TV has rarely been put to good use as an artistic medium – the entertainment value that has, in recent years, become an integral part of every artistic effort is there, but the artistry itself is nowhere to be found, sacrificed in the name of cheap thrills and instant gratification, as evidenced by the slow yet steady decay in the quality of writing of shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. Certain tropes and behavioral cliches have cemented themselves in television and one would be hard pressed to escape the constant onslaught of genre schlock. Instances of plot armoring, irrational decision making in service of a shoddily planned out story, Mary Sues and Marty Stus are all aplenty, and these are just some of the most superficial and glaring examples of lazy writing that can be encountered in the majority of modern TV shows. That isn’t necessarily bad, if of course one has a particular predisposition towards, say, drawn out soap operas set against the back drop of a poorly outlines zombie apocalypse with only a very limited set of rules governing the in-story world.
But every once in a while there arises a show that breaks the mold in more ways than one and earns the right to be analyzed as a serious work of art, worthy of both the praise and criticism inherent to careful scrutinizing. The latest to do so is AMC’s The Terror, a 10 episode period piece based on Dan Simmons’ eponymous book. The story is that of the real life search for the Northwest Passage on what would be Sir John Franklin’s final expedition. A cursory glance at the historical facts surrounding this expedition is more than enough to gain a rather firm grasp as to the tone of the show that’s based on it – dreariness, dread, claustrophobia and, most of all, utter, crushing hopelessness. It becomes abundantly evident from the get-go what the fate of the 132 strong crew of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror will be, and nonetheless the viewer is invited to insert themselves into the life of these ships, to get a feel for the nautical life. This very quality is one of The Terror‘s biggest strengths – its ability to construct realistic interpersonal relationships, to lead the viewer through the world of this isolated hyper-masculine community during its hour of distress and still invite empathy and sentimentality while deftly avoiding the pitfalls of melodrama and faux-emotionality. Characters grow and change before the viewer’s very eyes; as the years pass and the ‘man vs. nature’ narrative solidifies itself as the thematic center of the show, we witness the natural progression of humans under extreme duress and in conditions that few men of the modern ages could even begin to understand. And it’s not a case of virtuous men becoming wicked cannibals out of desperation and hunger, it’s a complex set of transformations that are all borne out of the material necessities and realities of each individual’s experiences, the best parallel I could come up with off-top would be the virtue system of Darkest Dungeon in cinematic form, except rather than having pure RNG dictate the virtues and shortcomings of characters, we see clear causational links between the person’s journey and their final state. Tiny details about each character reveal themselves through meaningful scenes, some of them quick and to the point, others longer, more dialogue-driven and harder to understand in the moment but extremely satisfying and helpful in retrospect. This is partly why mainstream audiences have reacted rather negatively towards this show, often recoiling in disgust at its ‘slow pace’ and ‘boringly long scenes’, both traits that, quite ironically, are shared by another one of AMC’s shows, international hit The Walking Dead, but whereas The Terror‘s pace is deliberate and thought out even when it stagnates, TWD is simply a mess in terms of story structure and plot progression, to the point where it seems as if the show creators themselves are having trouble figuring out how to turn the abomination into something at least somewhat presentable, to no particular avail, one might add.
What allows The Terror‘s brilliant characterization to shine is the stellar camera work; the first half of the season is a wonderful exercise in claustrophobic cinematography -frames within frames, slight camera movements in constrained areas, long takes of dialogue set to ambient natural lighting in dimly lit cabins that sway back and forth ever so slightly, wonderful character set-pieces that are aided by deliberate blocking and composition. Those episodes set on the ship are cozy and quaint and make for a great viewing experience both aesthetically and intellectually even without provoking the viewer to constantly be on the look out for details or intense action scenes (of which there is a surprising amount, thanks to a certain supernatural subplot).
The second half of the season sees the crew leaving the confines of the grounded ships and venturing out into the barren wastelands of the Arctic – never before have such vast expanses of land seemed so constraining, so suffocating. Flat, traversable land as far as the eye can see, and nary a second goes by without the viewer feeling like they would like nothing more than to retreat into one of the crew’s crude tents in order to hide from the crushing emptiness that makes all that empty space seem paradoxically insignificant and devoid of sense. Again, this is all enhanced by some stellar cinematography, mainly the way the void is framed by the camera and always made to serve as more of a backdrop to what is happening inside the characters’ tired minds and weak bodies. At times The Terror almost looks like part of an extended cut of The Revenant, with its icy color palette and the occasional jerking motions that are reminiscent of the ones Lubezki weaved into his one takes in Iñárritu’s movie.
Unlike most wastelands in film and literature, this one isn’t meant to symbolize any sort of spiritual emptiness or a search for some existential truth, The Terror is as old-fashioned as old-fashioned gets in that it is purely a story about Man’s struggle against Nature, a desperate battle not for dominance, but for a meager survival. There’s very little that could be described as philosophical about The Terror, save for some one-off musings by characters that are at the very edge of their physical capabilities. Instead, there is an intense examination of the psychology of struggle, a visceral representation of how far one would go in order to insure one’s own continued existence in a rather primitive and animalistic sort of way.
All of this plays out like a fever dream, the entire show feels like a series of vivid nightmares that you would hastily scribble down in your notebook upon waking up. The editing often breaks chronology to show characters retreating into moments of joy in their old lives as their current predicament becomes too much to bear; at other points scenes seem to jump around in a somewhat disjointed manner which makes the experience all the more terrifying as you’re bombarded with an endless stream of discussions or occurrences that serve only to solidify the dreadful awareness of things to come. Well, one thing to come, really; death has never been more palpable than in The Terror, its presence is at first a source of mobilization and fear, then an almost comfortable companionship, at least from the viewer’s standpoint, as the crew’s situation becomes ever more bleak, ever more excruciating in its hopelessness. Each main character to die receives a sort of send-off scene, a delicately directed and personalized take on their final moments – we get a glimpse at what these men think of as they go into the long night, their fears, their regrets, their pain. What’s most impressive is how tasteful each of these scenes is, the characters we’ve come to know, and in some cases even love, keep their grace and emotional depth even as they sometimes struggle with shocking physical injuries and illness.
Overall, I’m quite stoked about this show. It’s a brilliant work of art that I truly didn’t expect to see being produced by AMC, one that displays technical proficiency, attention to detail, and a love for storytelling. I can confidently say that The Terror is one of the greatest shows of the 21st century.