Grim and grimmer — in this episode we cross the line from the merely horrible to the fully horrific. And yet, somehow, this change only hardens us, steels us for what we now know without doubt is far worse to come. Our camera angle is both broad and narrow — broad as the boom shots of those listing, icebound ships, narrow as Goodsir’s meticulous and precise post-mortem Daguerreotypes of the dead. We duck, as one would in anticipation of a blow.
Yet this week’s story begins far away from such perils, as Lady Franklin and Sir John’s niece Sophia Cracroft steady themselves, ascending the stairs of Admiralty House to a meeting of the storied Arctic Council. A bit more scraggy and scrappy than their usual portrait in oils, this council begins by condescending to her ladyship, only to learn how quickly she can school them. In return for their boilerplate praise, Lady Franklin archly scolds with the truth: Sir John, she reminds them, is “as wonderful as he is … fallible.” In a sharp exchange, she rejects the proffered optimism of earlier noble narratives: “The past tense is a very sturdy thing … it’s earned, but it does take for granted that one has survived.”
We do not take this for granted. Nor does Crozier, now promoted from second to first, which he relishes even less. The backstory suggests that he has only joined the expedition because of Sophia — in the flashbacks, they seem on the edge of engagement until Lady Franklin forbids it — and only to protect Sir John from “blundering.” It’s a bit of a shift from the historical sequence of events (in which Sophia, quite on her own, rejected him a second time), but it works wonderfully to sharpen his character’s already acute edge. As Jared Harris paints him, Crozier is the most melancholy of Irishmen, sitting in his cabin in the dark and downing glass after glass of whiskey, but never losing track of his ultimate responsibility for his ships and men. His is a Beckettian dilemma: he must wait for the ice to yield, and until then there is “nothing to be done.”
And yet the creature, the monster, changes all this; a thing of action, it demands some action in response, as it whisks away life after life after life in spite of all efforts to fight it. One thinks of Victor Frankenstein’s dark double, or the eerie footprints of the “monsters from the Id” in Forbidden Planet. In both cases, as here, this enemy seems to grow stronger from the fear it generates, fueling itself from bloody chaos, and it will never, never, be done. It’s come to the ships now, and paces impatiently about them, waiting for someone to draw too close to a railing.
Nevertheless, even amid the growing horror, order must be maintained. Previously delightful in his deviousness, Cornelius Hickey now has his own theory — the Inuk woman “Lady Silence” is directing the beast! — and we get the sense that he may be on to something. Unfortunately, his accusation leads to a near-riot on deck, and his insistence on repeating his claim to Crozier and the other senior officers at a disciplinary review leads to a sentence of 30 lashes — “as a boy,” which apparently means pants down. I’m not quite clear as to whether this phrase, or the practice, is period usage — flogging was gradually on its way out in the mid-19th century — but the force of this additional humiliation is unquestionable, as is the resentment it solders into Hickey’s soul.
In the end, the ever-sympathetic Goodsir is shown bringing Lady Silence a meal, the only part of which passes her muster is what looks to be a strip of raw bacon or salt pork. His kindness, as in earlier episodes, is contrasted with an overall disdain for the Inuit shown by the other officers that seems to me a bit overdrawn, though it serves to amplify the dramatic tension. Since only Crozier fully understands their strange speech, he too becomes quietly affiliated with the very threat he seeks to quell. And this threat is twofold: one from the world of shamanistic spirits, and one from the world of men — his own.
Stephen, I’d be curious as to your take on Hickey. I’d been drawn to him earlier, despite his duplicity; now that’s he’d been whipped for telling what may quite possibly be the truth, has your view of him changed? And what do you see coming for him?
Ah, yes, Cornelius Hickey.
I was flinching, I admit, as the cat flew at his flesh, and my view of the caulker’s mate’s flogging was at least partly obscured by the defensive hand I had raised to the screen. As previously mentioned, I’m a bit of a woozy one, as much (apparently) when it comes to watching 19th-century naval punishments as its medical practices.
Like you, Russell, I have been drawn to Hickey in earlier episodes. In the pages of Dan Simmons’ novel, he’s introduced as “barely five feet tall, beady-eyed and ferret-faced.” The insolence, we’re told, comes off him “in waves.” He’s not well-liked, particularly, but he is respected among the seamen for his willingness to speak up on their lowerdeck behalf. Every ship has its sea lawyers, Simmons writes — they’re just a fact of life, same as rats. Some are more dangerous than others: on a difficult voyage their advocacy can quickly turn to mutiny.
As played here by Adam Nagaitis, Hickey is a more nuanced character than on the page. It’s a masterful portrayal, I think. He’s a rogue, to be sure, and a conniver, but there’s also a definite charm to him, to go with the gleam in his eye, and the smile just below. He’s as sharp and self-confident as Harry Goodsir is modest and sympathetic. If he’s not exactly Evilsir, he’s certainly (as Crozier well understands) WorthKeepingAnEyeOnsir.
Will his commander’s reprimand keep Hickey in his place? Thrashed, cleaned and salted, he withdraws (gingerly) to the confines of his hammock. I’m going to venture here that he’ll be up and back to scheming before his wounds have fully healed. He and Goodsir haven’t, so far, shared a scene, I don’t think. Is there clash coming between them, I wonder?
I don’t know where the threat that Hickey poses fits into Captain Crozier’s manifest of major concerns plus onrushing calamities. “I will not tolerate hysteria,” he growls at one point, but I’m not sure he believes he has the resources at hand to keep on quelling it. Alone in the murky dim of his cabin, amid the moaning of ice and the heaving of timbers, he sits and soaks in doubt and regret and whiskey. Everything’s getting darker, down there below — including, as it falls upon Goodsir to discover, John Morfin’s scurvy-blackened gums.
Even our worthy medico’s enduring spirit is beginning to spoil. “I don’t know what’s happening here,” he tells Lady Silence at the end of the episode, “I truly don’t.” Uh oh. That can’t be good.