(This story has been updated to include Episode 5.)
AMC's latest series may be the scariest thing it's put out in a long time. It's right there in the title: The Terror. The show is based on a true story and follows an 1840s British expedition into the Arctic to find safe passage to Asia, and, as was the case with most things involving boats in unchartered territory in the 19th Century, things went horribly wrong.
The show's title is a bit of a misdirect; one of the two ships in the expedition was actually named The Terror, and it's reasonable to assume that's the reference there. But as you'll quickly find as you watch the show, the title is apt even if you never know the name of any boat in it. The Terror's logline says "A Royal Naval expedition crew searching for the Northwest Passage is attacked by a mysterious predator that stalks the ships and their crew in a suspenseful and desperate game of survival." I'd like to highlight one part of that: Mysterious predator.
Those two words transform the show from a sleepy historical drama featuring guys in funny hats who used to be in Game of Thrones to a potential weekly monster movie! Is there a Leviathan? A Kraken? An oversized seagull? Or is it the worst copout: MAN?
These are the only questions you need to have going into your The Terror watch, because for all the atrocities that come with men trapped in a boat in the days before electricity, the idea of a monster eating them one by one tops them all. But there isn't even a guarantee that there's a monster in this at all! So we're here to ask: Is there a monster in The Terror or what!?!?
We'll be breaking down the question each week right here until we have a definitive answer.
Episode 1: "Go For Broke"
AMC teased you with promises of a monster or some other beast in its loglines, and then in the first episode of The Terror, all it gave you was a man spouting blood from his mouth and a quick overview of how navigating Arctic waters in wooden boats is a really bad idea. But we did find out there was a monkey! And a dog! Will the dog Cujo out and eat people? Is he the "mysterious predator"?
As non-monstrous as the first episode felt, there were some tidbits that indicated monsters may be afoot in subsequent episodes. For one, there was a shirtless ghost Inuit elder who appeared before that poor young man as he was dying. DING DING DING! Now we're getting somewhere. Was it just a hallucination, or was it something more? All indications point to nature sending a message to these snooty Europeans to stay out of this sacred land lest you feel the wrath of the Great White North, but we can't call that ghost a monster quite yet.
However, the episode over all? I am totally on board. This looks like the worst cruise in history, and I can't wait to watch these men suffer horrific deaths from the comfort of my couch while eating freshly popped popcorn. The Terror may end up being more of a psychological horror show than a historical drama, and that's a GREAT thing. (Imagine if Turn: Washington's Spies had a Swamp Thing in it to spice things up!)
But for all the misery we saw — two men died, one by the icy fingers of the Arctic waters and another to a mystery disease that turns your mouth into a Mt. Vesuvius of blood — the biggest clue that there's a monster somewhere came in the opening flash-forward conversation between one man trying to figure out what happened to The Terror and The Erebus and a local. In addition to pretty much letting us know that every single person aboard those boats was dead (spoilers, dude!), something called "Tuunbaq" was "behind them, coming, always coming. From the shamans." And "this thing made of muscles and spells." Sounds promising, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in a wizard hat!
Is there a monster? Not yet! But for now, the crew of both ships have other things to worry about. However, there's a chance we'll see something soon, because look at the title of the next episode...
Episode 2: "Gore"
Eight months have passed between the first and second episodes, so I'm assuming there were no monster attacks in that time or else we need to have a serious sit down with the writers of the show. But it appears as though they were just skipping ahead to the good parts, because we have contact! An on-foot expedition to find, well, anything ended predictably in horror as a local was shot and another man maybe had his spine ripped out by a giant frickin' polar bear! Is that the mysterious predator we've been waiting for?
Fun fact about polar bears: They're mean sons of b***hes. Fun fact about this polar bear: Its paws are about 20 inches across, says Dr. Goodsir/Dr. Muttonchops (Paul Ready). According to Sea World, polar bear paws can grow up to about 12 inches across. Maybe polar bears in the old days were bigger, you know, before we started melting their ice caps with our V8 engines and hair spray. Or maybe this ain't no polar bear at all. Could this be the "tuunbaq" that the Inuit woman was speaking of while her father was dying? And what does she mean about not being able to control it?
Francis (Jared Harris) gets it. "[These are] the signs that nature does not give a damn about our plans," he tells Sir John (Ciarin Hinds) early in the episode, giving more credence to the idea that the extreme conditions these British men have to survive aren't just passive, but they're aggressively encouraging them to turn around and go home. The giant hailstones, the endless white horizon, the angry bears... c'mon guys, get a clue. Go home!
Is there a monster? Despite its ability to rip a man to shreds, I'm not ready to call a polar bear a monster by definition. However, it's certainly something to keep an eye on as we trudge further into this snowy hellscape that these idiots volunteered to explore. Final verdict: no monster! Yet. Another verdict: After two episodes, this show is awesome.
Episode 3: "The Ladder"
OK, before we talk about the monster can we please talk about how The Terror pulled a Game of Thrones and Ned Stark'd Sir John!?!? Unless you buried your muzzle into the source material or majored in Disastrous Maritime Expeditions of the British Empire in uni, you probably didn't predict that John — one of the show's two main characters in these first three episodes — would be slaughtered by the beast and presumably be done with the show. The Terror continues to keep us off balance by making even a predictable disaster unpredictable.
