Watch this: “The Terror,” a deliciously brutal fusion of history and horror

Ships are supposed to go in water, aren’t they?
Ships are supposed to go in water, aren’t they?
Image: AMC
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Watch This is a Quartzy recommendation series that spotlights new television shows to check out. You’ll find all the entries here.

Murderous bears are having one hell of a month.

AMC’s new miniseries The Terror is the latest Hollywood production to go all-in on giant bear-like monsters. Based on the novel of the same name by Dan Simmons, The Terror depicts an expedition through Arctic waters where just about everything goes very wrong, very quickly.

Based loosely on a true story, it stars English actor Jared Harris, who trades in the posh furnishings and cocktail carts of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce office in Mad Men (his biggest and best TV role to date) for the rancid, scurvy-afflicted bowels of the HMS Terror, one of two Royal Navy ships searching for a way through the Northwest Passage in the mid-19th century. Harris’ Francis Crozier, a logical but deeply aloof man, commands the Terror, though must defer all important decisions to Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds), the leader of the entire expedition, who captains the other ship in the pair, the HMS Erebus.

The two have a complicated history—flashbacks show Franklin encouraging his niece not to marry Crozier—which adds an extra layer of stress to what’s already an incredibly stressful situation. Despite Crozier’s pleas to turn back, Franklin, an aged man past his prime desperate for one last glory, leads the expedition onward into winter, when they become stranded, stuck in ice somewhere in the Arctic.

Then a ferocious, enigmatic, bear-like creature starts to stalk the men.

Everything up until the creature is based on real events. Franklin’s expedition really did become lost in the ice shortly after departing in 1845. Historians have pieced together the crew’s last days, concluding that they all likely succumbed to disease, starvation, or hypothermia (as well as possible cannibalism).

There’s nothing about a bear, but that’s where Simmons’ acclaimed novel comes in. In a deliciously brutal combination of actual history and horror-fantasy, both Simmons’ book and the TV series add a malevolent ice beast to the seamen’s woes. Through the first three episodes, viewers barely get a glimpse of the creature, but it’s clear that it’s large, aggressive, and intelligent.

After both ships become wedged in ice, Franklin sends out several small parties in each direction to search for signs of a thaw nearby. None find any, but one group does bump into an Inuit woman and her father.

the terror amc
Image: AMC

This woman, who becomes known as “Lady Silence” for her reluctance to speak, seems to know a lot more about the creature than she lets on. She is the only real female character in the show (some others are presented in flashbacks), which is unfortunate. But the show plays out as an effective commentary on toxic masculinity, showing that whenever and wherever jealous, prideful, or spiteful men inflict their wills on others—whether it’s in a Hollywood office in 2018 or on a rickety ship in the middle of an ice floe in the 1840s—no one comes out the better for it.

The Terror is a compelling, old-fashioned yarn that demands to be binged—ideally curled up under a heap of blankets one snowy weekend. The 10-episode miniseries moves along at a brisk pace but never sacrifices attention to detail. All the harrowing truths of life aboard a ship in the 19th century are painstakingly realized, from the logistics of the ship’s innards to the crude and cringe-inducing medical techniques of the day (which call to mind another period piece in the HBO family, Cinemax’s The Knick).

Perhaps as a nod to the show’s bingeability, AMC is making all ten episodes available to certain subscribers when the premiere airs on Monday (March 26). Everyone else, they’ll just have to wait each week in terror.