Spoiler warning for The Terror finale, “We Are Gone.”
After the first few episodes of AMC’s The Terror, it might be easy to point to the bear-like Tuunbaq as the cause of all of the Erebus and Terror’s problems. But by the end, one wonders, did we even need the Tuunbaq in this queasy tale of man’s endless capability to mess things up for himself? The horrors aboard the two ships began with hubris, and then were sealed with ice. Lead-poisoned madness led to mutiny and cannibalism, and ultimately, the death of everyone aboard (except Crozier who, let’s be honest, was essentially the living dead at that point). Even without the Tuunbaq and the shamanism surrounding him, there was plenty to abjectly terrify us about the circumstances of this doomed expedition. But the show’s greatest feat, perhaps, was telling us boldly from the start that everyone was going to perish, and yet, we still cared deeply about and even rooted for the men to escape. That is madness. And great television.
The final hour, “We Are Gone,” followed in the pattern of the episode before it by being, essentially, one long death march. You could argue the entire season was just that, but things had gotten particularly perilous as the remaining men starved, went mad, and split up the group into smaller and smaller parties. The season played out like a slow-motion train wreck — you know when Sir John refuses to listen to Crozier’s warnings about the ice that that will prove fatal, you know that the early hints of Hickey’s mutinous mindset (and, for what it’s worth, identity fraud) will infect the men, and you also know that the revelations about the lead leeching into the tins confirmed everyone’s fate even more than that roving monster. They were never prepared for this journey (look at that wool!), and as Crozier says in the finale, they were never meant to see the Tuunbaq because they were never meant to be there in the first place.
For his part, the Tuunbaq seemed like he could have been, at least at first, a metaphor for the fears (both rational and irrational) that the men of both ships faced. And given some of that goofy CGI (that really did stand out in a series that was otherwise extremely careful about its gorgeously crafted aesthetic), perhaps it should have stayed that way. But the Tuunbaq’s presence did put a point on the men’s chaotic and ultimately futile attempts at survival. It was certainly more dramatic to see them bitten in half, stuffed down ice holes, missing the top of their heads, and having their souls sucked out than to just see everyone slowly dying of lead poisoning and the machinations of newborn cannibals (although I would argue that spending more time with Edward Little as he afixed the gold tassels of his uniform to his face would have been worth watching). And as much as I loved the way The Terror didn’t explain a lot of its action or the choices of its characters, the soul-sucking aspect of the Tuunbaq could have used a little more exploration. That effect was one of the show’s more Lynchian aspects, where it rather perfectly combined a nautical, historical adventure tale with pure horror. To die is one thing, but to lose one’s soul is quite another.
It’s worth noting that much of that horror came because of how much we cared about these men. Everyone will have had their favorite crew members of Erebus and Terror, and watching them die one by one was never easy. Mr. Blanky had gotten the badass send-off he deserved (covered in forks!) but for the most part, the end points for some of the show’s sweetest characters were also some of the worst to behold. Poor Jobson, realizing that the healthier men were abandoning the sick, crawled out onto the rocks, believing that his beloved Crozier was feasting and ignoring him rather than helping tend to him — and he died that way. Goodsir, who was always too pure for this world, tried so hard to befriend Lady Silence and save the men from lead … and in the end, had to carve up a murdered man to serve to the others. Plagued by this and the knowledge of his impending death, he sped things up and poisoned himself in the hopes of infecting the others. It didn’t seem to work particularly well, but it did lead to an egregious number of scenes that featured a carved-up Goodsir ripening in the sun.
If there is one death that may have drawn cheers, it was Hickey (or the man who was pretending to be Hickey) getting his comeuppance. In his madness or his arrogance (or both), he felt that he had either tamed the Tuunbaq, controlled it, or was somehow at one with it. To his surprise (and my delight), he was chomped up and torn apart with spectacular vigor, just before Crozier was able to choke the bear-creature to death and save himself. Even then I thought, he’s done it! He’s going back to England! But as Crozier soon realizes himself — if he didn’t already know it — there was no going back. After what he had seen and experienced, there was no way that he could have ever returned to London society life with those ghosts forever haunting him. He was a captain, and he had to stay with his ship in that lonely, icy wilderness, warning all who tried to come to find them to turn back, for God’s sake, turn back.
It’s a rare live-action TV series these days that focuses on adventure, but The Terror shows why we could use more of it. The limited format is also a perfect restraint against keeping beloved characters alive or focusing on bizarre twists just to sustain the series. The Terror was also successful in combining a number of different, perhaps formerly disparate genres, into a unique and unusual package, one that was incredibly engaging from the start. Its tone and aesthetic were beautiful, haunting, and often surreal, while its commitment to episodic storytelling (where each episode was a distinct experience, and not enslaved to serving plot points for an overall narrative) made it a fantastic weekly watch. The exceptional cast made us truly care about these doomed sailors, which made it all an unexpectedly emotional experience, one that felt like it had real stakes even though we knew from the start that all was lost. But it was also an arctic thriller that, even as the thaw of spring has come, haunts us with the thought of facing a wilderness of our making.