Photo: Nive Nielsen, Paul Ready, Jared Harris, Adam Nagaitis, Ian Hart (Aidan Monaghan/AMC)

The first bloodbath takes place offscreen. By the time the episode begins it’s already over, in fact. Goaded into brutal action by the lies of Cornelius Hickey, the crew of the Terror and the Erebus have shot five Netsilik men, women, and children to death, adding their bodies to the pile of two already assembled by Hickey himself. After witnessing the savagery with which he assaulted Lieutenant Irving in order to instigate this attack in the last episode, not seeing the killing of the innocent people Hickey framed for that murder feels worse, somehow — worse still because it took place during a moment of genuine bonding, brotherhood, and love between once-rival captains Francis Crozier and James Fitzjames just a few miles away. There’s a dreadful finality to discovering, as they did upon their return to camp, that a crime against humanity is a fait accompli.

So begins one of The Terror’s tightest and tensest episodes. (Which is saying something, that’s for sure.) Indeed, “Terror Camp Clear” has the most straightforward, least spiderwebbed storyline of any installment so far. Written by creator and co-showrunner David Kajganich and directed by Tim Mielants, it takes advantage of the narrowing scope of the story, not to mention the dwindling cast of characters, by keeping the focus squarely on Mr. Hickey’s incipient mutiny, its confirmation by the officers and their trusted associates, and the attempt to put it down and punish its bloody-minded ringleaders. On a show about the slow, grinding, literally glacial nature of death in the arctic wastes, it’s the first time a race-against-the-clock atmosphere has taken hold, and it works beautifully for the contrast.

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What’s more, our desire to see whether Crozier, Fitjames, Blanky, Goodsir, Jopson, and the rest of the remaining mensches in the crew can overcome the schemes of Hickey and his minions injects the few scenes that don’t directly pertain to that conflict with their own sense of urgency. If we’re taking time away from a life-or-death civil war among the men to follow up on the woeful condition of the mentally deteriorating diver Mr. Collins, for example; if we’re getting long and painful glimpses of Captain Fitzjames’s suppurating wounds; if we’re watching the newly minted staff doctor John Bridgens investigate the scurvy-induced bruises on the arm of his partner, young sailor Henry Peglar (John Lynch and Kevin Guthrie respectively, both actors conveying a sea of affection and emotion with the intensity of their eyes and brief moments of physical contact)…if we’re seeing any of this, it means something. It comes across as an equal to the main event, not a distraction from it. If it serves to build up our “holy shit come on what’s going to happen???” instincts in the bargain regarding the mutiny, so much the better.

And because time is tight — either Crozier and Fitzjames will gather enough evidence to condemn Hickey and stop his co-conspirators, or Hickey and his co-conspirators will gather enough firepower and manpower to stop Crozier and Fitzjames, by the end of the day — subtle gestures and little tics in the men’s tone of voice take on added significance. All we need to hear to know the mutiny is coming is the word “guns,” murmured by Hickey to marine Sgt. Tozier as they pass one another in a slo-mo shot. All we need to know the plan to unleash the armory is working is to hear the moment when the men stop talking about their fear that Netsilik warriors are gathering to finish the job and start talking about their knowledge that this is happening — that whistles and footsteps can be heard in the fog, auguring imminent attack. The scene in which this happens, as the lie about the whistles is knowingly echoed from one man to the next (“There it is again, Sergeant,” says one, while absolutely nothing can be heard), is one of the most quietly frightening in the whole episode. It’s violence transmitted like a virus.

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Which makes the abrupt defeat of the mutiny before so much as a shot is fired among the men such a shock. When an autopsy of Lt. Irving, seal meat given to him as a friendly gesture by the Netsilik still fresh in his gut, provides proof positive of Hickey’s lie, Crozier and Fitzjames successfully organize a clearing of the camp, rounding up the weapons that have made it out of the armory and placing Hickey and Tozier under arrest. This, too, happens offscreen, during a commercial break, like it was all much ado about nothing. By the time gorgeous, hazy shots of the gallows from which Hickey and Tozier are too be hanged appear on screen, I was throwing my hands in the air in utter, delighted disbelief. Was it really that simple? Was the show going to defeat the mutiny where the Dan Simmons book on which it’s based did not? And if it wasn’t, how the hell was Hickey going to get out of this?

The sequence that follows, wrapping up the episode, turned that confusion into awestruck horror. It beings with a magnificently acted exchange of speeches, with Crozier’s presentation of the evidence of Hickey’s perfidy and cruelty to the men — including to those who’d pledged him their loyalty — followed by Hickey’s ostensible last words, which he uses to reveal Crozier’s own long-ago plan to desert the ships and seek rescue after Sir John Franklin forbade him to do so. Actors Jared Harris and Adam Nagaitis (god, what a find he is) are just riveting here, juxtaposing Crozier’s righteous anger and Hickey’s sneering contempt by having the former actually begin screaming his words of condemnation, then having the latter do a mocking imitation of his captain’s declamatory Irish brogue.

