AMC has just wrapped a gripping new series about a 19th century British vessel sailing to its doom in the far reaches of the Arctic, a prospect that feels oddly familiar to that other AMC series about a 19th century British vessel sailing to its doom in the far reaches of the Arctic. To discuss the similarities between The North Water, which ended its five-episode run on Thursday, and the first season of The Terror, Ben Lindbergh and Miles Surrey have taken a break from their busy schedules composing sea shanties to explore what makes these gloomy nautical dramas so appealing.
Miles Surrey: Ben, I know we just convened to share our mutual excitement (and befuddlement) over a new season of Dexter, but The North Water checks another box in our common TV-viewing diet: watching a bunch of grumpy British and Irish sailors freeze their butts off while battling the elements—and each other. Obviously, The North Water isn’t a complete rehash of the first season of The Terror—though I’d argue that Colin Farrell’s unhinged harpooner Henry Drax, who looks like he bathes as little as modern celebrities, is just as frightening as the Tuunbaq. But there’s no denying that The North Water and The Terror have a very similar vibe (seafaring, uh, misery porn?) to go with their frigid settings and time periods.
Given that the first season of The Terror was an unexpected hit for AMC—enough so that the network turned the show into an anthology series—I can understand why it would try to recapture that hype with The North Water. But as a fellow enthusiast of such grim and historical-based material, why do you find yourself drawn to this nautical niche that AMC has carved out for itself?
Ben Lindbergh: Miles, I don’t know how you can compare these series. The Terror ends around 1850. The North Water starts in 1859. We’re talking pre–Crimean War and post–Crimean War here. The Terror was adapted from a 2007 novel; The North Water was adapted from a 2016 novel. Both shows revolve around an embittered Irish protagonist who abandons his ship after it becomes trapped in the ice, kills a polar bear–looking creature, becomes the sole surviving member of his expedition, and eventually learns to live with the Inuit. But one was addicted to alcohol, whereas the other was hooked on laudanum (which was only, like, half alcohol). Should I keep pointing out obvious contrasts? I mean, one of these series aired on AMC, while the other premiered on AMC+. I’m sorry, I just don’t see it.
OK, maybe there are some slight similarities. If you ask me, both series scratch an itch as irrepressible as the one caused by Henry Drax’s crotch crabs. I’m a sucker for period pieces, tall ships, and English accents, and I firmly believe that the sea is dope, so The Terror and The North Water are tailor-made for a man of my questionable tastes. The only way to replicate the harsh conditions, claustrophobia, and madness-inducing isolation depicted in these tales is to set a story in space, and though AMC is also doing that soon, I’m glad it first delivered a chaser to a shot of The Terror (or more recently, HBO Max’s psychological thriller The Head).
In my AMC headcanon, The Terror is an anthology series in which a different crew gets stranded in the Arctic and perishes painfully each season, and The North Water is its second installment. (As far as I’m concerned, the real Season 2 of The Terror never happened.) My pitch to the rest of the Ringer staff after I saw screeners for The North Water was “If you like AMC dramas about British Arctic expeditions circa 1850 but thought The Terror was too lighthearted and hopeful about human nature, have I got the show for you.” Which brings me to my first question: Which one is more nihilistic, fatalistic, and despondent about mankind? Both series make it clear that as hostile as the Arctic and its creatures can be, the real monsters are men (and, thanks to the setting and time period, men only). But does our species seem more irredeemable in The Terror or The North Water?
It’s tough to out-despair The North Water, a show that starts with an epigraph from Arthur Schopenhauer—“For the world is Hell, and men are on the one hand the tormented souls and on the other the devils in it”—and features episodes entitled “To Live Is to Suffer,” “We Men Are Wretched Things,” and “Homo Homini Lupus” (which is Latin for “man is wolf to man”). Then again, The North Water only alludes to cannibalism, whereas The Terror makes humans the main course. This may be too close to call.
Surrey: Maybe it’s because the series is fresher in my mind, but I’m tempted to give the nihilistic edge to The North Water. The episode titles help set the mood, but the show definitely lives up to them. With The Terror, at least there’s a mythological polar bear hybrid thing (if you have a better description for the Tuunbaq, I’m all ears before it tears them off) that helps rack up the show’s body count. And when the crews of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus find out their food has been tainted by lead, that’s just awful luck of biblical proportions. Conversely, all the woes that befall the men aboard The North Water’s Volunteer are self-inflicted, beginning with the captain of the ship planning to sink it in the Arctic as part of an insurance claim. (What could possibly go wrong?)