But on to the monster. Maybe John had it coming when playing hype man to his bear hunters by saying he'd turn the creature's corpse into a pillow. "Educate this creature as to the dominion of the Empire and the will of the Lord behind him" is the exact kind of blustery rhetoric John used to "motivate" his men, and the exact kind of blind pompousness that got him (and his men) into this mess in the first place. (At least Mance Rayder believed in his words when bringing the weirdos beyond The Wall together on Thrones.) Shortly after that speech, all heck broke loose and the creature tore a man in half before laying his paws on John and dumping his panicky ass in the same hole his men threw the dead native into. DO. NOT. F. WITH. NATURE.
The question remains: What are these men dealing with? Even some of the dimwitted sailors are wondering if these attacks are linked to the accidental death of the local, bringing about the idea of some summoned spirit as defender of the ice in animal form. The final scene of Lady Silence getting a visit from said beast also lends credence to that theory. On the other hand, people back then thought everything was a ghost, so maybe they're just attributing a mean polar bear to something much worse. We need visual proof, and while the image of John's severed leg wrapped up like a salami was horrifying, we saw no new looks at this creature.
Is there a monster? I don't see a monster yet, just one incredibly pissed-off polar bear. Actually, the only monster so far is Hickey (Adam Nagaitis), who took a dump in his former mate's bed for betraying him.
Episode 4: "Punished, As a Boy"
The aftermath of Sir John's "passing" (can we really call being ripped apart and thrown in an ice hole "passing"?) took its toll on the crews of The Eremus and The Terror as the men's faith in the mission seemed shaken, to say the least. The beast got three more victims before we even had a chance to settle into our couches, one on the ship. And did I mention that the top of his head was ripped off, exposing his brain? Just another day exploring the frozen north.
Later, Hickey found a guy cut in half and got a glimpse of the beast, and from where I stood, it sure looked like a polar bear. But the doctor said the injuries the poor dude suffered weren't consistent with 19th century knowledge of bear attacks; the cut was made three times in the same place in order to cut the guy in half, not slapdash like your typical bear attack. This thing isn't an animal, it's an artist!
"Not a man, not a bear, then what?" asked James (Tobias Menzies). Francis responds to the question the same way I would: with more whiskey.
"Of all I know in this world, and of this world, I tell ya, that — I do not believe is an animal we battle," Hickey said, before getting sentenced to literally have his ass whipped for insubordination. He would know about the monster, though. He got the best look out of all of the men, but is he clouded by prejudice against the native woman? Historical dramas don't dip their toes into the supernatural; that kind of ruins the history part of everything. But the doubt in the back of our minds is too hard to ignore.
With John no longer around, things are turning to disarray and men are being lashed for insubordination, so we must ask the question we never wanted to ask: Is MAN the real terror!?!? (No, it's the bear-man-monster, but we had to ask.)
Side note: The coolest trick the series is doing is holding the camera straight while the interior boat sets are askew, showing how The Terror is laying crooked in the ice! It's so disorienting and adds to the tension of the show. I love it. It makes me nauseous.
Is there a monster? Our one look at the creature this week was through a blizzard, and from our vantage point, it's hard to say it was anything but bear. But most of the crew are starting to think it's something more, and I am too.
Episode 5: "First Shot a Winner, Lads"
I think it's safe to say that we can close the book on our little investigation, because ladies and gentlemen, WE HAVE A MONSTER. In the most terrifying battle in the series so far, Mr. Tuunbaq came aboard The Terror and did its thing, killing another man and forcing another to lose a leg. And because we got such a good glimpse of Tuunbaq — even with its white coat blurring into the blizzard-like conditions — it's very clear that Tuunbaq isn't just the Andre the Giant of polar bears, it's a creature all its own. And here's video to prove it:
Tuunbaq's face is more than animal, and brings up what James mentioned earlier: "Not a man, not a bear, then what?" Previously, Hickey — who had one of the best looks at the beast — was mentioning that its face was set differently, and the close look in this episode revealed that he was right. We saw something you don't really see in nature outside of humans and the occasionally overly expressive cat: its face conveyed emotion and moved differently than any animal we've seen. (OK, maybe it was he CGI, but polar bears don't tend to look completely pissed off, like this guy did.)
So ruling out an animal, what have we got here? Thomas Blankly (Ian Hart), who was a total badass while fighting the Tuunbaq around the ship's mast, earlier mentioned that the word "tuunbaq" reminded him of a Russian word that meant a "spirit, that dresses as an animal," and I'm pretty sure that's all we need to know. Tuunbaq, I'm guessing, is an Inuit spirit protecting the land from foreign invaders, especially foreign invaders who accidentally shoot and kill a local shaman. It's unclear whether Lady Silence has any control of it (she denies it), but it is clear that it isn't after her and in some ways reveres her, as we saw with its seal offering a few episodes ago.
We've seen so much historical fiction that verges on the supernatural explain things away with culture or science, but The Terror has come right out and said, "Nope, this is a monster." It's not in the history books, but I'll be damned if it doesn't make a fine television show.
Is there a monster? You bet your butt there is.
The Terror airs Monday nights at 9/8c on AMC.