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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
<i>The Terror</i> showrunner on internment season: “There will always be another group”

The Terror showrunner on internment season: “There will always be another group”

Photo: Rick Kern (Getty Images), Graphic: Natalie Peeples

The Terror: Infamy is the latest installment of AMC’s horror-drama anthology series, led by this time around by Alexander Woo and Max Borenstein, with Ridley Scott still executive producing. Although season one was a master class in chilling thrills, the new episodes venture far from The Terror author Dan Simmons’ Arctic nightmare, resting on the sunny but still perilous West Coast to recount one of the darkest chapters in U.S. history—that of the forced relocation and incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

This series of events has been explored somewhat in feature films like Snow Falling From Cedars and Strawberry Fields, but Infamy is the most extensive treatment we’ve seen on the small screen. Ahead of the season premiere, The A.V. Club sat down with Woo at the 2019 Television Critics Association summer press tour to discuss hauntings, heritage, humanization, and hybrid storytelling.

AVC: You’ve worked on supernatural stories before with True Blood, and stories of resilience in the film, The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks. But what kind of research did you do for this kind of hybrid story? Where did you start digging into Japanese folklore?

Alexander Woo: We had on our writing staff a Harvard PhD in Japanese folklore. His dissertation is the first-ever translation of Japan’s second greatest epic—the first being The Tale Of Genji, of which there are many translations—but the second greatest has never been translated. We had someone who knew all, and we’re going back to the 10th century here. What I knew was a popular knowledge of it, but we were able to go into a deep dive. Also, we had the help of another professor who had written a book of specifically spirits. He had catalogued them. We had his help as well in order to pin down what exactly our spirit is.

Early in our show there’s a bunch of different terms that are bandied about because our characters don’t exactly know, because they use the term bakemono, which is a very general term for a spirit, usually more malevolent. Sometimes obake, which is a more neutral term. It could even be benevolent. Then sometimes yurēi, which is a vengeful ghost, the spirit of a deceased person who has somehow been wronged in life and has an insatiable hunger for vengeance. These terms are all being used at once because [the characters] don’t really know what it is. In a sense, they’ve forgotten. They’ve come all the way across the country and left those spirits behind, but they come back to haunt them.

AVC: During the panel, you described the new season of The Terror as “a historical story told through the language of genre.” So why combine our very real, not-so-distant past with genre storytelling?  

AW: One of the great strengths of television—and there are many—is that it is so intimate and it’s being viewed increasingly less and less on a television set and more and more on smaller and smaller screens. They’re closer and closer to your face. I watched Chernobyl on a tablet six inches from my face with the lights turned out under the sheets in the middle of the night. It’s terrifying. It lends itself to a more intimate form of storytelling, that worms its way under your skin and into your brain.

That maps out perfectly to a psychological horror that in our case is derived from the traditional Japanese folk stories, the kaidan, and then the Japanese horror movies that are descended from that like The Ring and The Grudge and Dark Water. So more of the psychologically creepy movies rather than the “slice and dice” quarry. We lean more toward the psychological, creepy stories. That becomes a really valuable tool in the toolbox for us to make you feel the terror of the historical experience, especially when you’re consuming the show in such an intimate fashion.

AVC: And horror has certainly been used for commentary, or been a vessel for commentary for a very long time.

AW: Yeah, we’re not the first by any means.

AVC: It does feel like a very natural fit. But in watching the first half of the season, I was struck by just how delicate a balance the story strikes—it’s not pure terror and anxiety and paranoia. Derek Mio spoke to the bravery and generosity among the people who were interned in those camps. There are small moments of humor. What is necessary to maintain all of that, to keep all those plates spinning?

AW: It felt very organic to us. The strategy was always to deploy the horror as a means to help you get into the skin of the characters and what they’re experiencing, the constant ambient dread of not just wartime but wartime in an internment camp, and then some periods of really abject horror, too. But it is not constantly being chased through the woods by a guy with a machete. Nor would that be suited, I think, for a television show. You just can’t sustain that kind of thing, especially if we’re telling a historical story. When it’s in service of us advocating the emotional experience of our characters, we employed the language of horror in our show. When it felt more prurient, then that’s where we tended to avoid it because there’s so much more of the story that can be told without it.

