AMC’s The Terror
Episode 6: “A Mercy”
Directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan
Written by Vinnie Wilhelm
* For a recap & review of the previous episode, “First Shot a Winner, Lads” – click here
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “Horrible from Supper” – click here
January of 1848. The provisions situation is more dire than ever, as the crews of the HMS Erebus and Terror try to figure out ways of better rationing the remainder of their food. Part of it is due to the “low bidder” who canned their provisions, which left many weak seals on the cans. Either way, they’ve got only, at best, about a year or so left to their stores. They’ll start with “4/5ths rations.” After that it’ll only get worse. Noticeably absent from the meeting with Commander James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) and the rest of the upper management is Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris).
They’ve got Thomas Blanky (Ian Hart) fixed up with a primitive prosthetic leg, and he’s mostly doing fine. At the same time they’re all still wondering about the beast out there, whether it’s dead or not. Blanky talks to Fitzjames about being with Sir John Ross years before, on an earlier Arctic expedition. They were stranded at a place now referred to as Fury Beach, where they built an encampment called Somerset House. Between it all, Fitzjames is trying to understand what to expect on the road ahead, especially considering the higher class will try to keep what they can from their men. Mainly we see Blanky tell him about the unnatural thoughts that accompany such long, desolate, dark journeys amongst unknown stretches of the Earth, which are often the most worrisome of al things on such journeys.
So, Commander Fitzjames is trying to come up with something to offer the men, as entertainment, as a way to forget all the stresses of their voyage. An offering as a deception to keep them preoccupied from the quickly decaying conditions all around on the Erebus and the Terror.
Then there’s Crozier, whose condition without alcohol is deteriorating in its own right. He’s being taken care of by Thomas Jopson (Liam Garrigan) at his bedside. The two of them get to now one another a bit better, as Jopson tells of his mother, whom he took care of after her hand was crushed in an accident and she’d gotten addicted to laudanum. In some ways, the conversation is a comfort to Crozier. This is a man who’s all but cried out for companionship, not only romantically, also in friendship. He and Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds) had a terribly rocky relationship, one which Francis desperately wanted to be better. There’s a deep sadness to Cpt. Crozier, in many ways.
You’ve got to keep an eye out for Cornelius Hickey (Adam Nagaitis). There’s obviously queer fear in the 19th century amongst sailors – being gay, or bi, or fluid and lonely, whatever Hickey truly is, that’s not the actual problem for us viewers in the 21st century; unless you’re a bigot. My issue is that Hickey’s a creep of the first order.
But perhaps most importantly, Henry Goodsir (Paul Ready) is watching Jacko the monkey nibble on some veal provisions from the canned food. He’s trying to figure out what sort of nastiness is spreading from the rations. Simultaneously, there’s an announcement about “a carnival” planned by Cmdr. Fitzjames.
Out on the ice, Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen) is getting a bite to eat after hunting down a seal. It’s obvious she’s starving. Once finished she spreads some of the organs around here in a circle. In the middle, she lights a fire in a bowl, singing in Inuktitut. She watches the barren landscape, as if waiting. Is she waiting for the Tuunbaq?
Part of the carnival is a way to use a few things they won’t be able to carry, after they inevitably must take to the ice and walk inward towards land. Part of it’s a “last hurrah” before the men of the ships’ crews are told the plan of the big walk. Regardless, there are cheers from the men after Britain’s flag is raised outside; a sound nobody’s heard in ages.
Something that’s interesting and depressing yet not surprising to see is how mental illness, during the mid-19th century, still was not understood, nor was it taken seriously. When Henry Collins (Trystan Gravelle) goes to Dr. Stephen Stanley (Alistair Petrie) about his “flurried thoughts,” he’s told to go enjoy the carnival, and that such things aren’t the concern of a medical doctor.
Note: Something I loved about the Dan Simmons novel, and that’s coming across well in this adaptation, is how – aside from the hidden horror on the ice in the form of a beast – the doomed Franklin expedition is examined through many lenses, be them social, medical, naval, personal, among others. Here, we see a lot about how mental illness alone could’ve hobbled lofty journeys such as these, back before medicine took those issues seriously enough.
We see another relationship on the ship, between young Henry Peglar (Kevin Guthrie) and John Bridgens (John Lynch). The older of the two gives out readings for his younger friend, from Voltaire to Greek writer Xenophon’s Anabasis a.k.a The March of the Ten Thousand. What this is, really, is Bridgens’s way of telling Peglar to prepare for what’s coming soon, as John was able to hear the plan of the officers, knowing they’ll soon have to go for that big, long walk on the ice.
Speaking of the ice, Lady Silence is about to embody her name. While the Tuunbaq looks on behind her, Silence cuts out her own tongue. Just as the Inuit man. On the ship, Goodsir’s found Jacko succumbed to the bad provisions. The monkey’s suffered blackened gums, just as Goodsir had observed on some of the sailors. This can only mean bad things for the crew themselves, seeing as how the monkey died. It’s got to do with lead poisoning, essentially. Despite all that, Dr. Stanley isn’t rushing to tell anybody, which troubles Henry deeply.
The carnival is ready to go on. Crozier’s ill and plans to go out so he can see the festivities. He heads over with Jopson, only to find everyone in full swing, having a time! But he runs into Fitzjames, who tells him the real reason for the carnival, in anticipation of the trek to come. This compels Crozier to tell the man what’s going to happen, instead of buttering them up first.
In the midst of Crozier giving a speech – which isn’t received that enthusiastically, of course – Lady Silence turns up with her tongue rooted out, hair gone white. Not only that, Dr. Stanley’s apparently taking serious measures on their journey – he’s lighting the carnival and its tents on fire, creating utter chaos, confusion, panic, and, yes, terror. To top it off, the doc lights himself ablaze, too. A perfect omen for the remainder of the expedition.
As the fire grows bigger, the smoke rising, Crozier, Fitzjames, and the rest of the crew try breaking free of the tenting. Sadly, not everyone makes it. Some burn alive, some are accidentally killed in the frantic madness. In the aftermath, the still living crew picks up the pieces to try moving on. With both doctors gone, Goodsir is unofficially crowned the new MD aboard both ships. Things look grim, indeed.
Loved this episode. Mainly, I always wondered how they’d adapt this particular event in the novel to the screen. Really impressive work, it was executed well. The tragic story of the expedition moves forward, plus now there are more of the subplots beginning to open up and expand.
“Horrible from Supper” is next.