clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Supernatural Isn’t the Most Horrifying Part of ‘The Terror: Infamy’

The show’s second season overshadows the real-life monstrosities of Japanese internment by focusing on a sinister, superpowered spirit

AMC/Ringer illustration
A flashing GIF that says SPOILER ALERT

Within the first few seconds of The Terror: Infamy, the second season of the anthology series that returns to AMC on Monday, a traditionally dressed Japanese woman dies on a dock. From behind, we see her neck crack uncomfortably before she lurches like Vincent D’Onofrio in Men in Black, her ankles buckling at an unnatural angle until at last she falls to her knees. Then, unable to stand, she pulls a pin from her hair and implacably pushes it into her ear until she collapses like a stricken, stumbling monster on another AMC show.

The implication is clear: The woman is possessed by something supernatural—a spirit so vindictive that, not content with killing the woman, it soon summons a strong wind to overturn her casket, spilling her corpse onto the ground. Later, a photo taken at her funeral reveals a blurry figure in the background. Asked to explain the anomaly in an otherwise in-focus image, a photography professor pays lip service to slow shutters and shaky hands before confiding, “If you ask my Jewish mother, she’d say you’ve been taking photos of things you shouldn’t be.”

Comedian Mitch Hedberg once joked about Bigfoot being blurry. “That’s extra-scary to me,” he said. “There’s a large, out-of-focus monster roaming the countryside.” For most of Infamy’s 10-episode season, though, the monster isn’t out of focus at all; it earns more screen time than almost any other character. In its first season, The Terror mostly made its monster blurry, which kept our attention on the intractable problem of people acting inhuman. Infamy makes its monster the star, which comes at a cost to the series’ atmosphere, setting, and story.

Save for the network, the Terror branding, the billing of Ridley Scott as an executive producer, and the basic narrative formula—use a grim historical episode as a base and season with supernatural elements—Infamy is an entirely new show. Season 1 was adapted from a historical novel about a doomed mid-19th-century Royal Navy expedition to the Arctic, but Season 2 is based on an original concept by cocreator and producer Max Borenstein, best known for writing monster movies (Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island, Godzilla: King of the Monsters). Season 2 also features a new setting—the Japanese American internment camps during World War II—a new showrunner, Alexander Woo (True Blood), new writers and directors, and a new, majority Asian and Asian American cast, led by Derek Mio as Nisei (second-generation American) protagonist Chester Nakayama.

Perhaps inevitably, given the creative turnover, Infamy seems like a different show. Different can be better, as it was with AMC’s second-season reboot of Halt and Catch Fire, but The Terror’s new, more horror-oriented approach paradoxically saps some of the chills (as well as the strong character work) that made its first season so absorbing.

The series starts on Terminal Island, an artificial piece of land off the coast of Los Angeles in 1941, where the Nakayamas and the rest of the tight-knit immigrant community make ends meet mostly by fishing. The U.S. merchant who purchases and processes their catch is a virulent racist, and they aren’t exactly living in style. But Chester’s father works hard enough to fulfill his dream of owning a car, and his family is free; Chester, who feels fully assimilated, attends college and trains to be a photographer. The only complication is the unplanned pregnancy of Chester’s Mexican American girlfriend, Luz (Cristina Rodlo), which appalls her parents and prompts her to leave home. When Executive Order 9066 uproots the Nakayamas from Terminal Island in 1942, she accompanies them to the camp; she has nowhere else to go, and, with the government rounding up children of Japanese descent, she figures her unborn baby will be bound for a fenced-in future even if she tries to hide.

It’s disappointing that Infamy doesn’t deliver quite as compelling a product as The Terror’s first season, because the series’ new setting is well-chosen and deserving of a lengthy exploration—not only as a means of bringing attention to a shameful, often-overlooked chapter of U.S. history, but because the country’s contemporary detention centers at the southern border are ideological descendants of the camps in the western interior where FDR confined Japanese Americans. Those parallels aren’t lost on Infamy’s creators; in the AMC announcement that the series had been renewed for a second season, Borenstein cited the new setting’s “dire resonance to current events,” while Woo expressed the hope that the story would prove “relevant to the present moment.” In a Q&A on the AMC site last week, costar and consultant George Takei, who was himself sent to a camp as a child, made the same connection, saying, “There’s no separation between the two, whether 75 years ago or now.” (Takei has chronicled the camp experience in previous projects, and he’s also been outspoken about the Trump administration’s internment policies.)