There is, as Derek referred to, the story of resilience and resourcefulness. That was a big thing for us to show, because the story of the internment isn’t just one of pure misery, though it was in fact of course miserable. It is also the story of the resourcefulness and resilience of the Japanese Americans who were in prison there, and they turned their prison into a home. There were schools and churches and baseball leagues and dances. People fell in love. All of those things happened in that camp and is a testament to the heroism, strength, and resilience of those people who weren’t just downtrodden all the time and beaten down. They did not come out, or at least not everyone came out, broken by it. This is a story with great strength and bravery.

AVC: There’s a sense of the dangers of forgetting your past, of leaving your culture in the past. I know you can’t give this away, exactly, but is that at least part of what Yuko represents?

AW: Yes.

AVC: You’re like, “Yeah, so let’s leave it at that.”

AW: [Laughs.] Yeah. It’s almost like a little nesting doll. We have a couple of those. You have Luz [Cristina Rodlo]. She’s an “alien” in an environment full of so-called enemy aliens. She is otherized within a community of people who have been otherized. Yuko [Kiki Sukezane] is someone who has a really deep hunger for vengeance, but it seems to have been forgotten what it is, because no one seems to know what she wants. By the midpoint of the season, I think they’re realizing who she is, barely. Some are and some aren’t. As to getting to what she wants and how to deal with it, that tapped into a past that we had the opportunity to explore in a 10-hour version of the show as opposed to a two-hour movie. The ghost crawls out of the television set and that’s it. We have an opportunity to go a little bit deeper into it and then maybe put the viewer in that uncomfortable feeling of having otherized the monster and then starting to feel maybe some sympathy for them.

AVC: We’re talking about forgetting or misremembering the past, but that’s something the show intentionally avoids doing when it comes to the history—there are a lot of small details that stood out, like the fact that at the time, Luz would have been considered white, which makes her relationship with Chester (played by Derek Mio) illegal. How will that factor into the larger story? 

AW: We will get into her life and her family a little further down the line. Where you were hearing a lot of Japanese, you may start hearing some Spanish down the road. To me, it was important to show that the story wasn’t just a story of the Japanese American otherness. Los Angeles has a great many cultures going on, even in 1941. It’s just a little hint, a little bit of a hint here of this Mexican American family, a little presage of what might be laying there in the future that they have no awareness of. It’s not over when the internment ends. There will always be another group, and another group, and another group.

Cristina Rodlo and Derek Mio
Cristina Rodlo and Derek Mio
Photo: Ed Araquel (AMC)

AVC: You find a way to work in these subtle nods to those different immigrant groups—at one point [in a later episode] Chester talks to his old professor, who is Jewish, and they compare folklore. It’s a small moment, but organic in how it points to the many different immigrant groups, because again, we tend to look at the divisions in this country as “white” and then you swap out what the other is versus moving around one small piece of this very big mosaic. 

AW: I know it turned out that way that the great majority of the cast are Japanese or Japanese American characters, and then we have a number of Mexican American characters, and there’s a sliver of white characters. Because we’re in a camp and there’s a military story, the majority of the white characters are men. There is a shockingly small number of speaking roles for white women in our show. It really is three lines of dialogue are spoken by white women in the show.

Frankly, I feel like this is a climate where broadcasters—It’s become incumbent on them to have a show that everyone doesn’t already have one of. That’s led to more risk-taking. I don’t know if we would have been able to put the show on the air 10 years ago or even five years ago. To AMC’s credit, never once was there any sort of question about are we using too much subtitled Japanese, are we not getting any white perspective on the show. It was a real willingness to go really into the story from the point of view of these characters. If you’re going to tell the story of the internment, it’s from the Japanese American point of view. [AMC] was fully supportive of it throughout. I attributed that to some terrific people who work there, but also the climate we’re in where I think it has shown that stories from a whole range of perspectives are embraced and rewarded.

AVC: By being able to fill your world with Japanese and Japanese American characters, you’re able to even distinguish within that group because Chester’s life is very different from his father’s, in part because he wants it to be very different. He says a couple of times, “People don’t think that way anymore. I’m not going to be like you.” Then there’s this moment in the premiere where he’s told, by someone who becomes more and more familiar, that he’s two people. It really speaks to the experiences of so many people who are multicultural, who are the children of immigrants.

