A lot of what makes The Terror so frightening isn't the unknown mystery of the ghosts or monsters, it's what you already know will happen. The first season of the anthology was set aboard the doomed ships of the British Royal Navy as they tried to find the Northwest Passage in the 1840s, a real expedition that ended in hundreds of men dead by starvation, illness, suicide, madness, cannibalism, and, in the show, a man-eating animal spirit summoned by a native shaman.
The spirit, which looked like a mutant polar bear and was named Tuunbaq, certainly added a sense of traditional horror to the series, but even without it, Season 1 could easily have stood on its own as a dramatic retelling of what would be a suicide mission, a scathing critique of colonialism, and a warning to not f--- with nature. The Tuunbaq was an effective part of the show's larger metaphor, but it wasn't the crux of the story or even the scariest part of the season.
Season 2 of The Terror, a new unconnected chapter known as The Terror: Infamy, fast-forwards things about 100 years to World War II and is set during an ugly part of American history that is grossly ignored: the concentration camps that held people of Japanese ancestry — 62 percent of whom were American citizens — after the bombing of Pearl Harbor made anyone who looked remotely Japanese a suspected spy. Like the horrific actions the sailors of Season 1 were forced to take were scarier than the Tuunbaq, the fear, disgust, and horror of America's treatment of Japanese is the driving force of Terror: Infamy, rather than the ghost story that floats Infamy into the horror genre.
I should stop right here and say that AMC only released two episodes for review, and if you are familiar with Season 1 of The Terror, you know that the spooky supernatural stuff didn't really come to fruition until the middle episodes of the season and on. The first two episodes are heavy with setting the table for this part of history that many people don't know much about because American history books are rewritten in "we're the good guys" language, even though the facts prove otherwise no matter how much we pretend they don't exist. Rounding up Japanese and throwing them in concentration camps isn't just a black eye on the country, it's a whole body cast.
The season starts before the bombing of Pearl Harbor on a small island off the coast of Long Beach, California, where Japanese fishermen made a living and established a tight-knit community. In The Terror, racism against the Japanese was common, but not all-consuming, and the series begins with a more nuanced relationship between caucasian Americans and the Japanese than say Cinemax's Warrior, which was thick with slurs against Asians and dumbass racists getting their asses kicked for being dumbass racists. The Terror's lead character, Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio), has white friends and a Hispanic girlfriend, and while older generations still put up barriers founded on culture, the younger Japanese are happily intermingling and enjoying the American way.
That all changes on the morning of December 7, 1941, when Japanese bombers attack Pearl Harbor and Chester, his family, and the rest of his community are suddenly seen by white America as threats. The quick change in attitude will remind you of the increased xenophobia of America after 9/11, and the subsequent executive order to put 120,000 Japanese people into concentration camps is eerily reminiscent of the government-sanctioned crimes happening in border facilities today. It's nothing short of abhorrent, and the fact that it happened on American soil less than 100 years ago is downright scary.
Being one of the first shows to depict this terrible moment in history makes The Terror intriguing enough, but doing it as well as The Terror does makes it essential. George Takei, who plays an elder Japanese fisherman and community leader put in one of the camps, also serves as an executive producer and with good reason: He experienced these concentration camps first-hand as a young child growing up in Southern California. His knowledge, along with the studious research and wonderful set designs, bring the chaos and cruelty of the time alive in all its depressing ugliness.
Very much not alive is the obake, yurei, or bakemono — variations on Japanese ghosts — haunting the Japanese from their fishing village to the camps. Its presence, in the form of a beautiful, young Japanese woman (Kiki Sukezane) whose bone-cracking jerky tics are the subtle calling card of Japanese horror, comes and goes in the early episodes, but don't expect to understand why it's there. The characters sure don't, and its connection to Chester could be a blessing, able to take out some of his enemies, or a curse, haunting his family for past sins. Early on, evidence points to both.
While not as viscerally terrifying as the Tuunbaq, the obake works more on stealth and deception than the ability to tear a man limb from limb (though you won't want to put a chopstick anywhere near your ear after watching the first episode). The Japanese believe this spirit can possess another or shapeshift, making its mere presence enough to drum up even more terror, with paranoia among the elders more familiar with Japanese folklore boiling over into them turning on each other and unsure who may be a ghost.
That's instrumental to what makes The Terror so potent. Like Season 1, Infamy extracts horror from all of its elements and attacks viewers from every angle. The obake itself is creepy, but the panic it causes among the Japanese adds another layer of uneasiness. But at least in the early episodes, those are both secondary to the horror of the real human rights atrocities perpetuated by the American government during World War II. If The Terror: Infamy can pool all these aspects together over the rest of its season, it will be truly frightening.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
The Terror: Infamy premieres Monday, Aug. 12 at 9/8c on AMC.