Then there are the shows’ agents of chaos. The Terror has Cornelius Hickey, the shifty (and ultimately murderous) petty officer who’s more than meets the eye, but he’s practically harmless compared to Drax, a man so evil he doesn’t even try to rationalize all the violence he inflicts on his shipmates—from the poor cabin boy to the goddamn captain to even the first mate Cavendish, who’s probably the closest thing he has to a friend. I’d sooner take my chances with the Tuunbaq than sharing a cabin or tent with Drax, which is certainly a testament to Farrell’s most unhinged performance since his legendary turn in True Detective Season 2. (Ray Velcoro forever.)
The other element that gives The North Water a leg up over The Terror is its sheer commitment to being a miserable ordeal both on- and off-screen. There were some indelible images in The Terror—I’m especially fond of the anxiety-inducing underwater diving sequence in the first episode—but much of the Arctic setting was brought to life with CGI. The North Water, meanwhile, actually shot on location above the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, with AMC proudly boasting that the production may be the furthest north (81 degrees north latitude!) that a drama series has ever been filmed. The North Water production was so dedicated to capturing the harsh environment of its material that they filmed in terrain where the crew needed rifles on hand to ward off polar bears. AMC has every right to flex.
Still, I don’t mean to rag on The Terror as some kind of inferior product because it wasn’t trying to reenact a Coke commercial on set: That first season was one of the best shows of 2018, just as The North Water is a front-runner this year. Now both shows are paired together in my head-canon. But like any good series, Ben, it should be rounded out with a trilogy. How does AMC cap off its Arctic Misery Porn Saga™?
Lindbergh: There’s always the Henry Hudson story or the Endurance saga. It’s been almost 20 years since Kenneth Branagh played Ernest Shackleton in a two-part TV movie, so the time is ripe for a streaming revival, which would coincide with ongoing efforts to locate the real-life Endurance wreck. The problem is that everyone in Shackleton’s crew—except, sadly, for some of the pets (RIP Mrs. Chippy)—survived. Definitely not bleak enough for AMC.
How about the tragic tale of the Belgica, a Norwegian whaler turned Belgian research ship that got stuck in the Antarctic ice in 1898? There’s a new book about it called Madhouse at the End of the Earth, which makes it sound as if it would be up AMC’s alley. A reckless captain, a life-threatening illness, a demoralized crew confined to close quarters—I’m not sure if the Belgica encountered any possessed polar bears, but most of the hallmarks of an AMC series are there. Better yet, the Belgica’s explorers never abandoned ship; I don’t know about you, but I prefer the parts of The Terror and The North Water that are set inside the Terror, the Erebus, and the Volunteer more than the survival sequences on the open ice. Again, though, the crew mostly lived, excluding another unlucky cat. Maybe more than one person surviving would be a nice twist for the final act of the trilogy?
Whatever the source material, I have a hard time imagining how one could concoct a less enticing trip north than that of the Volunteer in The North Water. You have a captain and first mate who are actively trying to sink the ship, a surgeon who’s high on his own supply, a sodomizing murderer manning the harpoon and barking out barely intelligible instructions to “stick that shillelagh up your fucking arse,” and a crew of unwashed whalers who must smell as bad as the blubber belowdecks. Your sole chance of survival is to starve and freeze for months, seek shelter inside a polar bear’s bloody corpse like Luke on Hoth, and then defeat Drax in hand-to-hand combat. The only upside is an occasional concert/singalong.
Everyone on the Terror and Erebus died too (except for the fictionalized Francis Crozier), so neither journey was a joyride, but if I’ve gotta go, I want the Tuunbaq to maul me as quickly as possible. Which of these one-way trips would you be (slightly) less reluctant to take?
Surrey: As you just laid out, it’s a lose-lose situation. So I’ll opt for the doomsday scenario that wouldn’t also require clubbing seals and harpooning whales as part of the job. Compared to that, the HMS Terror doesn’t seem as … terror-ble.