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The Terror, Season 1, Episode 6: “A Mercy”
Written by Vinnie Wilhelm
Directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan
Airs Mondays at 9 pm ET on AMC
There are two unstated countdowns that have been progressing with every episode of AMC’s The Terror: the first is the steady march toward starvation. The Terror and the Erebus have a finite amount of salted meats and canned goods; discoveries of spoiled food speed up the clock, even as the violent deaths of the sailors slow it down a bit. The other countdown, which runs at a much faster pace, awaits the expedition’s descent into madness. In episode six, “A Mercy,” madness finally arrives, threatening to destroy all hopes of rescue.
Initially, things seem to have calmed down for the crews of Terror and Erebus. The beast has disappeared since being set aflame and shot with a cannonball in last week’s episode. Acting commander Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) has settled into his new role and is beginning to plan a trek south across the ice in search of outposts and rescue. At his urging the remaining food stores have been inventoried — there is a year’s worth of nourishment left, more if rations are decreased.
After the rest of the officers leave, Blanky (Ian Hart) remains to speak with Fitzjames. He now wears a surprisingly elegant wooden prosthesis in place of the leg he lost in his battle with the monster. Blanky recounts to Fitzjames a past expedition, one that ended poorly in starvation and despair. The speech, written by Vinnie Wilhelm, is one of the most chilling moments of The Terror so far, aided by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan’s sensitive and reserved direction. That a solitary monologue could be one of the scariest moments in a series that already among the best horror shows is impressive and, frankly, unexpected. Fitzjames sets off at the end of their discussion to scrounge up costumes for the carnival that he has decided to institute. It will be a last hurrah before the sun finally rises again and the men set off on their march. Even though The Terror is a very different kind of horror story, one built around claustrophobia and dread more than outright horror, the show nods toward classic slasher films with Fitzjames’s mask, a bleached white woman’s face that is chillingly dead-eyed and not too dissimilar from the masks in The Strangers (2008).
While Fitzjames is doing his best to lead, Captain Crozier (Jared Harris) is bedridden. He’s being cared for as he detoxes in the wake of the whiskey drying up. The end of last week’s episode marked the first time that Crozier had decided he wanted to live since sailing for the Arctic; despite his weakened physical state, he seems more determined than ever to get well and to lead his men to safety.
Crozier’s growing optimism is at odds with the experiments Dr. Goodsir (Paul Ready) has been conducting. He has been feeding the capuchin monkey from food cans and observing it. After living on a steady diet of the same food the sailors eat, the monkey begins to act wild and aggressive before dying. (The blood surrounding it raises the possibility that the monkey may have killed itself.) Goodsir finds that the animal has the same blackened gums he had started to observe on the men, confirming that lead from the can has leached into the food supply and is slowly poisoning them all. Even the food that hasn’t gone putrid is still toxic — their only hope of survival is slowly killing them. Goodsir shares the information with Dr. Stanley (Alistair Petrie), who instructs him to keep quiet for the time being. It won’t be clear until later, but the news of their impending doom finally pushes Stanley over the edge into madness.
When the carnival arrives it initially seems like goodhearted frolicking, but alcohol and the sour mood pervading the expedition warps it into something darker. The bacchanal becomes increasingly hedonistic and deranged. Crozier, in his first trip outside the ship since giving up drinking, is disgusted to find the men in a state of complete disarray. In one disturbing tableau, he finds men sitting in a giant stew pot over an open flame, using it as a hot tub à la Bugs Bunny. Into this madness walks Lady Silence, who has convened with the still-living beast and cut her own tongue out in an attempt to be its new shaman. It’s not yet clear whether that action will help or harm the crew’s chances of survival.
Amidst all the tumult, Dr. Stanley goes nearly unnoticed as he douses the tents, and then himself, in kerosene. Without saying anything, he sets himself and the tent ablaze. Hickey (Adam Nagaitis), the first to see the blaze, doesn’t sound the alarm until after the doctor has already self-immolated and been extinguished, at which point his cries can barely be heard over the crowd’s roar. A mob of sailors frantically try to push against the canvas to escape, including Dr. MacDonald (Charles Edwards). Hickey tries to cut open the canvas from the other side, but the mindless mob is unable to back away from the other side. He cuts through the canvas anyway, killing MacDonald and leaving the expedition with no doctors, just Goodsir the anatomist. Now freed from the tent, the surviving men watch the blaze flicker as the sun begins to rise. It’s the first time they’ve really been warm since sailing to the top of the world. It seems likely they’ll know nothing but cold for what remains of their lives.
Find our weekly recaps of The Terror here
Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema’s Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He’s a graduate of USC’s master’s program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s “King Lear.” Totally worth it.
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