The AMC drama made a deliberate decision to present some of its characters’ most difficult choices without any moral judgment.
What does it sound like to lose a connection to your own humanity?
For “The Terror,” the answer came in the form of a sunlit meal around a dining table that was ordinary in every way but one. A faction of expedition survivors, thrust under the murky leadership of the enigmatic Cornelius Hickey, gather to survive by consuming one of their deceased mates.
“The scene where they’re all around the table for the first time eating human flesh, we didn’t score it,” executive producer and co-showrunner David Kajganich told IndieWire. “And when we got to the mix stage and saw that there were quite a lot of emphatic chewing sounds in the temp mix, we were like, ‘No, no, no, no, no. Take all of that out. We’re not fetishizing this moment. We’re just observing it.’”
Cannibalism is a subject that rarely works as a middle-of-the-road story element. Series like “Hannibal” and “Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block” have used a heightened, stylized form of it as a way to heighten the sensory immersion of each show. But for “The Terror,” presenting this crucial moral step as an inevitable fact of survival makes it all the more unnerving.
“The fact that Hickey can gather a group of men to his enclave isn’t that these men want to become evil. It’s just they understand that Hickey’s offering them an option where they’re not shackled by morality,” Kajganich said. “They might be able to pick those things up again and repent or atone later, but that his point of view about the emergency makes the most sense: ‘Let’s not weigh each other down by imagining that all of us are gonna get out of this alive.’”
Part of what adds to the surprise of this collective act is that any decision-making happens off screen. In the framework of “The Terror,” it’s a necessary means of survival, arrived at without any dramatic fireworks or fanfare.
“If you look at Episode 9, it’s done very neutrally, as neutrally as possible. There’s no huge discussion about whether or not this is the route they’re going to go into,” executive producer and co-showrunner Soo Hugh said.
Like many other elements of “The Terror,” there is a historical basis for this element of the story.
“There have been graves found, human remains, with cut marks on the hand bones. They have a certain type of pot polish that you get from boiling bones. There’s clear evidence, so all that’s pretty factual,” series historical advisor Matthew Betts said.
“We have the benefit of knowing from the historical record, that there were signs of cannibalism. We do know that the men most likely did resort to it because we know that’s just part of the historical background,” Hugh said. “So it wasn’t us as narrators infusing the story with this. In terms of Hickey and his decision, we never wanted to infuse that decision with our moral judgment.”
That objective view on an impossible decision is something that also meant a lot to Adam Nagaitis, the actor charged with bringing Hickey to life.
“When you strip down the hierarchy and you strip down the uniforms and everybody’s just on their own, it becomes, ‘What is your value system and how does it affect others around you?’ And that’s really the question that the show asks to me when I watch it,” Nagaitis said. “In a utilitarian way, they’re fulfilled. And for that moment around the table, they’re happy to be ignorant about what place they hold in society. If you don’t explore that stuff out loud, you have to be able to justify your opinions about society and about how people should behave. And if you don’t explore it, how could you possibly know if you’re right or wrong?”
Of course, given the point at where these men are in a doomed expedition, that’s not the only Rubicon they face. That moment around the table isn’t possible without the murder of Gibson (Edward Ashley) in the tent, seen minutes before. It’s a possible breaking point for Goodsir (Paul Ready), another in a growing list of atrocities — like Morfin being shot — that have now happened mere feet from his face. So even before the meal in question, Ready had plenty of other psychological considerations to make.
“By the time we got to that, we’d been obviously filming for months. I think that’s a moment that he can’t unsee and what he’s surrounded by takes another leap into the horror of the world. It’s a really sickening moment. I think Goodsir’s disgusted with human nature at that point. Not scared. He’s gone beyond fear,” Ready said. “There are elements of human nature that we can all tap into that go where we can be disgusted by what we’re capable of. It’s all there for the taking.”
With such a mammoth dilemma in this episode, it provides an intriguing counterpoint to the episode’s final scene: Blanky (Ian Hart), separating from the rest of his group, fulfills a major part of the voyage’s mission in the dwindling seconds. According to his map, the area he’s surveying is that elusive Northwest Passage they were charged with finding. Having survived his first deadly encounter with the Tuunbaq, Blanky prepares himself for one final tussle, covered in a coat of cutlery and smiling as he recognizes his adversary standing right behind him.
“There are things in the show that we treat in a kind of an operatic way. Finding the Northwest Passage is a sort of an operatic moment of a man just sitting on gravel. But we treated it that way. We cut it that way. We scored it that way,” Kajganich said.
That contrast of a sense of triumph in the face of death with the terrifying consequences of men elsewhere making the choice to live only highlights how “The Terror” consistently reframes its own notion of success.
“But for this, our mandates were always to highlight the practicality and pull as much energy out of these sequences as we can so that we can notice the small things,” Kajganich said. “What’s left I think are the more interesting sort of bits, the fact that some of the characters seem to have no trouble at all reaching for the next piece of meat. Other characters are dissociating in some way. Another character can only do it if it’s on a china plate with a fork in his hand, some obscuring filter that allows him to do what he doesn’t want to do. Those end up being the things that you notice in the scene as opposed to a score telling you how to feel about it or too much dialogue framing it for an audience.”
Whether it’s the framing or the question lying underneath, that concept of eating another human to stay alive is another way that “The Terror” imbues its horror with a universal question about where the limits of existence might be. It invites the audience to consider it, just as it did the men who played that question themselves.
“Goodsir’s pretty strong on it that he doesn’t want to. But of course his hand is forced. That’s a really tough moment,” Ready said. “And I go, ‘What would I do in that? What would I have done in that situation?’ I think that’s where David and Soo have written this really incredible script. It’s a moral dilemma, but the stakes on either side are so huge, so vast.”
This interview was originally published by IndieWire. It has been reposted here for posterity.