Behind the scenes of a devastating episode that showed what horrors can arise even when there’s no creature involved.
Life on “The Terror” has not been a simple one for the members of the title vessel. The polar freeze, dwindling rations, and a looming four-legged menace have all conspired to make this a growing, drawn-out nightmare for everyone on screen.
But this week’s episode, “A Mercy,” brought the equally frightening idea that these men’s biggest enemy may very well be themselves.
Organized in part by the newly in-command Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies) to lighten the spirits of the crew, a night of frivolity is one big good intention paving the way for the hellish 800-mile trek to potential safety. After finding out that the men very well may be doomed before they even take a single step, Dr. Stanley (Alistair Petrie) takes it upon himself to end an ill-fated trip before it even begins. A night of merry-making and reverie quickly becomes a funeral pyre as Stanley sets himself on fire, torching much of the assembled circus in the process.
It’s a sequence that’s a departure from “The Terror” of Dan Simmons’ novel, but one with a similar impact. While on the page, it’s the Tuunbaq’s reemergence that lays waste to the carnival, the series found a different way to a King William Island-sized gut punch, preserving the effect while changing the cause.
“We thought it was much more interesting and helpful for the way we were building characters to actually have the disaster at Carnivale be a character decision. Dr. Stanley makes the choice for some reasons that you can triangulate and some reasons that you will have to embrace as ambiguous, to try to kill all of them,” executive producer and co-showrunner David Kajganich told IndieWire. “Knowing that we had to spend our VFX and creature dollars wisely, we thought we could spin Carnivale in the direction of a character choice and try to keep the show from being an attack-of-the-week show.”
Part of what makes the sequence so frightening is that, even in the haze of their dwindling sanity, the show’s attention to detail still shines through. Whether it’s Fitzjames’ Roman centurion getup or the trunk-full of masks spread out through all the able seamen, series costume designer Annie Symons wanted to give this prelude to a tragedy a period-specific theatrical feel.
“We did a lot of research into what these men would have been exposed to at the time. It would have been things like pub signs or heraldry or folklore. Using materials that were on board ship like rope, canvas. I basically tried to get my costume crew to get into the characters of the people who were making them,” Symons said.
For building out the winding tent maze itself, production designer Jonathan McKinstry also had to consider not only the resources that would have been at their disposal, but the limitations of their artistic handiwork.
“Obviously, you’ve got sails on board. Once they were stuck in ice, they would have lowered the topmasts and spars, and items like that,” McKinstry said. “They weren’t skilled artists, so when we came to decorate them, I wanted it to have a slightly naive feel about it, that real people could have painted it.”
As the tragedy unfolds, it’s the idea that this is filtered through Captain Francis Crozier’s specific point of view that helps add a chilling sense of helplessness as this all unfolds. Before the flames erupt, and as he’s still staving off his own alcohol battles, Crozier witnesses what Kajganich calls “little leaks of the men’s ids,” including a makeshift zoetrope and a few crew members gathered in a bubbling stewpot cauldron. It’s an escape for the men involved, but there’s a tinge of sadness to it even before Stanley starts dousing the whole thing with flammable liquid.
“The tragedy of Carnivale is mostly seen through Crozier’s point of view once he’s sobered up. That helped us reframe Carnivale not just in terms of horror, but tragedy as well,” executive producer and co-showrunner Soo Hugh said. “That episode is called ‘A Mercy’ because we didn’t have a monster attacking in the episode as we did in the book. If we gave it a more the energy of a tragedy that’s slowly unfolding before us, it takes on a really strange tension and rhythm.”
Even with a blend of visual effects and practical filming, having flames in such proximity was always going to be a challenge. It was a logistical trick for the design team to construct a massive fire sequence like this, given that much of it plays out in the open-air tent area, away from the twin ships.
“We had to fireproof everything, initially. Obviously, the complications of a set that’s basically made out of canvas that catches fire on a stage with 100 actors was kind of complex. But we managed to get through it,” McKinstry said. “Some of it was lighting effects as well. There were lamps set up to give a flickering light background where, on our set, we couldn’t have put the real fire in until later. Then, when they shot the real fire, it felt like they were engulfed in the flames.”
Part of filming the practical fire meant rebuilding the set outside to capture the full fire that would eventually be added in as part of the VFX shots. Whether witnessed indoors or out, it was one sequence that left an effect on the actors who took part, including Paul Ready, who plays Dr. Henry Goodsir, one of the remaining doctors on the expedition.
“I think it had a strangeness about it anyway, while we were filming it. Everybody in costume, everyone in a quite surreal place and really letting go,” Ready said. “It was very hot and at the end of each day, we left with kind of blackened noses from breathing in the fumes and whatever else is going on. It was a big challenge.”
Behind the camera, director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan not only corralled this mammoth setpiece, but last week’s mast attack as well.
“For him to direct not just back to back, but literally at the same time two huge setpieces…Sergio thinks very quickly and he had this planned out so well,” Hugh said. “It was a challenge for our whole production team to be able to let just schedule everything on time.”
One other notable shift from the book helped to underline the way that this episode not only hints at the uncertain practicality of their upcoming on-foot journey — “We’ve got homes we need to find our way back to,” Crozier tells his men seconds before the blazes begin — but the ways that they’ve already been changed by their months on this voyage.
“Our decision to forego the Edgar Allan Poe-themed Carnivale from the book was about whether there was an opportunity to choose a ‘theme’ for Carnivale that would be more helpful to us in unpacking all of those emerging anxieties,” Kajganich said. “One of the symptoms of scurvy is nostalgia. That makes every Victorian list of signs and symptoms of that disorder. And so we thought, ‘Well, what if the theme of Carnivale is nostalgia?’”
For characters whose futures are becoming more uncertain by the day, it’s no surprise they’d want to look to the past.
This interview was originally published by IndieWire. It has been reposted here for posterity.