The C, The C, The Open C: Brutal intimacy in The Terror episode 9


Episode 9 of AMC’s The Terror is the show’s most visceral yet. But while it brings the horror in spades, at its heart this episode is about truth.

In one of the most gut-wrenchingly tragic episodes of the show so far, the horror in this episode of The Terror is based on reduction: the men’s bodies are whittled away by hunger and disease even as desperation whittles at their principles. What remains is a total lack of artifice — men stripped of all pretense and left with nothing but their barest selves. For some characters, the result is almost beautiful. For others, it is monstrous.

Hickey is, of course, an example of the latter. His band of survivors set the scene for the episode’s most topical horror. When Doctor Goodsir pronounces Gibson as beyond help, Hickey shares a seemingly tender moment with the man. What really makes Adam Nagaitis’ performance so compelling is the fact that we can see Hickey engage in acts of true evil, but in scenes like this there’s still room to wonder — is there something genuine in his expression? Does Hickey have a soul?

Of course, Hickey himself quickly answers that question at the point of a boat knife, stabbing Gibson in the back and then ordering Goodsir to butcher the body for meat.

This is hardly a surprising moment, and the show does not treat it as such. The scene where Hickey and his men eat human flesh is presented matter-of-factly, inviting whatever degree of revulsion or acceptance the audience feels inclined to supply. The horror is less about cannibalism as it is about forcing Goodsir to go against his own principles and cut up Gibson’s body.

It’s a powerful moment. The cinematography of Goodsir sitting in front of the canvas tent wall, bulging and retracting in the wind as if with the weight of the decision before him, was simply — well, I was going to say “delectable” but that seems in poor, erm, taste.

The horror of intimacy

Reducing characters to their most basic truths is inherently an intimate endeavor. And as more and more of the characters’ pretenses and artifices are stripped away, the result is an intimacy so stark and so closely tied with agony that it makes you want to look away.

One of these moments is between Peglar and Bridgens, whose romantic feelings for each other (explicitly stated in the book, though more subtle in the show) are for obvious reasons kept secret to all but each other. But when Peglar collapses while hauling the sled, Bridgens is one of the first at his side.

In a poignant scene, Bridgens picks Peglar up and carries him to the sled while the men look on with bleak pity. As he carries Peglar to the boat and stoops to tend to him, the careful pretenses about their relationship fall away; in response to which, Jopson hurriedly removes his cap and turns away, as if giving the moment the privacy it requires.

That inclination — the urge to look away from something so intimate it makes the mere act of observing it inappropriate — is what defined this episode for me. It’s natural that when we are faced with a mutilated corpse or a brutal killing, our instinct is to look away. But The Terror applies that impulse to the scenes of intense emotion as well, until the horror blends with tragedy until the two are inseparable.

The moment which encapsulated that for me was Fitzjames’ death. The scene is between him and Crozier, and acts as the culmination of their character development over the course of the show. Where they started out barely able to tolerate each other, the final scene places the capstone in their doomed friendship as Crozier administers the poison to ease Fitzjames’ passing, massaging it down the dying man’s throat because his own muscles are too weak to swallow.

Afterward, Crozier also learns that his good friend Blanky’s severed leg is infected beyond hope of healing; here, for the first time, we see Crozier truly on the verge of breaking. Jared Harris does an exquisite job of portraying a man desperately struggling to maintain his composure as a commander, even as his friends are stripped from him one by one.

Despite the contrast between Hickey and Crozier’s camps, it is difficult to call anything about the men’s suffering as “noble.” There is no glamour in it. They are simply coming apart. It is painful and inglorious. Their deaths leave little room for heroism on the grand scale Sir John promised at the beginning of the expedition. But rather, it uncovers a different sort of nobility: the capacity for tenderness.

The Terror revealed itself in this episode as not only a horror story but also a tragedy of the most elementary kind. The episode’s power comes not from fear, but from anguish. The horror element is very present, but it is the shadow which the human tragedies cast. It relies on empathy for its effectiveness.

With fewer and fewer characters left standing, those who remain are in the process of being stripped down to nothing. As Silna told Crozier during her first night on the ship, the men are going to disappear. In the next and final episode, we will get to find out what, if anything, will remain.

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The final episode of The Terror will air on Monday, May 21 at 9 p.m. EST on AMC.