“The Inuit in The Terror feel completely authentic thanks to the casting of Inuk actors and in-depth research by the show’s producers.”
Title: The Terror
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: David Kajganich 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Soo Hugh 👩🏻🇺🇸, based on the novel by Dan Simmons 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: David Kajganich 👨🏼🇺🇸 (4 eps), Soo Hugh 👩🏻🇺🇸 (2 eps), Gina Welch 👩🏼🇺🇸 (1 ep), Josh Parkinson (1 ep), Vinnie Wilhelm 👨🏼🇺🇸(1 ep), and Andres Fischer-Centeno (1 ep)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
6/29/2019: Updated LGBTQ category
It’s hard to find a good historical drama that satisfies with nostalgia yet avoids the backwards trappings of the past. Recent options like HBO’s Chernobyl or The Alienist from TNT deliver in abundance on the former, but an old boys’ club continues to make up their storytellers, actors, and to an extent, intended viewers. Meanwhile, wider audiences are treated to tokenized women or vehement defenses of “historical accuracy” in favor of a whitewashed history.
I worried that AMC’s The Terror, inspired by Sir John Franklin’s 19th century expedition to seek out the Northwest Passage, might follow the above formula. But intrigued by its ascetic, icy world and the promise of scintillating horror, I still wanted to give it a try...and I’m glad I did.
Gratuitous gore—to a level that recalls executive producer Ridley Scott’s Alien movies—spills across the season’s 10-episode run, creating a visceral experience that sticks with you. Depending on your tolerance for violence, this could either be good or bad. (Personally, I delight in the ritual of hiding behind my hands and yelling nonsensically at the television, both of which The Terror delivers ample opportunity for.)
Unfortunately, the pacing of the show skitters and stretches, adding to the confusion of an intricate plot that unravels the moment you miss one detail. Scenes transition with temporal or locational abruptness, their breaks clearly intended for the padding (and emotional respite) of chipper commercials rather than Netflix-style binge watching. At the same time, dreary monologues can bleed into each other, not unlike the way hordes of haggard and bearded seamen remain nearly indistinguishable across the series. Remembering who’s who becomes a chore, rather than an organic process.
Still, these detractions shrink in the face of what The Terror does well. Creator David Kajganich and fellow showrunner Soo Hugh build an impactful cautionary tale against hubris that will haunt you, if only you let yourself submerge.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? NOPE, not once across all 10 episodes
When assessing representation in The Terror, a recurring theme comes through: Showrunners Kajganich and Hugh impress with depth over breadth. For starters, Hugh herself provides a welcome voice in a male-dominated field, where only 11% of showrunners were women in 2017. Unfortunately, the pool of talent that surrounds her drops off, with only one other teleplay in the season credited to a woman and no female directors at all.
Similarly, only one woman onscreen boasts any substance in the show. Silna or “Lady Silence” (Nive Nielsen), an Inuk woman with mysterious ties to the creature mauling the ship’s crew, sees meager screen time but packs nuance, alluded backstory, and a plotline that staunchly avoids objectification or stereotype. For example, the trickiest subplot to handle involves Silna’s unsolicited capture by rogue seamen who go against the captain's orders in the attempts to take justice into their own hands. The episode mounts with tension as a wrist-bound Silna gets frog-marched through the ship, where over a hundred angry, desperate men have already convinced themselves that she’s to blame for the violent deaths of their friends. Luckily—and perhaps aided by Gina Welch’s sensitive script—the plot never devolves into low-hanging plot devices, like sexual assault or having a glorified hero come in to save her from the mob. Instead, Silna’s characterization stands on its own, as viewers are clearly aware that even the “good” white men who lead her out of the fraught situation remain complicit in the murder of her father and, later in the series, a fellow Netsilik Inuit family.
Not only does Hugh pave the way for female showrunners, she does so as a Korean American. In 2017, just 2% of showrunners were women of color—a pathetic number compared to their share of the population, where women of color make up roughly 1 in 5 Americans. Unfortunately, Hugh is dwarfed by white colleagues in the making of The Terror.
Onscreen, too, white men monopolize the cast and narrative. But Inuk characters do prove instrumental to understanding the Tuunbaq, a bear-like monster that destroys the British Royal Navymen like an angry god of death. In a gesture toward authenticity, showrunners Kajganich and Hugh did their homework to ensure respectful depictions of the Arctic natives who were crucial in the historical piecing together of what went down during the Franklin Expedition in reality. It’s only thanks to their oral histories that author Simmons was able to pen his gothic horror novel at all.
