Watching a period piece starring a selection of character actors from Ireland and the United Kingdom, each of them clad in bulky, largely indistinguishable winter garb and sporting various combinations of facial hair and cold-chapped cheeks, is as close as many of us will ever get to experiencing face blindness. Personally, I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. Trying to keep track of who’s who among The Terror’s crew of naval-uniformed, mutton-chopped, ruddy-faced explorers forces us to pay attention to other distinguishing details.
You start to notice nuances of performance: the pained, jerking manner with which actor Anthony Flanagan moves and speaks as the lead-poisoned John Morfin, for example; or the deadly hopelessness in the voice and eyes of Edward Ashley as the chastened and closeted William Gibson; or the slightly too confident manner of Jack Colgrave Hirst mutineering marine Tom Hartnell.
You begin to get a feel for the characters from how others react to them: the joy with which every officer in the crew, even dour James Fitzjames, reacts to the news that Captain Crozier will be offering his right-hand man Thomas Jopson (Liam Garrigan, warm and wide-eyed) an unprecedented promotion to Lieutenant; the alarm bells that Hartnell’s aforementioned brio sets off in Crozier’s mind; the way concern boils over into fear in the molten brown eyes of Dr. Goodsir when he comforts Henry Collins (Trystan Gravelle, convincingly unraveling) after the man confesses pangs of cannibalistic hunger, and how seriously we’re meant to take this danger as a result.
For even the most attentive viewer, however, the occasional prosopagnosic blindspots remain. Which is my roundabout way of excusing myself for not immediately realizing that the fresh-faced, clean-shaven Cornelius Hickey we meet in this episode’s opening flashback, showing the crew of the Terror receiving their orders, was not, in fact, the smirking, scheming, and ultimately psychotic killer we’ve been following ever since. What can I say? The beard fooled me along with everyone else on board.
“Horrible From Supper” is the latest exercise in crystalline near-perfection from The Terror, written by Andres Fischer-Centeno and directed by Tim Mielants (who’ll be helming the remaining three episodes as well). If you’re reading this fresh from watching the episode, Mr. Hickey’s murderous dementia at the episode’s climax is no doubt lodged in your head like a knife (sorry). Rightly so. Like the death of Sir John Franklin earlier in the season, this is one of the most singular and memorable outbreaks of violence on television I’ve seen in a very long time. The staging and buildup are impeccable, with Hickey leading a fellow member of his hunting party off to his death in the far background while their commander, Lt. John Irving, receives potentially life-saving sustenance from a group of Netsilik travelers, his back to the danger behind him. It’s not merely the murder that shocks, it’s Hickey’s demeanor: First found crouched over the body of his victim, he leaps up shirtless and wild, stabs Irving over and over like something straight out of a true-crime podcast, then crouches and gazes around with an unintelligible mix of ecstasy and wariness in his eyes. The music, by the late composer Marcus Fjellström (god what a loss that is), uses clanging bells and distorted vocal samples; it’s dissonant and off to the point of being hard to listen to, like being trapped with a murderer inside the coda to “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The buzzing, clanging music and Hickey’s mannerisms evoked a similarly awful scene from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; the running figure of Lt. Irving combined with Fjellström’s core reminded me of an inverted Unedited Footage of a Bear (which, if you haven’t seen it before, hoo boy); the beach-like setting gave me flashbacks to a scene from Under the Skin that bothers me so much I’m not even going to link to it. But the overall effect is so rooted in the strength of Adam Nagaitis’ deceptive performance as Hickey, the wide-open gray-white void of the landscape as captured by Mielants and cinematographer Frank van den Eeden, and the decision to cut out the sound of the act itself, that the overall effect is utterly unique. The brief coda that follows, in which the Hickey we’ve come to know and love first boards the ship and it becomes clear he’s killed the real Hickey and stolen his place, hit me like the second shot of a double-tap execution.
Shock is the byword for the episode, despite the fact that in large part it chronicles drudgery and boredom. Discounting the flashback, it begins with the start of the crew’s exodus from their abandoned ships, as they drag smaller escape craft across the ice to dry land miles away. It’s true that the grinding tedium, and the dawning realization that survival is a long shot—especially as word gets around, despite Crozier and Goodsir’s best efforts, that their food is contaminated—contributes to the mutinous mindset Hickey, Hartnell, and their handpicked officer Lt. Hodgson have begun to cultivate.
But the actual rhythm of the thing is one hammer blow after another. Men are left behind on the Terror to sail it home in the event of a thaw, or more likely to die on it if it stays frozen in place. Collins tells Goodsir he’s haunted by the smell of the men burning at the Carnivale, because his stomach doesn’t know he’s not supposed to want to eat them. The “rescue party” they’d sent out months earlier is discovered just 18 miles from the ship, its belongings destroyed and its crew beheaded to a man. Morfin loses his mind and Hartnell blows it right out of his skull in full view of the entire crew. Goodsir retires to his tent, sobbing over his failure to save his patient, and Lady Silence crawls in bed with him to comfort him. Fitzjames looks unwell. Hickey reveals to his coconspirators that he’s killed the ship’s dog Neptune (a mercy killing, he unconvincingly claims) and they’re free to eat it. Lt. Irving and Hickey stumble across that very kind and communicative Netsilik party. Then, the murders and the final revelation. All of it scripted and acted with nuance and set in the most otherworldly version of the Arctic I’ve ever seen on film—bone-bleached, alien, and without hope, no matter how hard Jared Harris’ Crozier attempts to atone for Sir John’s obstinance and his own alcoholism by pulling them all through. The thing on the ice isn’t in this episode, but it tears right through you anyway.
- Goodsir gently, regretfully laying out the corpse of the monkey on whom he tested the poisoned food and saying “I am trying”…goddamn.
- This is a tough thing to articulate, especially given the show’s demonstrated willingness to get gory when it wants to, but I feel like the restraint shown by not depicting Hickey’s killing of the dog speaks to the thoughtfulness at work here. The dead dog is more effective, and somehow worse, as an unseen thing in a canvas sack. It takes smart filmmakers, from co-showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh to Fischer-Centeno and Mielants on down, to see that.
- Thinking about the sheer volume of people now at risk from Hickey is just sickening.
- At the same time, though, the show gives Hickey a sliver of humanity. Wouldn’t you be upset, to the point of rebellion, if you discovered the men you trusted to make decisions were lying to you about something as fundamental as the safety of the food you’re ingesting day after day? Even an experienced murderer, as it seems Hickey likely is, has a right to be angry. And Goodsir and Crozier have valid reasons to keep that secret nonetheless. It’s sticky stuff.