, both in its desolation and beauty. Highly recommended.