I had very high hopes for The Terror: Infamy, and the first five episodes I watched before the show premiered were encouraging. In my review of the first half of the season, I called the premise “a devastating ghost story about the horrors of internment and the weight of cultural expectations,” and I anticipated that the show would acquire the same cult following that the first season of The Terror did. Now that we’re on the other side of the season, which wrapped Oct. 14, I suppose it’s time to admit that both of my hopes ended up being somewhat wrong. 2019, baby! Hell world!
The first half of Infamy introduced us to a number of Japanese-American families living in California as the internment process began, and followed them as they were forcibly removed from their homes and herded into various camps. Inside the fictional Colinas de Oro, Oregon, internment camp, we watched as Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio) struggled with the cultural expectations of his parents, in particular father Henry (Shingo Usami), and his difficulty maintaining a relationship with college girlfriend Luz Ojeda (Cristina Rodlo). Her Mexican-American father objected to their relationship — as did Chester’s parents — and half of the show focused on their desperation to remain together in increasingly fraught circumstances, while the other half of the show was consumed by a ghost story. Who was the mysterious Yuko, played by Kiki Sukezane, and what did this being — who could possess other people, forcing a man to burn out his eyes and a woman to stab herself in the head, and who caused the deaths of two babies while they were inside their mother’s womb — want from Chester and the other Japanese-Americans in Colinas de Oro?
Those questions were all laid out in the first five episodes, and the sixth through 10th episodes struggled to answer them, resulting in increasingly shaky episodes that couldn’t bridge the divide between the narratives about Yuko and the families in Colinas de Oro. The initial half of the season chewed through plot at a noticeably rapid rate: Chester quits school, breaks up with Luz, moves to the internment camp with his family, returns to his school to reconnect with a college professor, gets the pregnant-with-twins Luz, brings her back to the camp, has her live with his parents, then decides to join the U.S. Army as a translator, then travels to the jungle, where he faces off against Yuko, then he learns that Luz has miscarried. That’s all in about five hours of show time! And yet the concluding half burns through even more, even faster. Characters move, families break up, people are killed off, motivations are altered. You learn that months—sometimes even years—have passed during episodes or between them. Pajiba’s lovely Overlord Dan Hamamura noted that the latter spread of episodes felt stifled because of the writers’ desire to tie certain plot developments to particular historical events, and he’s absolutely right. And so what results is an uneasy mix of internment-camp-focused narratives, which feel small-scale because they’re not the ghost story, and the ghost story itself, which doesn’t feel meaty enough to stand up to the internment stuff. Over time, the two stories diverted away from each other, not necessarily in parallel but utterly disparate.
That divide is unfortunate because each narrative has some moments of real power in the second half of the season; the moments just don’t work together. In the Yuko-focused episode “Taizo,” we see her choice to commit suicide and her years and years spent in a place that looks like paradise but is more akin to Hell. The version of afterlife where Yuko is looks like a Japanese garden with beautiful architecture, and Yuko wakes up every morning in a spacious bed, but there’s always a fly buzzing. The gardener looks at her with malice. And the woman who says she is taking care of Yuko is really trapping her — not saving her. The emotional torture we see Yuko endure builds in creepiness and uncanniness until Yuko finally banishes her keeper: The image of that woman, who turns out to be Yuko’s ancestor, being pulled down into sand by the undead arms of her own daughter is metal as fuck! With her captor dead, Yuko breaks through into the world as we know it by clawing through a tunnel of earth and pulling herself out of her own grave as a decaying, disgusting corpse, and that too is spooky and memorable!
But that episode is then undone with later characterizations of Yuko that make her just as evil as the very ancestor who hurt her. In the next episode, “My Perfect World,” Chester and Luz stand by while Luz’s curandera grandmother performs magic to reconnect with Chester’s lost twin brother, another interesting nod to a cultural practice that is impressively presented. Chester travels inside a black-and-white photograph to meet his lost twin before Yuko arrives in the image and drags the boy down through sand to her paradise/Hell—again, metal! But that whole sequence alters the ghost’s motivations, again shifting our understanding of Yuko and her desires. And so it goes that while the ghost stuff is often squeamishly gross and satisfyingly unearthly, the show keeps switching up Yuko’s character and makes her difficult to understand, let alone empathize with.
Meanwhile, the internment-camp plot became increasingly on the nose; the show didn’t let the U.S. government off the hook, but also wasn’t particularly nuanced about the experiences of the Japanese-Americans or the men keeping them locked up. The man in charge of the camp, Major Bowen (C. Thomas Howell), is presented as a raging racist who says things like “Your people made this mess, now you gotta live with it,” and kills an unarmed man. The U.S. government comes off like absolute assholes when they give each person leaving the internment camp $25 and a ticket home — often to homes that have been destroyed. The young Toshiro’s (Alex Shimizu) growth from sensitive teen to angry young man is communicated with the line, “I graduated high school in a goddamn prison … All I want to do is kill.” All of that is fine but it’s not particularly complex, and the show doesn’t spend enough time at the camp to help us understand these people’s daily lives. The only exception is a scene where George Takei’s Yamato meets a childhood friend in a dream. In Yamato’s dream, both men have died, and they’re meeting again in the afterlife — at first, it’s a joyous reunion. But then Yamato learns that his friend’s entire family has died too, all killed in Hiroshima. The slow pan behind Sab Shimono’s Kizu to reveal all his relatives lined up behind him in death, with a young girl hiding her burned face, is jarring and emotional. But again, that experimental storytelling became the exception for The Terror: Infamy, and the second half of the season couldn’t hold all those pieces together.
And did viewers catch on to the series? I don’t think so — it never felt like Infamy punched through into widespread attention. When the first season of The Terror was airing, I saw numerous stories online during its run wondering what could be motivating the polar bear Tuunbaq, and questioning how much of what happened to the Franklin expedition and the British Royal Navy party in the show really aligned with real life, and expressing outrage after Emmy nominations were announced that The Terror didn’t receive any. Hell, we wrote a fair number of those here at Pajiba! Was that same level of mainstream awareness given to Infamy? I don’t think so, and I do remain disappointed by that. Was the subject matter the problem? Did AMC not hype it enough? Were people not as interested in a female ghost looking for vengeance as a man-killing polar bear? I suppose not, but I do think The Terror: Infamy had some worthwhile things to say about the Japanese-American experience and about the tension between new-world pragmatism and old-country customs, and was quite capable of delivering fantastically unsettling moments and sequences that explored the depths to which the wronged will go for vengeance. But those two agendas didn’t quite succeed in one show, and audiences unfortunately didn’t seem interested in either.
Image sources (in order of posting): AMC, AMC, AMC