Kat Eschner writes for Smithsonian.com, “AMC sought out Inuk actors and consulted with Inuit authorities to make the show authentic—a marked departure from the way Inuit culture and identity is handled in many other portrayals.”
For example, the casting of Inuk actors into Inuk roles supports a community of talent normally overlooked by Hollywood. But The Terror hardly receives the short end of the stick. Rather, unique insights are contributed by Inuk actors like Nielsen, who hails from Greenland and plays Silna; Igloolik actor Apayata Kotierk who plays her father; or Nunavut actor Johnny Issaluk, in a small role as a hunter.
Nielsen describes the experience, saying, “[Kajganich and Hugh] would ask me questions, like, ‘What do you think she would do, or feel?’ It was definitely very collaborative and open.” Thankfully, producers refrained from solely relying on their actors to essentially do double-duty as consultants, and also reached out to organizations like the Inuit Heritage Counsel for more research.
Their efforts do not go unnoticed, and the final portrayal of the Inuit in The Terror—while minimal in screen time or depth of character, and who still can’t seem to shake a level of mysticism that plagues so many indigenous roles—at the very least feels completely authentic.
One might expect a higher score in this category, considering how The Terror features at least two queer sailors, Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) and his skittish paramour, William Gibson (Edward Ashley). In addition, romantic love is alluded to between Harry Peglar (Kevin Guthrie) and the older John Bridgens (John Lynch), but the show depicts their close relationship as mostly between a mentor and his mentee.
The introduction between Hickey and Gibson starts off well enough. They're discovered mid-tryst by a pious senior officer, John Irving (Ronan Raftery), who proverbially clutches his pearls while his sailors scramble to rearrange their clothes. The ensuing dynamic between Gibson and Hickey, wherein Gibson blushes a lot and Hickey tries to woo him with jewelry stolen off dead bodies (swoon!), could be the start of something nuanced, even sweet.
Unfortunately, writers dig themselves a six-foot ditch and throw Hickey’s character into it, burying him in stereotypes about gay men being manipulative villains. (See: Downton Abbey’s Mr. Barrow, also British and also harboring a troubled past that never really absolves him of his despicable actions.)
Hickey manipulates good men for his own purposes, mutinies against his captain, stabs characters like the aforementioned Irving 27 times in the chest and frames the Inuit for it, leading to the murder of an innocent Inuit family that destroys any hope for the starving navy men to request aid from the local population. As for the culmination of the show’s sole queer relationship? Hickey mercy kills and eats poor, sickly Mr. Gibson.
To make matters worse, Hickey’s homosexuality was fabricated for the TV series. Novelist Simmons clarifies:
“The Cornelius Hickey I created for my novel The Terror wasn't gay...My novel looks at another—and truly loving—male/male relationship aboard The Terror, but that's only hinted at in the series.”
While Hickey’s actor Nagaitis specifically sought to make his character complex, which could have been a positive example of LGBTQ representation, the sticking point for me remains the way Hickey feels irredeemable. Plenty of other flawed but well-rounded characters exist: Sir John Franklin (Ciaran Hinds), the leader of the expedition, leads his men to their deaths thanks to hubris, but he was always trying to do the right thing. Captain James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) also valued vanity over safety, but his narrative receives an incredible backstory later in the series that invokes sympathy for his character. In contrast, Hickey’s sole redemption lies in the excuse that he was a sociopath or was deeply affected by lead poisoning. Call me greedy, but I simply think there were better ways Kajganich and Hugh could have worked in LGBTQ characters. They had two ships full of men through which liaisons could have been introduced and explored.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 2.88/5
If you want to disappear into a weighty, horrific escapist hell that avoids real-world triggers against women and people of color, you could do worse than AMC’s The Terror. Having seen the careful way producers have handled Inuit representation, I’m that much more hopeful for next season’s The Terror: Infamy which will take place in Japanese internment camps during World War II. The mass incarceration of Americans by the American government feels deeply relevant to today’s inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers at the southern border, so fingers crossed the new showrunners, Alexander Woo and Max Borenstein, are up to the challenge.