As we set sail on The Terror, pick a crew member and light a prayer candle for them, because they’re going to need it.
This show is, if you can believe it, based on a true story. As detailed by the opening cards, two ships — the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror (which seems like a jinx in and of itself) — set sail to try to complete a crossing of the Northwest Passage in 1845. The sailors were never heard from again. It’s an inimitably strange story, and the first episode sets up that eerie sense of discomfort.
“Go for Broke” opens a few years afterward, as two Royal Navy men question an Inuit man inside a tent. When presented with portraits of Captains John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds), James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), and Frances Crozier (Jared Harris), the man identifies Crozier as “Aglooka,” the man he’d seen leading what remained of the expedition’s crew. The group was apparently in bad shape, and being pursued by something called “Tuunbaq.” Upon being pressed further, he relays a message from Crozier — “Tell them we are dead and gone” — and turns over a handful of buttons, presumably taken from the captain’s uniform.
After that auspicious start, we’re taken back to the beginning of the expedition, where Franklin looks upon the Erebus and Terror like a magnanimous god. At this stage in the game, his biggest worry is what to have for dinner. Well, that and making sure that Crozier and Fitzjames aren’t constantly at each other’s throats. By contrast, Crozier, to whom the duty of hosting dinner has fallen, is worried about almost everything, including having to make nice with Fitzjames. Though Crozier sees Fitzjames as a preening idiot and complains about him to his steward, Jopson (Liam Garrigan), that pregaming doesn’t quite keep him from snapping at dinner.
The crew, meanwhile, are eating below, and if you thought it was going to take longer than an episode to get to body horror, guess again. The men’s conversation — which circles around whether or not Crozier’s dog has a discernible rank — is drawn swiftly to an end when one of the younger men coughs up a veritable geyser of blood. Dr. Stanley (Alistair Petrie) is just annoyed that the boy didn’t report feeling ill sooner, while Dr. Goodsir (Paul Ready) does his best to set the boy at ease.
Unfortunately, his ordeal is about to get much worse. He begs for the doctors not to do an autopsy once he’s dead, but that’s out of the question given Franklin’s worries about scurvy. The last lucid thought he manages to get out is to tell Goodsir to send the ring he wears to his sister. Then, he hallucinates an Inuit man at the foot of his cot, once wearing a bizarre mask and once without, and screams to Goodsir that the man is telling them all to run. And with that, he falls dead.
Goodsir, who seems to be the tenderest man on the whole expedition, is severely shaken and doesn’t seem convinced that the boy’s ordeal was just a hallucination. When the time comes for the autopsy, he covers the boy’s face with a cloth before proceeding, but it’s almost for naught: The doctors can’t figure out what was wrong with him. It definitely wasn’t scurvy. Not too long afterward, the boy is taken to shore nearby and buried. When the coffin pops open after being dropped down into a grave, Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) is the only one who feels it necessary to jump down and close it. On Erebus, a day late and a dollar short, Goodsir recalls his promise about the boy’s ring, but the body is already gone.
Unsurprisingly, the trouble doesn’t stop there. There’s another casualty when Erebus gets a chunk of ice stuck in its propeller: A man is shaken from his perch on one of the masts by the shock of impact, and is lost to the water. Collins (Trystan Gravelle) is tasked with getting the ice out of the propeller, and upon being packed into a diving bell and sent underwater, he sees — or hallucinates? — the body floating toward him like a mournful ghost. Luckily, he’s already taken care of the ice, and when they pull him back up to the surface, he leaves the body out of his report. Franklin, sweet summer child that he is, tells Collins that he envies him, and asks what it was like to go underwater. Poor Collins’s response? It’s “like a dream,” though you get the firm impression that it’s more of a nightmare.
“Dream” does seem apt to describe the flashbacks scattered throughout the episode, which contextualize Crozier’s secondary position and Franklin’s fame. When an expedition led by James Ross (Richard Sutton) — incidentally one of the men from the very beginning of the episode — is lauded at the theater, it takes some prompting for Crozier (who’s sitting next to a woman he’s sweet on) to stand and receive his due as the second on that mission. And then Franklin, in the next box over, stands to receive a round of applause as well.
Back in the Arctic, Erebus can move once again, which Franklin takes to mean that they’re all clear to keep going. Crozier and Blanky (Ian Hart), the ice master, are the only ones who argue otherwise. They protest that traveling forward would likely mean getting stuck in the ice through the winter — putting all of their lives at risk — but their concerns are swiftly dismissed (and derided, where Fitzjames is concerned). Six days later, Franklin is eating crow, as the ships have indeed gotten stuck in the ice and the entire crew has climbed out to try to break it manually. From the other ship, Crozier gazes balefully across before disappearing into his cabin, and the episode ends with a final flashback to the thunderous applause in the theater, which sounds now more like a death knell than a benediction.
Notes from the Captain’s Log
• You’ve got your prayer candles out, now get your notebooks, too. There’s nothing on this show that isn’t important, least of all the little metal bob that Franklin picks out of his food, nor Fitzjames’s comment that Crozier has a reputation for being a lush.
• Not to get too meme-y, but the three captains are basically the three points of the McDonald’s Alignment Chart. Franklin is “We have food at home,” Fitzjames is “McDonald’s!” and Crozier is “pulls into the drive-through as children cheer, orders a single black coffee, and leaves.”
• At one point, Fitzjames tells Franklin that he thinks Franklin loves his men more than God does. He jokes, but …
• Did we all get a good peek at Franklin’s pet capuchin monkey?