At one point in the opening episode of the new AMC show The Terror, Captain Francis Crozier looks out over the slushy Arctic water that surrounds his wooden ship. The year is 1846, and Crozier and his men are deep in the frozen archipelago of what’s now the Canadian Arctic, searching for the Northwest Passage from Europe to Asia. They’ve already been away from England for more than a year and lost three men to illness during their first isolated winter. Now their second winter is coming on strong, and more of the crew are falling sick. “This place wants us dead,” Crozier says.
His boss, Sir John Franklin, responds with stubborn hubris: “We are two weeks from finding the grail,” he says, referring to the long-sought Northwest Passage. The ships, Franklin boasts, will be in Hawaii by Christmas.
The names are real, but the exchange is fiction. No one knows what words might have passed between the two men. Franklin and Crozier, the second in command, sailed from England in May 1845 aboard the Erebus and Terror, with 127 other men, and were never heard from again.
That hasn’t stopped the show’s creator, David Kajganich, and executive producer Ridley Scott from imagining what could have happened. They use the supernatural to fill the blanks in the story of history’s most infamous Arctic expedition. The result is gripping, suspenseful, and, frankly, bloody and gory. This is a period drama for the era of The Walking Dead and The Purge. It’s dark and thrilling and kept me hooked through the finale. (But not without giving me some very weird dreams.)
The Terror, based on a novel by Dan Simmons, is indeed tapping into a rich history. Of all the European ships that searched for the Northwest Passage over the centuries, Franklin’s are by far the most well-known. They’ve received vastly more attention, at least in the English-speaking world, than Roald Amundsen’s Gjoa, the first ship to actually make it through the passage. (When it comes to polar heroes, we seem to prefer bloody mysteries and noble sacrifices to actual success.) Expedition after expedition was sent after them, mapping the Arctic as they went; book after book has since been written about their fate.
Searchers eventually found the graves of three sailors on Beechey Island, where the expedition spent its first winter. (Preserved by the permafrost, the bodies on Beechey Island have been exhumed and autopsied for clues.) But from there, the trail went largely cold. A brief message found in a cairn said that Franklin was dead, along with 23 others. The remaining men had abandoned the ships, which were trapped in unrelenting ice, and were trying to walk hundreds of miles south to the nearest trading settlement. Later, the Inuit told stories of dying men marching across King William Island, their last days marked by starvation and cannibalism—allegations the British Navy furiously rejected. But naval uniform buttons, scraps of bone (some of them scored by knives), and other remnants were eventually found there. It was more than 150 years before the two sunken ships were located: the Erebus in 2014, and the Terror in 2016. Both lay roughly where the Inuit had said they were all along.
Theory battles theory as to what went wrong. The expedition was outfitted with the best technology the Victorian world had to offer. They had years’ worth of newfangled canned food on board. How did they all wind up dead? Was it lead poisoning? Scurvy? Some unforeseen disaster? Or simple arrogance in the face of one of the planet’s harshest climates?
The Terror is built around the bits and pieces of the story that the original searchers, historians, forensic archeologists, and other experts have managed to cobble together over the decades. Franklin buffs will enjoy picking out the moments of truth from the fiction. But the genius of the show is how it chose to fill the enormous gaps in our knowledge.
I wasn’t sure how one could make compelling television out of the slow, inevitable deaths by starvation and scurvy of more than 100 men, but it turns out that creator Kajganich doesn’t really try. Instead, he spins a supernatural horror story. From the first episode (which premieres on Monday, March 26, at 9/8 Central), the tone is ominous. Everything from the score to the lighting creates a constant sense of foreboding. The sailors of the Erebus and Terror are haunted by visions, ghosts, and warnings. Soon they are hunted and brutalized by a mysterious Arctic monster. Eventually, they turn on one another. They die screaming and fighting—they do not go gently.
I’ve never seen a period drama that mixes creepiness and gore quite this way. The familiar posh English accents and elaborate Victorian costumes of a prim and proper historical film collide unexpectedly with the blood and guts of the slasher genre, and the contrast only heightens the horror. These fine navy officers with their gold epaulets had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
But the gore doesn’t undermine the acting. The lead pack of British veterans (you’ll recognize them from The Crown, Game of Thrones, and Rome) is excellent. Early on, The Terror focuses on the building tension between the relentlessly optimistic Franklin and the more jaded, sour Crozier, who slowly grows into his role as the story’s hero. Jared Harris plays Crozier as a man beaten down by past disappointments, a Cassandra whose warnings about the Arctic winter only further isolate him from his colleagues. While resentments simmer between the officers, paranoia rises down in the crew quarters and a low-ranking troublemaker named Cornelius Hickey stirs the pot. (Hickey, played by Adam Nagaitis, is the kind of scrappy, charismatic underdog you really want to root for—until suddenly you don’t.) The ships’ two doctors are the main bridge between the officers and the men, treating the wounded regardless of rank, and their assistant, an anatomist named Henry Goodsir, is the show’s moral compass. Actor Paul Ready makes Goodsir convincingly nervous, eager, and kind—a man too good for the hell he winds up in.
When Crozier says the Arctic wants them dead, he’s wrong, of course. The polar regions don’t freeze hard every winter just to spite British explorers and ruin their ambitions. People go into the wilderness and lose their way, and their lives, all the time. But it’s not the vengeful spirit of the wild that kills them. Most often, they’re killed by ignorance, lack of preparation, and/or some bad luck. That’s a lesson we’ve learned many times. Still, the story of the lost Franklin expedition holds our attention all these years later because we love a good mystery. The Terror works because it conjures up monsters and murders in place of what were likely, in reality, much slower, less dramatic, more pedestrian deaths. The show answers the unanswerable question—“What happened?”—with scenes from the darkest corners of our imaginations. Even though (spoiler alert!) the story’s ending has been known for more than 150 years, the show manages to create a tense, wild ride to the finish.