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“The Terror” recap: Episode 5

Our experts continue their discussion of the AMC series about the Franklin Expedition 

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Every week, Stephen Smith and Russell Potter review the latest episode of the AMC show The Terror for Canadian Geographic. Their take on episode 5 — “First Shot A Winner, Lads” — appears below.

Stephen Smith

Both history and episodes one through four teach us that Franklin and his crew are unlikely to be granted any kind of peaceful pause, let alone any reprieve. Captain Crozier told his late commander that they’d come to a place that wanted them dead. What they hadn’t worked out yet was that the place was determined to see them suffer sorely first.

Still, just for a moment there tonight, I did wonder whether the surviving crew might have earned a measure of calm with their daily grog. An episode-long holiday from the deadly pandemonium they’ve seen so far? Seeing Mr. DeVoeux and his party out there on the ice on orderly scientific assignment, it seemed briefly plausible that things might have stabilized for our beleaguered crew, that they might be due a chance to rest, repair, revive.

Of course, what DeVoeux is studying is just how wickedly cold it is in this merciless north. For those of you scoring at home, it’s – 52 F (or – 47 C; the Fahrenheit scale was still in wide use at the time of the Franklin expedition). Within a few frames, we’re in Dr. Stanley’s Erebus sick bay learning the nasty things a temperature like that can do to a man’s toes, including turn them black with gangrene. Could be worse, I guess, and it soon is: on the way over to Terror, the cold stops the mate Mr. Hornby’s heart, drops him down dead.

The expedition’s isolation has, of course, been never been in doubt, and all these weeks we’ve been watching, the ships have long since been beyond the point of no return. Contrary to my hopes, things have never felt quite so sinisterly dire for our wretched heroes as they do this week. For me, this episode may be the most unnerving yet in the way that it confirms just how well and truly imprisoned the ships and their crews are.

Winter’s darkness is a constant now, food and fuel dwindling away — including, to Captain Crozier’s alarm, the whiskey reserves. The world has withdrawn — no flashbacks to warmer times in London drawing rooms do we see this week, no quick cuts to check in on Lady Jane’s vigorous efforts to organize a rescue. It’s as if the men’s very memories have been confiscated and stowed away.   

Where, in all this, is a soul to shelter? Down below, in Terror’s hold, is where the corpses go, piling up in the Dead Room, releasing (as some of the men fear) their ghosts to roam free. Up top is where the beastly spirit that Lady Silence names as Tuunbaq runs increasingly amok — you don’t want to go up there, if you can avoid it.  

Meanwhile, I’m glad to see that Harry Goodsir remains his regular stoical sympathetic self. He even gets to flash his wit. His secret for survival seems to involve equal measures of compassion and academic inquiry. He’s got his Inuktitut dictionary to compile, of course, and Goldner’s fetid food tins to study.  

Last week I wondered whether he and sly old Cornelius Hickey might be headed for a confrontation, but if they are, that’s still to come. Here, their exchange is a friendly one. “Your kindness is unstoppable,” Hickey tells Goodsir, sounding sincere even as he’s scheming whatever his next scheme might be.   

And Tuunbaq? We’re still, in many ways, as fearfully baffled as we ever were. We learned early on that the fiend was red in tooth and claw, and that somewhere it had developed a flair for bold and bloody drama. What we hadn’t had was a good look at the thing, and we don’t really get one here. It’s blizzarding, of course, as Thomas Blanky scales the mainmast, and the urgency with which the scene is shot suggests that the camera may be as traumatized and desperate to escape as the ice master himself. I’m not saying I was underwhelmed by what we glimpse, but I have been wondering since whether Tuunbaq wasn’t even more distressing when it remained more of a prowling mystery.  

I’m fond of Mr. Blanky, so I’m glad his life has (for now) been spared. Of the monster, we now know that it can climb, and that it can go up in flames, and be knocked off the mainmast by a frantic shot from a six-pounder. It can fall, and bleed — it can also survive all this, apparently, and live to maraud another day.

What about you, Russell? How do you think Tuunbaq measures up? Does the glimpse we get do justice to the monster’s appalling reputation?

Russell Potter

I love the way the show-runners have held back on the imagery — seeing first only the dreadful damage it can do, and then but a blur of claw and fur. In Episode 5, we briefly glimpse a bit more — but not so much as to break the spell, or replace our mental image of this fearsome creature of “muscles and spells.”

Many people have asked about the exact nature of this seeming demon. Its name is more properly rendered in Inuktitut as tuurngaq, a kind of helping spirit. In traditional belief, a shaman, or angakkuq, might command several of these, storing them when not in use in totemic charms on his or her person. These spirits could thence be dispatched to work good — or evil — as the shaman desired. Knowing this, we know that Lady Silence’s father must have been an angakkuq, and that it was his tuurngaq that she spoke of when she said she wasn’t sure she’d be able to control it. Tossing the ivory charms into the father’s hood at his burial seems in retrospect to have been a very significant mistake — without them, this task of control will be far harder, perhaps impossible.

And speaking of control — self-control — I found the scene at the end where Jared Harris’s Crozier swears off drink to be one of the show’s most powerful moments to date. Already, as he sets out the orders he hopes will solidify his restraint, we see a man we’ve hardly known — a sober Crozier — and Harris almost seems to have altered not only the expression, but the very shape of his face. It’s a portent of struggle, but also perhaps of hope — this new incarnation of their commander may well be the last, best one his men have.

Past recaps: 

Episodes 1 & 2
Episode 3
Episode 4


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