The Terror: The Crafting of a Thrilling Ending That Found Dignity and Hope in One Final Swarm of Tragedy

Interview by Steve Greene for IndieWire, 14th May 2018

The series’ cast and crew reflects on a closing chapter that found a glimmer of hope in a grim ending.

To consider the end of “The Terror” is to remember how the series started, with a brief introductory overview of the Franklin expedition. Before listening in on a conversation with the men tasked with finding the vanished crews of the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, there’s the reminder that the men they sought never returned.

So when the finale, “We Are Gone,” ends with exactly one of those ill-fated explorers still alive, it’s not a surprise, but instead a natural conclusion of where the show has been moving, with varying degrees of velocity.

“It takes a lot of anxiety off the table in terms of whether or not we were going to trick the audience about survival,” co-showrunner Soo Hugh told IndieWire. “Because that scene opens with the Inuit hunter telling the men that they all died, we got that out of the way. We were not going to change history. We know that these men all died.”

The natural result of that trajectory meant that the final chapter would be filled with a certain amount of turmoil. But to hear from those who helped bring “We Are Gone” to life, there was plenty more to be found in this ending than tragedy.

The Attack

As much as that final moment emphasizes how well the show has balanced the quieter contemplative scenes, Episode 10 brought another tightly choreographed action setpiece. Along with the Blanky attack and Carnivale, this was another sequence that required plenty of logistical attention. But for Hugh, its placement at the end of the season also led to a consideration of how so many characters’ ends stayed true to what came before.

“The one thing we knew we could not do was make each death feel like one-upmanship,” Hugh said. “There’s perhaps some tendency to feel like this death has to be better than the previous one or bigger than the previous one. We really wanted there to be no competitive death argument here, but just bring the deaths out of where each of their characters were at that point. So many things came from the inevitability of the characters, which made it so much easier, but also more authentic, we hope.”

Some of those endings came in the episode’s hilltop attack sequence. The striking prelude to a massacre is Hickey (Adam Nagaitis) leading his gathered men in a funeral dirge version of “God Save the Queen,” part of an effort to summon the Tuunbaq a final time and fulfill a destiny that only he seems sure of. For Nagaitis, this offered one last chance to hint at the motivations of the enigmatic individual who’d orchestrated this grand sendoff.

“There were things that he says during that final oration where I think if he thought that he was going to die and the other men around him were going to survive, he might not have said, I’ll say that much,” Nagaitis said. “So there are a few admissions, not necessarily about who he is, but about what he longed for.”

Despite an exterior that implies a certain level of fatal confidence, Nagaitis described how the process of filming that final attack sequence unlocked another layer of the character that was buried much deeper.

“On the day doing it, I realized the vulnerability that creeps in. That day to him is the ascension that he’s been waiting for. The choice he’s made to become the Shaman and take control of or share himself with the bear and to be master of this new empire, this whole opening is there for him,” Nagaitis said. “I realized how much it meant to him as a symbol and how lonely he was. That’s what did occur to me a lot on a day was that’s really what he’s seeking in the end, which is sad to me.

This attack was the last elaborate checkpoint in bringing the Tuunbaq to life. Like Episode 5’s acrobatic mast sequence, it required a great deal of calibrated performances to help become a reality, namely from Crozier himself.

“It has to be on the money because otherwise you take the stuff home and you go, ‘Oh my God, it doesn’t work,’” visual effects supervisor Frank Petzold said. “We gave Jared [Harris] room to insert his ideas as long as he kept to the milestones of where the creature has to be and what it does. Jared was actually a big help when we did the fight at the end. The chain almost became a character.”

That final sequence took another unexpected cue from a famous Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze painting (one, incidentally that would have been finished around the time that the events of the show were occurring).

“Once we knew that we were going to have this image of this boat on top of this hill, sort of landlocked, we knew we were going to want to frame some of those shots like that famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware,” co-showrunner David Kajganich said. “It’s such a striking image and it was such an interesting visual parallel to make. This is our Hickey crossing the Styx version of that painting.”

Saying Goodbye

Before the final episode bids farewell to that pair of major forces in the series, Episode 10 also sees the end of Dr. Goodsir (Paul Ready). His last act, after bearing witness to some of the most horrific chapters in this ill-fated expedition, is one of a sacrifice. Recognizing that his death might give his comrades a chance at survival, Goodsir takes his own life.

“It’s a kind of psychological retreat. Goodsir is so open-hearted in the show and he’s not rewarded for that as often as he’s penalized for it,” Kajganich said. “To have come to the position where he’s willing to give up his life in part to try to save Crozier and a number of other men, he knows might benefit from a chance to escape. But also because I think he’s done. I think he’s seen enough of this day and age to know he probably isn’t meant to be a part of it.”

Through the eyes of both Crozier and Lady Silence, we see the aftermath of that retreat, Goodsir’s body laid out on the common table. In another instance of the production environment helping to inform a better understanding of the characters the actors were playing, Ready had a chance to see Goodsir’s final likeness.

