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Why Everyone Loves ‘The Terror’

The AMC series—about a real-life (and doomed) 1840s expedition to the Arctic—is not the most straightforward cable hit. Here’s why it works.

AMC/Ringer illustration

As far as surefire TV hits go, The Terror wasn’t exactly a guarantee. The AMC miniseries, adapted from the 2007 novel by Dan Simmons, tracks a doomed Arctic exploratory voyage by two British Royal Navy ships: the HMS Erebus and the namesake HMS Terror, both real vessels that vanished on a search for the Northwest Passage in the 1840s. From the show’s beginning, there’s a somewhat diminished sense of suspense. Every single character we meet is about to die. Don’t get too attached!

These doomed explorers are played by a cast of British character actors who, while well-known to devotees of period dramas, are a veritable who’s who of weathered, accented That Guys: Ciarán Hinds (That Guy from Silence and Game of Thrones), Tobias Menzies (That Guy from Outlander and Game of Thrones), Jared Harris (That Guy from The Crown and Mad Men, but somewhat incredibly, not Game of Thrones). In fact, the isolated, militaristic setting necessitates a cast made up almost entirely of white British men with face-obscuring winter gear and facial hair, creating premium television’s very own iteration of the Dunkirk Problem: It’s hard to invest in a group of characters’ problems when we’re too busy trying to tell them apart.

Despite these seeming obstacles, however, The Terror has thrived. Benefiting from a Walking Dead lead-in, the show debuted to 3.4 million viewers, the biggest cable premiere among the coveted under-50 demographic of the season to date. Predictably, the numbers fell once The Terror moved to its more regular Monday night time slot (and, this week, was forced to compete against the NCAA championship game), but it still attracts more than a million live viewers per episode, more than comparable new prestige series like Barry or Trust. Even a minor hit is still very much a hit.

So what’s driving this unlikely success story? As Ridley Scott’s executive-producer credit might suggest, The Terror is a faithfully executed example of a long-standing and beloved genre, or rather a combination of a couple: the survivalist saga, á la All Is Lost, with a dash of supernatural horror, in the vein of Alien or The Thing. And while prestige series tend to get the most critical bona fides for openly subverting their designated category, the value of hitting pre-established beats with expert precision can go underestimated. How else to explain the blindsiding popularity of Stranger Things?

The Terror does an excellent job of cultivating multiple sources of tension, enough that the mystery of who will meet their demise and how outweighs the certainty of the eventual outcome. The entire force is under the leadership of Captain Sir John Franklin (Hinds), the “man” in “man vs. nature.” A cheery, steadying presence, Franklin disregards caution not out of a hotheaded urge but because of a genuine belief in their mission, or so it seems. The push-pull between Franklin and his two lieutenants—the gloomy Irish pessimist Captain Crozier (Harris) and the stiff, resolute Commander Fitzjames (Menzies)—gives The Terror its essential workplace-drama foundation. (Fitzjames’s first name is, incredibly, James, only the most conspicuous in a truly incredible assortment of monikers. The tenderhearted ship’s surgeon is named Harry Goodsir!) Lower-level crewmembers left out of high-level strategy sessions have high jinks, and occasionally even hook-ups, of their own. The result is a claustrophobic upstairs-downstairs dynamic, a sort of Downton Abbey on the high, if frozen, seas.

Franklin’s determination inadvertently conspires with the elements to strand the two ships in ice for months at a time. In the hands of directors like Edward Berger and Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, the unrelenting blankness of the Arctic becomes another handicap turned into an advantage, impressing upon the viewer the immensity of the far north’s emptiness, the totality of its darkness, and the eerie stillness of the frozen-over ocean. A spectacular shot from the second episode begins as an aerial shot of the ships, only to pull back farther and farther until the humans are practically invisible against a near-limitless expanse of white. Like many period pieces, The Terror is a pleasure to simply look at, albeit for different reasons. Flashbacks to Franklin and Co.’s posh everyday lives in London provide their fair share of gowns and gold-leaf interiors, but most of The Terror’s beauty is of the stark, awestruck variety.

Hovering over command struggles and inclement weather alike is some unspoken, inhuman thing, referred to only as Tuunbaq by the handful of indigenous characters the Franklin force comes across. In their awareness of and connection to some magical presence the white men can’t access, there’s a tinge of tired stereotype to The Terror’s nonwhite players, including a shaman known as “Lady Silence” (Nive Nielsen). But under the leadership of showrunners David Kajganich and Soo Hugh, the latter the creator of ABC’s The Whispers and a veteran of Under the Dome, The Terror avoids most of the pitfalls associated with pairing mysticism and cultural otherness. Lady Silence may know more about the circumstances than anyone else, but she’s equally subject to them, and allowed to show panic and vulnerability accordingly.

The Terror has a judicious hand with its monster story, using it mostly to add an extra top note of dread to the interpersonal conflict and imposing might of near-eternal winter. (Or at least it does until this week’s episode.) Suffice it to say that the twist … exacerbates the tensions The Terror has already set up. The Terror is ultimately a horror story, and as such pulls its audience in with the promise and unpredictable delivery of jump scares. But while it moves toward its inevitable destination, The Terror makes the journey compelling. If the plot can’t surprise us, the smoothness of its execution can.

An earlier version of this piece omitted showrunner David Kajganich.