It’s all so white-knuckle watchable that the first time I heard the giggles I was half-convinced I was hearing things. Yeah, Crozier and some of the other men seemed to hear it too, but they kept right on talking; maybe it was just a nervous chuckle from someone in the crowd? But the second time around, they’re too loud and too distinct to ignore. And there he is: Mr. Collins, drunk and high from a medicinal concoction of cocaine and wine he’d stolen from Goodsir and Bridgens’ supplies. Before now, we’d seen him wandering around the camp in a stoned, smiling stupor, gazing wide-eyed at the world around him and hugging everyone he sees. Who knows what he’s laughing at this time? The return of the creature following him stops us from ever finding out.

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Hot on Collins’ heels comes the Tuunbaq. It (or he, as Crozier insists) careens through the assembled audience like a truck, one with teeth and claws and a hideous face. Hickey escapes in the confusion, trotting along with ironic daintiness due to the ropes that still bind his arms. His loyalists, surprisingly, remain loyal; they make for the armory and the boat sledges, carrying off as much as they can; also surprisingly, they don’t stop to settle any scores or destroy any maps or supplies, as Hickey had previously decreed. In that sense, and only in that sense, it could have been worse.

Two moments of black poetry close out the hour. In the first, Captain Fitzjames launches rockets at the charging creature, like he’s Jaime Lannister manning the scorpion against Daenerys Targaryen. He started the episode confessing to Crozier that he feels his whole life is a lie: He earned his commission by covering up an unnamed bad act by an admiral’s failson abroad, and he himself was the bastard child of a British official in Brazil. “Even my name was made up for my baptism: James…Fitzjames,” he says, pausing for contemptuous emphasis. All his apparent courage, he tells Francis, is merely vanity, an attempt to prove to himself and others that he’s better than what he fears himself to be. “We are at the end of vanity,” he mutters. “Then we are free, hm?” Crozier replies with encouraging cheer. “Mine your courage from a different lode now.” And so he does.

When the episode’s coup de grace happens, it happens to Mr. Collins. Still running around like a divine madman, he finally runs afoul of something truly divine, or demoniacal (a distinction without a difference, perhaps). The Tuunbaq catches him, pounces, forces him to the ground, and eats his guts for second after excruciating second. This happens onscreen, and goes on for what feels like forever, like Mr. Hickey being flogged — only Collins did nothing to deserve this punishment. But the universe, in the form of the Tuunbaq, deals it out to him anyway, filling his last moments with pain so profound that it actually warps the screen, his face wavering and doubling and defocusing like a glitch in the matrix. I saw a comparison between this moment and David Lynch’s similarly reality-shattering depictions of terror, and I think the comparison is earned. At this point, there aren’t many superlatives you could hurl at The Terror that haven’t been.

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Stray observations

  • Crozier and Fitzjames, Crozier and Lady Silence, Goodsir and Lady Silence, Bridgens and Peglar: individual human connections have rarely been as powerful on this show as they are in an episode based on breaking them. In particular, actor Tobias Menzies’ typical understated excellence as Fitzjames, as he rasps “Are we brothers, Francis? I would like that very much,” moved me to tears.
  • As Lady Silence — first separated from the rest of the characters by language, now by an inability to use any language at all, and buried in mountains of winter gear throughout — actor Nive Nielsen has had to act almost entirely with her face. Her range is truly impressive, never more so than in the moments when she kneels and just stares at the bodies of her murdered friends.
  • And as Hickey, Adam Nagaitis is like the anti-Silence. He can move, shrug, talk, sneer, conspire, all of it. But he, too, does so much with just his face, particularly his near-perpetual smirk and his frighteningly intelligent eyes. He’s still smirking and rolling his eyes on the goddamn gallows. Again, man oh man, what a find this guy is.
  • Plotwise, I’ve got two big questions. Crozier argues that Hickey did not kill for the joy of it, but to kickstart the mutiny. I think that may well be true, as far as it goes; even his weird, seemingly psychotic stripping before the killings could just be an attempt not to get bloodstains on his uniform. But there sure was something in his eyes after he did it, wasn’t there? Something we hadn’t seen before. And he was running from something back home too, wasn’t he? Something the show wanted to emphasize. Long story short, I wouldn’t want to be in his fellow runaways’ shoes right about now.
  • The second question: What is Lady Silence’s relationship with the Tuunbaq? It sure seems like the beast came back seeking vengeance for her slain friends. Did he do so on his own, or under her control? Can she control him at all? Her respect for Crozier and Goodsir, and vice versa, leads me to feel it’s unlikely she’d just set the thing loose on the camp without looking out for them and their friends — to say nothing of the fact that we’ve seen approximately zero indication that she’s a violent, vengeful person at all, not even after the crew killed her dad. Does this mean her shamanistic bond to the monster didn’t take? Or are their some crimes the creature will not ignore no matter what?
  • All the stunningly bleak vistas of the gray-white sky, snow, and stone make me never want to watch a traditionally murky prestige-palette TV show again.

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