“I was there when it arrived on set when we were doing exterior shots in the tent. Seeing that body was very unnerving. It didn’t leave very much to the imagination and they had done such an incredible job,” Ready said. “I mean it was really freaky to see that. To my eyes, it was so lifelike. That’s basically what I would look like if I, um, you know, being out in the wilderness for a long time, grow my hair, died and somebody had cut some meat out of my ass. So, it was unnerving.”

Along with the knowledge that his death wasn’t entirely in vain, “The Terror” gives Goodsir one final grace note: a series of visions of natural wonders intercut with the final moments of his life.

“And we just hit on this idea that he would be retreating to a ground on which he could stand that he felt more confident in, this love of nature, the spirit of exploration that probably attracted him to the expedition in the first place. He thought he was going to be operating more as a naturalist and a doctor or certainly a sailor,” Kajganich said. “To have that man who is so kind and so tuned into other people’s needs, he refused to think of people in his last moments. To be thinking of objects from nature, it just seems like a great way to articulate the tragedy of his death without necessarily being opportunistic about it.”

Those final flickers of Goodsir’s life — a “moment of subjectivity,” as Kajganich puts it — stands distinct from some of the others the show has used in pivotal moments, including earlier in this episode as Johnson crawls across a banquet table towards Crozier as the rest of the surviving men leave him behind. Hugh explained that giving Goodsir control over his last thoughts was in some ways their gift to the character.

“For Goodsir, it’s not a hallucination. In that moment as Goodsir is dying, those are images that he himself has conjured up for himself at the very last moment, which in some ways the most moving and reassuring thing to know,” Hugh said. “Despite all the ugliness he’s witnessed, his last moments were full of beauty and wonder. We wanted to give Goodsir that. It just feels right.”

The Sound of the North

As with much of “The Terror,” there’s as much emphasis on what’s audible as what’s visible. In addition to setting the chilling atmosphere of the last Tuunbaq attack, Marcus Fjellström’s score added a thematic layer to the showdown.

“The final battle scene, we decided to score that with almost a kind of religious music and it’s almost sort of an Anglican composition,” Kajganich said. “That’s a very odd choice to put over the death of the Tuunbaq, but it makes a very strong point if you’re kind of keyed into that sort of thing. To see the death of a god but still be holding onto a western point of view about it really puts Crozier in the middle of a very interesting tonal predicament. He is the one who is delivering the final blow to the Tuunbaq and he very shortly will understand that he may have killed a god and he may have killed actually the protagonist of this story from a certain point of view that isn’t his.”

Hugh also saluted the sound design team, who helped realize a very specific request to differentiate not only the more patient moments in Episode 10, but in each installment leading up to it.

“Whenever we’re in an exterior scene, we use different wind for every exterior scene in our show. Through all 10 episodes, the wind is different,” Hugh said. “In the Tuunbaq massacre scene, we cut the wind down dramatically during the attack. We wanted to create this interesting vacuum, the sense that these men are trapped in this one moment and there’s a sense of timelessness. There’s the element of very, very light winter, but it’s almost oppressively thin. Then later on when Lady Silence comes back and she finds the dead Tuunbaq, the wind comes back in and we went for a mournful, musical tone.”

The End

Lady Silence’s return is part of a denouement that few series are given the chance to have. After the death of the mythic creature that’s become such a force in the scope of “The Terror,” the show had one final chance to prove it was about far more than a monster.

“We knew we had an ace up our sleeve, which was that the show’s not over when the Tuunbaq dies,” Kajganich said. “We have another 15 minutes of the episode left and wanted to make sure that people would feel like they had gorged on the genre stuff they really wanted out of the episode, so that we would retain their patience in watching us close down the rest of the characters’ stories and thematically what the season was meant to be about.”

Eventually, that leads to a mirroring of the opening sequence of “The Terror.” Revisiting the Ross search party asking the local Inuit what befell of the expedition that came before them, the scene adds a crucial bit of information: a within-earshot Crozier deciding to remain outside the tent. Kajganich explains that the first instance of this scene wasn’t always the series introduction they had in mind, but reworking that opposite bookend to match the existing ending made for a powerful conclusion.

“We weren’t initially imagining the show needed that framing device. We knew it was going to require a lot of trust from the audience because we don’t answer a lot of questions and we do offer a lot of ambiguity. It was useful to sort of declare what the show was and what it wasn’t out of the gate so the audience could trust it,” Kajganich said. “But we’re so happy with how it works, and I think it really does give a punch to the last episode that is a bit operatic and a show that sort of is mostly naturalistic and a bit grim by the end.”

Despite the brutality of the environment and the grimness brought on by a massacre, Hugh sees more than just despair in the closing of “The Terror.”

“When you hear stories like this, the audience expects that Episode 10 is going to be the most depressing show in the world,” Hugh said. “They don’t make it, but it was really important to all of us. I think our last few episodes are really warm and hopeful, actually. We cried so many times not out of despair, but being so moved.”

Though Crozier is the only one left at the end of the series, when the camera pulls back on him now well in the midst of a new life, that empty space around Crozier isn’t just a reminder of what he’s lost. It’s about what he fought dearly to protect before the rest of his men were gone.

“This isn’t the story of how humanity turns on one another in the worst of times,” Hugh said. “It’s actually the story of how brotherhood helps one another in the worst of times.”

This interview was originally published by IndieWire. It has been reposted here for posterity.