AW: To [Chester], Yuko, this Japanese woman in a kimono, is very exotic as well, something exoticized. He may be a little more willing to believe in it because she’s a little bit exotic. She’s confronting him with the truth about himself. She says, “You’re a sparrow in a swallow’s nest. You think you’re safe, but you’re not.” I don’t think he fully understands it yet, until of course it becomes all too obvious that he is not safe. This is the subject of a lot of my play writing. Before I started working in television, I worked in theater. All of my plays were about explorations of Americans and what it means to be American from an Asian American perspective usually told with some crazy offset, something very theatrical usually. I had never had the chance to do that in television. This is really my first opportunity to explore that in television. I’m really, really glad I did.

This is something I tap into very much is that there’s a moment where you delude yourself into believing that if you embrace the culture, the culture will just embrace you back. Your country will have your back. America is your country, America will have your back. He fully, fully believes that. It’s part of aspirational thinking. Even Henry taps into that. I think we showed this in the clip when the FBI is dragging them off. Even in the midst of the FBI dragging them off, maybe that’s what he can cling to. The last thing you can cling to is you’re a citizen. Show them you’re a patriot. You’ll be okay. You were born here. You will be all right because you’re an American citizen. They will not mistreat you. I think Henry is hoping it’s true rather than totally fully believing it’s true. It’s just the last thing he can say to his son because who knows where he’s going to go. I think Chester is fully believing in that until it becomes evident that he isn’t.

Kiki Sukezane
Kiki Sukezane
Photo: Ed Araquel (AMC)

AVC: Something that struck me throughout is the idea that assimilation won’t save you and that citizenship remains conditional. Just a couple of weeks ago, we saw those tweets about sending American citizens—who also happen to be members of Congress—back to “where they’re from.”

AW: That’s exactly right. It was the mistake made in early 1942 that George [Takei] talks about, mistaking Japanese Americans with Japanese. They are not one and the same. These are people who grew up in this country, who have embraced this country, who grew up in this culture. You send them back to Japan—or you send me to China, and they’ll call me an American. I don’t carry myself the way a Chinese person does. In many ways I don’t look like a Chinese person does. Obviously in other ways I do. The slur of telling someone to go back to where they came from is a deliberate conflation that you will never be an American. You’ll always be some other.

I think in this case in the present day, using that kind of slur is an awareness of, “Okay, yeah, you might think you are. I’m aware of your country of birth, but I really don’t care. To me in my eyes, you’re still a Mexican, or a Chinese person,” or what have you. That is an ongoing cycle and one of the reasons why if we can move the needle that much and push the dialogue by an inch, it’s meaningful. In a country where elections are decided by a few hundred votes, that’s highly, highly meaningful. I don’t aspire to it having any other greater impact than just allowing people who want to come to the show from whatever means, because they’re all valid… you can approach the show having an interest in this period in history. You could approach the show wanting to see Asian representation on screen. You could approach the show just wanting a great scare. All totally, totally valid. But hopefully once you’re in, you understand the feeling of what it’s like to be in the skin of these people, and maybe by extension understand the plight of what it feels like to be an American but not have America want you. If that makes some people connect some dots, I think it will have been worth all of the sweat, and effort, and all the tears we’ve now expended in making the show.

AVC: You mentioned shifting the conversation or expanding the conversation. The voice of incredulity is very much still a part of the dialogue—you have the detention camps at the U.S.-Mexico border, or the water crisis in Flint happening right under our noses, and there are people are still saying, “This isn’t America. I can’t believe this is happening.” There are several moments in the show that touch on that; there’s a specific scene where Chester’s talking to one of his friends and the other guy asks, “Can you believe it?” and he finally admits, “I’m starting to.”

AW: Because the dream of the idealized America is so tantalizing. You want to believe in it fully, that this is a place where you can make whatever you want out of yourself and it is based on fundamental fairness. It becomes consistently this feeling of betrayal when those rules I thought I was following are not the rules that they’re playing by. They moved the goalposts on me. It has consistently happened. George has said if he wanted anything to come out of the internment is for people to be reminded that it has happened before, that this is not a singular incident, and we have a history of it.