The cast of The Terror is stacked with talent to a degree that almost feels criminal. The show is basically a garage full of luxury cars that we can only access for an hour every week, so it’s impossible to properly check in with each character in the span of a single episode. But the fleeting glimpses build up — The Terror is nothing if not about character – and “A Mercy,” which finds the leads sidelined, cashes in all of those chips at once.
Week after week, Ian Hart, Alistair Petrie, and Trystan Gravelle have been turning in performances that easily place them as some of the best actors working today. (Ian Hart in particular is always improbably good, whether he’s playing John Lennon or a schizophrenic paparazzo.) This episode serves as something of a triptych: As the notion of success is abandoned in favor of survival, Blanky, Stanley, and Collins are harbingers of what’s to come. And believe me, the connotations of “triptych” are intentional. Everything that goes down in this episode feels biblical in proportion.
Blanky, now equipped with a wooden leg, is the pragmatist. He’s been through a seemingly doomed mission before; he knows that, given time, all of the men are going to go mad, including himself. It’s just a matter of finding a little leeway. In one of the series’s best scenes thus far, he calmly lays out the principle upon which the entire rest of the season will turn. “If you’re going to keep things from the men, you better give them something in return,” he tells Fitzjames. “There’ll be a tally for it, later, when things get hard.” And so, as the decision is finally made to abandon the ships and begin the trek to the mainland, Fitzjames balances it out by organizing a party to give the men a last hurrah before the announcement is made.
Collins is the slow burn. If you recall, the first time we ever saw him on deck, he seemed clean-cut (or at least as clean-cut as muttonchops like that allow), cheerful, and sharp. But ever since he was sent down into the depths in a diving bell, he’s slowly become more and more haggard. It’s a turn that Gravelle pulls off magnificently, delivering a performance that ought to put him in the running to headline his own horror movie. Collins still speaks calmly, but there’s a frantic intensity to his physicality (and even his sweat!) that makes it immediately obvious that all is not well. “Do you ever feel like your mind is against you?” he asks, turning to Stanley for advice. Alas, Stanley is only marginally sympathetic (“I am a doctor of medicine”), recommending that Collins rejoin the men in setting up for the party to distract himself from his thoughts, and to have a little fun.
Stanley, meanwhile, is the misguided martyr. He’s also a pragmatist, to a certain degree, but not in a way that equips him for this particular story. He’s your man for treating tangible ailments, but when it comes to what can’t be so easily defined, he’s out of his depth, and he doesn’t like feeling out of control. Recall every interaction he’s had with Goodsir, not to mention the fact that Alistair Petrie seems to be casting directors’ go-to guy for “imperious” men (which I say as lovingly as possible). When Goodsir comes to him with the discovery that the canned food has been slowly giving everyone lead poisoning (RIP Franklin’s monkey), effectively rendering their primary source of food inedible, it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s to Petrie’s credit that Stanley’s breakdown somehow doesn’t make him hateable, though it really should.
The carnival marks the first time that the entire expedition (what remains of it, anyway) will all be gathered in one place. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing in that, in his first public appearance since sequestering himself to sweat out his alcoholism, Crozier can address all the men at once, letting them know that they’re officially abandoning the ships. It’s a curse in that, when Stanley ties the exits to the tent, all of them are effectively trapped. Crozier’s announcement is cut short first by the arrival of Lady Silence — who has cut out her own tongue as part of a ritual meant to bind Tuunbaq to her — and then again by Stanley. He’s set fire to the tent and, as his coup de grâce, sets fire to himself. The sight of Stanley’s self-immolation is awful: Tellingly, while the rest of the men panic or try to rush to Stanley’s aid, Collins remains fixed in place, unable to look away.
As the only crew member outside of the tent before it was set ablaze, Hickey manages to help tear open a new exit, but it’s at the cost of McDonald, who fails to step far enough away from the fabric before Hickey puts his knife through it. For those of you keeping track, this means that Goodsir is now the only doctor, though Bridgens offers to help in whatever way he can. There are of course other casualties (including Heather, whose friends can’t quite manage to keep him above the crowd), all of which weigh on Fitzjames’s shoulders given that the carnival was his idea. As they lay out the dead, the sun rises for the first time in months. And in an instant, it’s gone again.
Notes From the Captain’s Log
• Fitzjames isn’t in particularly good health, himself. While preparing for the carnival, he discovers that his hairline has begun to bleed. (That said, Rome enthusiasts should be chuffed to see Tobias Menzies in a centurion helmet and a makeshift toga.)
• I would like a full-size poster of Blanky drinking out of his wooden leg, thank you.
• Not to repeat myself, but Petrie really does a fantastic job with Stanley’s breakdown. When Collins visits him, he’s sketching his daughter, indicating that he still has some hope of returning to his family. Needless to say, it doesn’t last.
• If Jopson had even just a little bit more to do in this episode, I would call it a four-hander. His scene with Crozier provides a much-needed tenderness, as Jopson combs the indisposed Crozier’s hair and, at Crozier’s request, relays a little bit of his history. Following an accident, his mother had developed a laudanum habit. The way that Garrigan balances Jopson’s grief at essentially having lost her to it and his resignation as to the fact that it made her happy is heartbreaking, especially given its place as a corollary for Crozier’s alcoholism. When Crozier asks how she fared when she was through it, Jopson only responds, “I’ve got you, captain.”
• Speaking of tenderness, I have to give thanks to the writers room for making sure that Peglar and Bridgens are, far from being lost in the mix, given their own subplot. After overhearing the officers talking about abandoning the ships, Bridgens gives Peglar a new book — Anabasis, or The March of the Ten Thousand — to subtly tell him what lies ahead. Later on, once the men have managed to escape the burning tent, we see Peglar and Bridgens looking for each other in the crowd. John Lynch and Kevin Guthrie may be my favorite couple on TV.