At times, Infamy seems committed to the idea that, as Borenstein told AMC, “truth is always scarier than fiction.” When Chester’s mother buys and displays an ofuda, a piece of paper meant to ward off evil spirits, she tells Chester’s father, “The ofuda will keep us safe.” He answers, “It may protect us from spirits, but not from human evil.”

That kind of evil is everywhere: In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans are removed from their homes and forced to squat in horse stalls. Families are separated and relocated, citizens or not. Already prevented from leaving the camp’s premises, prisoners are compelled to pledge allegiance to the country where they’ve lived for all or most of their lives, forswearing nonexistent foreign ties. And all the while, members of the military look on, wielding weapons and peering down from guard towers whose spotlights probe past the windows even at night, shattering any illusion of personal, private space.

Too often, though, the show shunts this human terror to the side to dwell on the spirit, or yurei, plaguing Chester and his companions. Whether because of Borenstein’s monster-movie roots or because the camp environment is less lethal and visually arresting than the first season’s CGI icescapes, Infamy frequently takes detours toward schlocky scares that detract from its attempts to say something deeper.

In the first season, the monster that harried the crews of the Terror and the Erebus—called “Tuunbaq” by the Inuit, and described as “the thing made of muscles and spells”—is mostly unseen. The creature seems to stalk the sailors, striking without warning and disappearing suddenly. It’s difficult to tell whether the suspected bear-human hybrid really has human facial features or whether its supposed supernatural powers are products of the crew’s alcoholism, hopelessness, lead poisoning, paranoia, and malnutrition. The monster—which is scarier because of its fuzziness, much as Hedberg said—embodies the Arctic, which is capable of killing the sailors in more than one way. But the sailors, we learn, are quite capable of killing each other in their fruitless fight for survival, without an assist from the spirits.

Infamy, by contrast, leaves no doubt about its spirit’s presence and powers. Sometimes it appears as Yuko (Kiki Sukezane), a diminutive, fine-featured woman in archaic garb. At other times, it possesses people, as indicated by their neck cracks and herky-jerky, frame-skipping stumbles. And when it can’t commandeer a fresh body, it roams the camp or the countryside as a blackened corpse, with suppurating skin and the disturbing, bone-breaking flexibility of a circus contortionist. Multiple people see the spirit, and its handiwork haunts the camp and follows Chester to Guadalcanal when he enlists as a translator to lure it away from his family.

All of that exposure robs the spirit of most of its mystery. Yes, its decomposing countenance and the jittery way it walks are creepy at first, but both effects fade over the course of the six episodes provided to critics. The more we learn about the spirit, the less we fear it, and the more it distracts from the more grounded aspects of the series. Compounding the problem, the dialogue sometimes sounds as stiff as the possessed people’s strides, and Chester isn’t as solid a centerpiece for the story as Jared Harris’s flawed Francis Crozier was in Season 1.

The injustices the Japanese Americans faced would hit home even harder if we spent enough time with the non-Chester recurring characters to understand them intimately, but the spirit’s vendetta takes precedence. Frequent shifts in place and time further weaken our attachment to the camp community, while also creating confusion about the scope of the spirit’s power. In Season 1, the transgressing sailors, who killed an Inuit shaman and slaughtered a family of friendly natives, deserved their demonic companion; the menace seemed to be balancing the scales by punishing the explorers for their arrogance and recklessness. In Infamy, the presence of a murderous spirit seems gratuitous on top of the treatment the Japanese Americans are already suffering at the hands of an apparently uncaring country and its robotic, blank-faced military men.

Infamy succeeds in depicting the community’s cultural and generational divide, which manifests in signs as subtle as a daughter answering in English when her parents ask her questions in Japanese. That gulf also reveals itself in the older generation’s willingness to see yurei where the youngsters (save Chester) see nothing but wind. In this case, the folktales are true; the only lie is the promise of a welcoming country whose occupants are equal in the government’s eyes.

In one scene fairly early in Infamy, a possessed prisoner knocks out a guard, grabs his rifle, and advances on nearby soldiers, who gun him down. Most of his friends assume he snapped under the tension of internment. “You think … it was something else?” Takei’s character asks when Chester suggests the spirit may have been responsible. Infamy’s greatest failing is that the viewer never needs to ask that question. The answer is supplied from the start.