The two seasons of The Terror are not linked narratively, and on the surface, they don’t seem to have much in common. The first season focused on a group of British Navy explorers, men certain that they could travel to the Arctic, find the Northwest Passage, and change the world—who were then torn apart by Tuunbaq, a mysterious, possibly spiritual polar bear linked to the Inuit natives who scoffed at the Franklin Expedition. These white men were convinced that they were doing the right thing, even when they increasingly weren’t, and their absolutism was their folly.
Thematically, the capability of men to do awful things when they are sure they are in the right comes up again in season two of The Terror, which premieres tonight on AMC for a 10-episode season. No, British men going crazy and eating each other while trapped on the ice is not very similar to a story about Japanese Americans being forcibly rounded up into internment camps during World War II, a horrific part of American history that we are increasingly seeing play out again today. But the men performing those actions on behalf of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the U.S. government, carrying guns and barking orders while they carried out Executive Order 9066, aren’t that different from the sailors searching for glory on behalf of the British monarchy.
Both groups are arms of an oppressive regime who sees outsiders as others, who considers people who don’t look like them as the enemy. The elitism and racism on display in season two of The Terror is difficult to watch, but it also keeps the story grounded. Just as the British Navy’s ignorance of Inuit tradition contributed to their downfall in season one, so does the resistance of the American military—and portions of the Japanese-American community itself—to the “old spirits.” What people are certain isn’t happening is, very much, happening, and that line between assuredness and doubt is what makes season two of The Terror so compelling.
I’ve seen the first five episodes of The Terror: Infamy, but I won’t go too in-depth here to avoid spoiling too much. (I’ll also return with a piece after the season has wrapped, and we’ll have continued coverage of the show as it airs.) The season begins on Terminal Island in San Pedro, California, in 1941, where there is a significant Japanese American community getting by with jobs as fishermen or in factories. The older generations maintain their religion and their traditional customs, but the teenagers and young people mostly don’t—in particular Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio), who is studying photography at college in Los Angeles. He has a girlfriend his parents don’t know about, Mexican American nursing student Luz Ojeda (Cristina Rodlo), and aspirations of getting off Terminal Island and seeing the world. And he’s a little bit embarrassed of how his parents, especially his father Henry Nakayama (Shingo Usami, heartbreaking), defer to white people. When the man who buys Henry’s catch of mackerel tries to short-change him on price, Chester sticks up for him—and when talk turns to the ongoing World War II, Chester is sure the conflict will wrap up quickly.
That’s not the case, of course, especially not when Pearl Harbor occurs. Suddenly the community is being herded into buses, and then into apartment buildings, and then finally to an internment camp in Oregon. Meanwhile, Henry is pulled in for questioning by the U.S. government alongside other similarly aged men, to pledge their loyalty to Roosevelt and Uncle Sam and swear that they’re not spies. (A scene of Henry practicing what he’s going to say while locked in his isolated cell is reminiscent of the tests given to replicants in Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, and will crush your soul.) Oh, and by the way, there’s a possibility that the community is being haunted by a shape-shifting ghost who is out for some kind of revenge. Did I forgot to mention that already? Whoops!
A gust of wind, a smudged face in a photograph, a whisper you can’t identify—all signs of the ghost. A person who cannot control their own body or their own actions, shoving a chopstick into their ear or staring into the sun so long that their eyes burn and they go blind—all signs of the ghost. (This show is excellent with its sound design; the crackling of snapping bones, the gurgling noise of organs being moved around inside a crushed body, and the rapid-fire rhythm of gunshots are all horribly evocative.) What the yūrei wants—and how she is connected to Chester—is unclear, but The Terror uses typical ghost-story tactics to signify her presence. That means that some of the series’ fantastical elements are a little expected (like when we meet a character who later turns out doesn’t really exist, ooh, weird), but the writing here effectively incorporates elements of Japanese culture to round out the narrative. Japanese Noh masks play a role, as do traditions for cleansing homes of evil spirits, hanging or eating ofuda talismans as protection, and honoring the dead with specific funeral rites. And what The Terror: Infamy does well is frame this ghost story within the conflict between generations of Japanese families, so that by the midpoint of the series, you’ll realize that the problem here isn’t just the white military members abusing these people—there’s another secret, something more shameful, that needs to be uncovered and resolved.
Mio is a good entry into this world, and he plays Chester with just the right amount of initial naivete. As a typical first-generation kid, he’s simultaneously frustrated by his parents but also protective of them, and the gap between him and his father drives the narrative forward in rewarding, but also quite bleak, ways. Rodlo communicates a young woman struggling with her family’s Catholicism and their rejection of her actions, and in the later episodes, she handles a weighty narrative with needed fragility. And honestly, the whole ensemble is fantastic, from George Takei, whose own internment experiences informed the series; to James Saito, from Always Be My Maybe; to Kiki Sukezane, who plays a mysterious character with sufficient spookiness. Although certain storylines drag (the one with Chester and Luz takes a little too long finding its footing), the central narratives that depict internment and incorporate the ghost story display intentional pacing and balance. And there are a few moments so shocking in their goriness (the opening scene is a lot, and episodes toward the middle of the season incorporate grosser elements) that they really underline the oh yeah, this is a goddamn ghost story identity of the show.
The Terror: Infamy returns us to a point in American history that already is traumatic and infuriating and incorporates a genre structure that tries to explain something inexplicable: the hardness of people, their paranoia and their fear, their capacity to hurt. Who is the real monster in this scenario, the supernatural being or the everyday person? It’s a familiar question in the horror genre, not an easy one to answer, and one that The Terror: Infamy considers with sinister complexity and humanistic empathy.
The Terror: Infamy premieres on Aug. 12 on AMC.
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