'The Terror' Episode 3, 'The Ladder,' Combines Gore and Bleak Wit

There's a leg in an upholstered coffin. Where it was torn free, where it was once a bloody stump, the leg is now wrapped in clean, white cloth, embroidered with its owners initials and tied at the top with a prissy bow. The high boots worn in life have been replaced by tasteful loafers. It rests on a pillow, mocking the idea of dignity or rest in death. Appearing in episode 3, "The Ladder," it's a blackly funny image, proving The Terror has more to offer than haunting atmosphere and a creature-feature take on real historic events.

The first two episodes of The Terror, aired back-to-back, established all the basics. An Arctic expedition in search of the Northwest Passage becomes frozen in ice through the winter of 1846, in part because the expedition's leader, the patrician Sir John Franklin (Ciarán Hinds), ignores the advice of Captain Francis Crozier (Jared Harris). Hoping for a thaw in the Spring of 1847, the expedition sends out search parties, one of which kills an Inuit shaman and invites the wrath of a giant, polar bear-like monster.

In "The Ladder," paranoia has infected both ships, Erebus and Terror. Where sailors once played soccer out on the ice, now no one will journey off-ship without an armed escort. A hunting blind is set up, with armed marines aiming downrange at a mischief of dead rats, hung by their tails, dripping blood and swaying in the wind. In a moment equal parts funny and nerve-wracking, twitchy ship's surgeon Harry Goodsir (Paul Ready), stuck under the camera's hood with a stopwatch, his back to the monster bait, times out a daguerreotype of the hunting party.

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Goodsir prepares to take a photo of the hunting party sent after the polar bear monster. AMC

While "The Ladder" has a showstopper sequence that's sure to be one of the pivotal moments in the ten-episode series—spoiler: it's the death of Franklin—it's the episode's stockpile of wonderfully written, tiny moments that really cements The Terror as a must-see series, most of which serve to heighten the show's central tension: between the pomposity and hubris of civilization and the starker realities of nature. And this isn't just "Nature, red in tooth and claw" stuff, but about the uncomfortable tension between our lofty aspirations and animal necessities, best demonstrated by Hickey (Adam Nagaitis), a sailor chastised for some harmless sodomy, squatting to take a crap in a superior's bed—a moment intercut with a soaring eulogy. Though a beautifully written speech, urging the sailors to rise to their better natures using Jacob's Biblical vision of an angelic ladder, the eulogy is further undermined by a great sight gag: a quick shot of where Captain Crozier has crossed out one dead man's name for another's.

Before Franklin is killed by the monster, leaving behind only a leg, he has a final confrontation with Crozier. Tensions were already running high between the two, exacerbated by flashbacks to England, where Franklin had rejected Crozier's attempt to marry into his family (as an Irishman, Crozier may be an officer, but will never be a gentleman). Franklin had previously kept up a jolly front, urging his officers to get along and always spreading the most optimistic interpretations of the facts, but here, angry at Crozier for suggesting the expedition is in need of rescue, he lets all pretense drop. "So let us turn our energies back to being what the Admiralty and life has seen fit to make us. We should give that our best. There can be no argument between us then," Franklin says, ending their two-way communication and reducing their working relationship to that of a superior officer and his subordinate. The layers of polite civilization are gone; now there's only hierarchy and dominance.

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You're way too late James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies). AMC

Just before his death, Franklin spouts the height of civilized absurdity, couching the hunt for the monster as the perfect demonstration of Queen and Country towering over brute nature: "Be merciless. Educate this creature as to the dominion of the Empire and the will of the Lord behind it." Minutes later, one man is torn free of the hunting tent and decapitated, sending a panicked Franklin out onto the ice. As the monster drags Franklin away, The Terror keeps tight on his bewildered face, flashing back to his memories of home and family, but also less elegiac sights, like the simple memory of his bare legs now that they've been torn from him. The monster drags Franklin to a hole the expedition has burnt through the ice, dumping him face-down, his death just as undignified as when his men shoved the Inuit shaman's body down the same hole at the episode's beginning.

Though Franklin has been Crozier's antagonist, The Terror was always careful to demonstrate how much his men loved him, how he may have been incorrect, but remained a galvanizing leader to the end. So instead of a simple moment of narrative triumph, watching the disliked officer die an embarrassing death, Franklin's end becomes the resolution of the thematic contradiction he embodied. Franklin represented the height of civilization's folly, in both its noble efforts to rise above barbarism with decorum and the hazards of growing aloof to hard reality. It's a detachment that will endanger the crews of Erebus and Terror from top to bottom, with absurdities like Franklin bringing a monkey on an Arctic expedition met by the similarly delusional belief, held by the ship's cooks, that enough salt can preserve their rotting food stores. But with Franklin's death, it's likely the characters of The Terror will increasingly view the show's many horrors head-on.

In any other show, the death of Franklin would have been a cliffhanger, but for The Terror it's treated as another part of the totality of nature arrayed against them. His gory death is shocking, but it's telling that the more cringe-inducing moment comes just before, when a sliver of Captain Crozier's eyelid peels off, pulled away by a frozen telescope eyepiece. What could have been a too-serious historical horror drama, steeped in the pomposity that tends to accompany expensive period pieces, is revealing itself as something more nimble and much more fun.

The next episode of The Terror, "Punished, as a Boy," airs on AMC Monday, April 9.

'The Terror' Episode 3, 'The Ladder,' Combines Gore and Bleak Wit | Gaming