The Terror on Terrible Systems and Humans at Their Most Basic

I’m always afraid, when I’m thinking about a new piece of media, that I’m imbuing it with stuff that’s not there. That I’m taking what I’m thinking about anyway and applying it to the piece instead of sitting and listening thoughtfully to what the piece has to say. But art is a conversation. Maybe things have something to say. Or maybe they’re presenting us with canvasses to assess and interact with. Art can be about a lot of things simultaneously, and that’s why we’re allowed to pull at threads. Art is giving us, in a sense, tools to apply to our understanding of the world.

The Terror is about a lot of things. It’s (spoilers) about a doomed expedition north. It’s about patriotism and imperialism. It’s about social status and class and money. It’s about divides between heritage. It’s about secrets and shame. It’s about alcoholism. It’s about a magic, massive bear that really, really badly wants to kill the Royal Navy. (That parts pretty cool). It was also, to me, about climate change, but about a different facet than what we see most frequently. A lot is being said about how we’re causing it, and how we might prevent it. The Terror definitely interacts with concepts of culpability and systematic abuse of both people and places. But what it’s more focused on is how the people who are simultaneously victims and perpetrators of those systems behave when their chickens come home to roost. It’s a commentary on how we might live when climate change alters our planet (something most people are already dealing with in one way or another in the form of sinking cities, burning cities, droughts, famines, etc.) In some ways, that’s the barrel we’re looking down. Even if we mitigate climate change, the world is going to look different. It’s going to be more hostile. It’s going to ask more of us. How will we answer?

It’s possible it’s a bit of a stretch, which is why I put that whole preamble up top. I don’t think that’s exactly what The Terror is all about. Still, among its many themes, it is a story of climate consequences, of catastrophe brought on in the name of advancement, of catastrophe brought on by human hubris and a nation that doesn’t understand what the hell it’s doing, or, less charitable and equally true, a nation that understands exactly what it’s doing and doesn’t give a shit, a nation that thinks it is master over the planet when in fact, irrefutably, the planet is master of it.

The Terror is a good show, and acknowledges that each and every individual character is can fill the role of victim and culprit. The man the show places most of the blame for the group’s current predicament is John Franklin, but he is never outright condemned. He is treated as a person a lot flows through, both on a personal and societal level. That’s what’s interesting about massive catastrophe – it’s mixed. It involves systems built by people as well as people influenced by systems, as well as people simply behaving as people because at the end of the day they are still human. Franklin’s mission is worthwhile, on a personal scale, on a societal scale, on a science and humanity scale. He is motivated (selfishly) by fame and redemption, but these feelings stem from a society that has judged his failures harshly. His idea of how to redeem himself are learned – others, above him in station, have been given laurels for similar feats, so why not try himself? He bristles when his command is questioned, as one might imagine anyone would. He refuses to allow his niece to “marry down”. The show explains where all these things come from without excusing them. He is a normal human. He has his faults. Knowing where the faults stem from don’t erase them, but it does place them in context. The faults stem from other faults – his own in the past, societies in the past, his learned behavior. He is a cog in a machine that creates a disaster that eats its own cogs. And even still: he is capable of decency. He makes a blunder, but his faith in his mission is admirable. His love for his men is admirable. He apologizes when he’s wrong. He is, overall, yes at fault, but not solely, and not with the entirety of his being.

The systems he is part of are at fault too. Take, for example, the slowly souring food aboard the ships. The Admiralty cut corners and awarded the contract to a tinning company that did a terrible job – cutting corners themselves, perhaps. Who is at fault here? The Admiralty for their naivety? The tinning company? The workers on the floor of the tinning company? And would the company have gotten the contract if they had done a good job? Or would they have been undercut by another bid by someone else who would do a bad one? Again, the blame flows and mixes until it can’t be settled on any one person, while simultaneously settling on everyone. After Franklin’s party has been gone for a long time Mrs. Franklin goes to the Admiralty and asks them, begs them, to send a search party. They refuse, citing the fact that they may lose more money and more men for what will quite possibly be a pointless journey. Can they be blamed? Perhaps. Can any individual man there be blamed? Perhaps not. As Mrs. Franklin herself points out, they all survived their trips. They are coming from a place of experience, and that experience says, however wrongly, that the Franklin party will survive, and sending a party after them may lead to pointless death. And, even if one of the members of the Admirality did express concern, he would be one among many, and no party would be sent. So no single man could be held responsible, or could change the course of the discussion. However, it is only these men, as a group, who can do anything.


That’s what the show gets so right about crisis, about catastrophe. They constitute things bigger than a single person, but they still affect and are affected by individuals. The crises of the show are many, and the fault is peppered throughout. Can anyone be blamed for a unexpectedly harsh winter? Yes and no. No one can control the weather, but the ships are where they are for a host of reasons. Blame can be far reaching. What about Crozier, who knew they were in dangerous waters? Should he have risked everything on a mutiny on day one, when things were still unclear? Is he at fault? Yes and no. The Tuunbaq is on the loose. It’s because of a snow storm, a marine who got scared, a Inuit who was killed in an accident, but also because people are where they shouldn’t be, dealing with things they don’t understand. Crisis ping pongs back and forth from individual, to system, to accident (which falls, maybe, on both system and individual hubris, of believing you can control things you cannot). To mix metaphors: crisis is a snowball rolling down a hill, fed by everything in its path.

The men’s complicity is complicated. The sailors are just trying to get a slice of the pie of this vast and rich empire they serve, and the officers, on a higher social level, are interested in the same. They come from an institution of imperialism and exploration, and while they are victim to it both here and at home, they also reap its benefits. What The Terror gets so right about these systemic evils – be they climate change or imperialism – is that the forces are greater than any single man. That doesn’t mean individuals can’t be held accountable. As with the Admiralty, no one person can implement change, but for change to take place everyone has to be part of it, individually.

Still, still: the show is concerned more with the legacy than with the actual institution, with consequence more than action. What do we do when the worst comes for us, as it sometimes does, as it might be right now? It’s a question that every survival story asks. Stripped down to our most basic, are humans good, or evil? Does empathy win, or is it truly survival of the strongest (I purposely don’t say fittest here, since there is a good argument that empathy is what makes us fit, but that is not the two forces most survival stories set in opposition of each other)? The Terror is interested in these questions, but only as questions. As with its characters, it doesn’t cast a final judgement. Some people pushed to their limits become good, some evil, but in all cases they maintain much of who they were under other circumstances as well. The show seems to argue that we already know, more or less, who we are at our most basic, and that there isn’t a unifying answer about human nature but we must instead each make choices, both in good times and in bad. The world is going to become increasingly inhospitable, and many of us might have only one choice in front of us: how are we going to treat others? When push comes to shove, how do we behave? It’s a choice.

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