If I had to choose just one other show worthy of the close reading and inspection received by Westworld and The Sopranos over the years, I’d choose The Terror. I know I’m biased, but hear me out here: It’s not a puzzle box like the former, nor as grand in scale as the latter, but it’s so carefully constructed — and so marvelously executed, even just in the five episodes that have aired so far — that it’s just as deserving of that attention.
There’s not a single detail that hasn’t been seeded for an express purpose. The ring that Goodsir forgot to take in the pilot, for instance, shows up now in Hickey’s possession as a gift for Gibson. (If you’ll recall, we saw him jumping down into the grave and stuff something in his pocket.) And every suggestion of Crozier’s alcoholism we’ve seen so far comes home to roost in the final moments of “First Shot a Winner, Lads.”
Throughout the episode, it’s made clearer and clearer that Crozier’s fondness for whiskey is affecting his ability to lead, not least because it affects his standing in the eyes of the men. As discreet as he may try to be, everyone knows he’s requisitioning whiskey. In a fit of tipsy pique following an argument, he sends Blanky out to assess the ice — and straight into Tuunbaq’s latest attack upon the ship. The scene is a jewel in the book’s crown, and its screen counterpart is the kind of sequence that makes me mourn the fact that The Terror isn’t playing in a proper theater. Like Franklin’s demise, the attack and the concurrent snowstorm are set only to the sound of the wind and Marcus Fjellström’s ponderous score, creating a sense of disorientation and cognitive dissonance that’s more frightening than the Sturm und Drang you’d get in any other show.
Unable to escape to safety below deck and unable to outrun the creature in the Arctic tundra, Blanky runs in the only direction he can: up. He climbs the rigging with Tuunbaq in close pursuit, as the men scramble to get a cannon in place. It’s only Blanky’s fortitude and ingenuity that make him the sole man to tangle with Tuunbaq and live to tell the tale. High up as he is, the snow makes it impossible for the men below to see him or Tuunbaq — that is, until he lights what remains of his lantern and tosses it at the creature, setting it alight and turning it into a visible beacon for the men below. The cannon hits Tuunbaq straight on, though it doesn’t kill it. And Blanky, though still alive, doesn’t come out it scot-free — the encounter costs him his leg.
Being on hand as his best friend has his leg sawed off seems to finally clear Crozier’s vision. As has been evident from the start, Crozier is a good captain; it’s his job to take care of all these men, and he knows he’s been neglecting his duty as of late. And so he gathers Fitzjames, Little, McDonald, and Jopson together in his cabin, and in a knockout performance from Jared Harris, tells them that he is going cold turkey — and that they are to hold him to it. (Was anyone else reminded of Odysseus and the sirens during this scene?)
It’s a moment of startling vulnerability from a man who has thus far been anything but, to the point that the scene feels horribly tragic. Crozier is crotchety and firm in his convictions, but he knows he needs to give up any power he has (over the expedition, over the crew, over himself) in order to once again become fit for command. Of course, necessity and tragedy aren’t mutually exclusive in this scenario. The necessity is obvious, and the tragedy is that this would seem to be rock bottom, but we know that these men’s suffering will only get worse. To that end, the scene exemplifies one of The Terror’s greatest strengths, which is that despite the fact that we pretty much know how this story will end and what the stakes are, it’s been crafted with such care that it’s still wrenching to watch. “We mustn’t stop until it is finished,” Crozier says. Until it’s finished, or until they are.
The thread goes hand in hand with the unrest around Lady Silence. The men, with the exception of Goodsir, only want two things from her. The first is suggested by the jewelry and trinkets that the men have begun leaving outside her door; the second is more explicit, as Crozier and the rest of the officers disregard the progress that Goodsir has made in learning Inuktitut and about Inuit culture, and only ask her how to kill the creature. All they manage to gather is that she doesn’t actually have any bond with it, as most of the crew believe. She fears it as much as they do. She also has a clear read on Crozier, responding to his increasingly aggressive questioning about Tuunbaq by asking him why he wants to die. In the hubbub that follows the attack upon the ship, she escapes — and Crozier, who spots her leaving, lets her.
Notes From the Captain’s Log
• There’s a true treasure trove of character details in this episode, from the way the soldiers take care to clip the comatose Heather’s nails and the curtain they placed over his open skull, to Fitzjames reprimanding the men for not keeping themselves neat and tidy despite how long they’ve been out on the ice.
• The editing on this show is outstanding. The cross-cutting between Collins’s dive and Goodsir’s autopsy in the premiere, and the cross-cutting between Fitzjames walking his drafting compass along the map in the silence of his cabin and Little making his way through the ship amid the bustling of the men at the beginning of this episode are particular standouts.
• I know I yammer on about him a lot, but Goodsir really is such a gem. His brief exchange with Stanley when he tells him he’ll be accompanying Lady Silence over to Erebus is priceless. “Don’t forget to invite us all to the wedding.” “Has anyone ever invited you to a wedding, Dr. Stanley?”
• Doomsday clock updates: (1) Hornsby drops dead from heart failure due to the cold on the way from Terror to Erebus. (2) One of the men rips off his entire palm after accidentally touching a cannon without a glove. (3) With apologies to PETA, Goodsir has taken to investigating the food himself, by feeding Franklin’s monkey and seeing what happens. Following a discussion with McDonald, it seems likely that the men may be suffering from some form of lead poisoning, which bodes well for absolutely nobody.