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“The Terror” recap: Episode 7

Our experts continue their discussion of the AMC series about the Franklin Expedition
Lieutenant John Irving (played by Ronan Raftery) encounters a group of Inuit — and an all-too-brief moment of hope — on King William Island in Episode 7 of The Terror. Expand Image

Every week, Stephen Smith and Russell Potter will review the latest episode of the AMC show The Terror for Canadian Geographic. Their take on episode 7 — “Horrible from Supper” — appears below.

Stephen Smith

So no sightings of Tuunbaq this episode: the monster is off terrorizing whalers up Victoria Strait, maybe, or visiting relatives over on Admiralty Island. Not that the destruction the beast has already wrought on Franklin’s Englishmen won’t last them for a while yet. And it’s not as though they don’t have their own brimming reserves of panic and illness to plague them — not to mention the malign designs of their own Dr. Stanley and Cornelius Hickey, festering away as surely as those tainted tins the crews are feeding from.

And yet for all this, Captain Crozier does seem brighter in this episode than we’ve seen him in a while. Newly sobered, he’s not exactly cheerful, but he is somehow calmer, even as he’s presiding over the preparations for the crews to abandon ships and start the long haul down to Back’s Fish River and … home?

“Give the word,” Crozier tells Lieutenant John Irving, who does so: “Forward, men.”

If that command suggests progress, we know there’s none of that here. This is a headlong retreat of men who used to be sailors. They’re trudgers, now, wanderers man-hauling their desperation across the pack ice along with their ludicrous burden of bone china and fine furniture — and just barely enough naval discipline.

“Survival is a nasty piece of business,” says the man most intent on leaving good order behind. “We do what we have to do. We reconfigure. We reinvent. We rearrange.” 

True enough, though knowing what we know (and don’t) about the speaker, Cornelius Hickey, it’s not exactly the most inspiring of pep talks. We’re lacking those generally at this point, even from Dr. Goodsir, a previously reliable source of comfort. “There are a lot of problems now,” he wanly tells poor old Collins not long after the trudging gets going, as if he (or anyone) needs reminding. This, of course, is right around the time that Tuunbaq does make a kind of cameo after all, as the presumed murderer of Lieutenant Fairholme’s relief party. 

That the crews do manage to overcome the icy ramparts fortifying King William Land seems something like a victory, or at least a mercy, as forlorn a landfall as it appears.

“Nothing can exceed the gloom and desolation of the western coast of King William Island.” That was Francis McClintock’s appraisal in the late 1850s, when he was there searching for clues to the actual Franklin’s fate. I’m not doubting his word, but how much of that finding had to do with the grim mandate of the mission? By the time McClintock got to King William, that part of the 13,000-square-kilometre island had long been a graveyard for Franklin and his men, and the place names that memorialize the dead on our modern maps were already being inscribed. 

Inuit names for this place are rendered variously as Kikertak, Kikituk, and Qeqertarjuaq, all of which gesture towards a translation suggesting “the big island.” It wasn’t until James Ross ventured across from the Boothia Peninsula in 1830 that it got its English name. (It was Ross’s fateful assumption that King William was part of the mainland that was handed down to Franklin.) In the subsequent literature of the lost expedition, King William has acquired any number of epithets, none of them particularly uplifting, from Island of the Lost (the title of a 1961 history of King William by Paul Fenimore Cooper) to “Death’s Island” (a chapter in 1987’s Frozen In Time by Owen Beattie and John Geiger).

Of course, this scoured landscape we’re seeing onscreen in The Terror isn’t Nunavut at all: these scenes were filmed on the Croatian island of Pag in the Adriatic, a place also known (I looked it up) for fine lace and artisanal cheese.

Neither of those would have saved John Morfin, the first of our survivors to die on King William in 1848. Poisoned, in pain, begging for death, he’s shot down by a Royal Marine as Crozier tries to calm his craze. It’s soon after this that we see Henry Goodsir’s stoicism truly crack for the first time, followed by a new outbreak of Cornelius Hickey’s toxic independence.

It’s not without charm, the pitch he makes in attempting to draw Lieutenant George Hodgson into his plot. “Let us put our hope in our own hands,” he says, almost reasonably — right before we see the boat knife he’s cruelly wielding in those same hands.  

Seven episodes in, we’ve learned the perils of looking on the bright side, no matter how silvery. Carnivals, up here, end in catastrophe. So it is, too, when Lieutenant Irving and his hunters spy a passing party of Netsilingmiut. The chance that they might represent some kind of salvation would seem to vanish with Irving’s coming over the ridge to discover just how deep Hickey’s depravity reaches. But I guess we’ll see.

Russell, you’ve written about the putrescence of the provisions in your book Finding Franklin, and how they might or might not have affected the crews. There have been many theories about what the tins might have unleashed on the men, from botulism to lead poisoning. I’m wondering what your view of The Terror’s take on this is, with a particular eye, maybe, to Hickey’s turn for the worse.  

Russell Potter

The dark and complex “matter of the tins” has indeed become subtly, increasingly central to The Terror. There are two historical questions this raises. First, was the tinned food, due to lead in the solder, spoilage or botulism, a cause of the crew’s disease and death? And second, would they, with only the science of 1845 to help them, have realized the danger? To the first question, we can say the jury is still out: while lead may have been a factor in the ill-health of some individuals, several recent studies cast doubt on it as a broader cause of the disaster. Along those same lines, spoilage — because obvious — would have diminished the store of usable rations but not threatened health, and botulism remains an unproven hypothesis. As to the second question, there was certainly some awareness of what lead might lead to — from Roman times to Victorian ones — although the exact reason and mechanism weren’t well understood. So it makes perfect sense that the progressive Goodsir would be ahead of the curve as to this hazard. It’s wonderful in a way that he becomes the lone surviving medical officer — he with such limited experience with everyday injuries, but such patient insight into those less well known.

But in any case, lead poisoning doesn’t actually cause active, malevolent, madness. The symptoms are more subtle — lassitude, aches and pains, loss of appetite — combined with a mental decay that slowly degrades higher levels of judgement, while leaving habitual knowledge (taking sextant observations, putting on one’s clothes) unaffected. So, to my mind, this leaves Stanley and Hickey unexplained, though it keeps the door open to a more gradual and ultimately grievous progress with our commanding officers, Fitzjames and Crozier. God save them both as we watch them walk on.

Catch up on what you’ve missed! Read previous recaps 


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