In 'The Terror' Episode 9, 'The C, the C, the Open C,' A Brutal Reckoning Has Arrived

Most horror movies are incurious about death. Death happens suddenly—a slasher, a graboid, a serial killer or shapeshifting clown snuffs out a character. In many examples of the genre, a person's final disposition isn't up to them, and the dismemberment of their body overshadows their mental state. Rarely has a horror movie character spent years looking death in the face, as the characters on The Terror did. Horror may be macabre, but its typical mode is escapist, with reminders of our own end as a secondary effect. "The C, the C, the Open C," the latest episode of The Terror, is different. It is likely the most death-facing episode of horror television ever aired.

"The C, the C, the Open C" is bookended by the living, who, as hard as they try, can't understand the dying experiences of the Franklin Expedition, broken into two parties by mutiny and smeared across lifeless, rocky King William Land by attacks from the Tuunbaq, a bear-like supernatural creature still stalking the men as they plod south with no real remaining hope of survival.

At the episode's beginning, Lady Jane Franklin (Greta Scacchi), with the help of Charles Dickens, shakes down high society for donations to fund a rescue mission. Her imagined expedition is swashbuckling, with a "smart little ship, a ketch" outfitted to swoop in and find the lost men. We cut away from her smile—falsely confident, aware of the slim odds she doesn't share with the room—to a head smashed to chunks, only the tongue and lower jaw left, just one of dozens dead after the events of " Terror Camp Clear."

The episode ends with Sophia Cracroft (Sian Brooke) standing barefoot in the snow, an exercise she learned from Lady Jane, who would stay outside as long as she could bear in order to feel closer to the conditions faced by her husband, expedition leader John Franklin, whose death in the third episode spared him Hickey's (Adam Nagaitis) mutinous faction and their turn to cannibalism.

The mutinous party lead by Hickey resorts to cannibalism. Aidan Monaghan/AMC

When Lady Silence (Nive Nielsen) meets with a new shaman, he compares the expedition's men to an overabundance of predators, with the Tuunbaq rebalancing the ecosystem. Hickey lives down to this animal comparison, even as he takes on increasingly messianic airs, like Christ-posing into the wind. Hickey kills a man to eat him. Reinvigorated by the fresh meat, the lives of Hickey's men degrade in value, to less than their meat. The only death in Hickey's party is violent, cannibalism the last thing that unites them, like conspirators all placing their hands on the murder weapon. Even that feels tenuous, as the possibility of a mutiny within the mutiny emerges.

Crozier's men mostly choose their own ways out. Commander James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), bleeding out from his old, oozing war wound, overdoses on some of their last medical supplies, Crozier massaging the medication down a throat too weak to swallow. Thomas Blanky (Ian Hart), his amputated leg gone gangrenous (Crozier's response on discovering, an anguished "Jesus Christ," part-prayerful, part-profane, is as rattling as any gore effect), leads the Tuunbaq away from the main party and out to sea. Blanky's death is an adventure in itself, as he not only scouts the Northwest Passage by accident, but barbs himself all over with forks: a last act of defiance against the monster eating him. John Bridgens (John Lynch), in over his head ever since Dr. Goodsir (Paul Ready) was kidnapped by Hickey's men, dies like a child being put to bed. A dead sailor's poem, from which was taken the title "The C, the C, the Open C," becomes to Bridgens like a romantic bedtime story. After reading, Bridgens walks away from the party and curls up on the rocks without his overcoat, adjusting his head against his arm like someone trying to get to sleep.

There's very little consolation, but as the distancing power of rank, class and different lives shrink to nothing, intimacy arises among Crozier's men, as they guide and support each other to their ends. Crozier becomes saintly, absolving guilt and absorbing grief, enabling an inhuman calm that would be just as incomprehensible to Lady Jane as would be temperatures low enough to shatter teeth. Hickey's men, having only a false prophet, panic at the possibility of the Tuunbaq swallowing their souls in addition to eating their flesh. They spiral into manic terror, with each man plotting his own outlandish survival scenario in fractal imitation of Hickey.

Dr. Goodsir butchers, but does not partake in "The C, the C, the Open C." Aidan Monaghan/AMC

But to describe "The C, the C, the Open C" as giving just desserts to all, contrasting noble deaths with savage ones, is too simple. Death flattens moral distinctions enough that cannibalistic murder becomes possible to accept, with one man comparing it to a taboo "papist" eucharist, giving him life and hope even as he knows it was enabled by Hickey's reign of terror. Some have damned themselves, but others die to promises of poems celebrating their heroism. The distinctions between the two are real, but shrink to nothing in the dead man's eye. The wind roiling the tent canvas behind Dr. Goodsir, as he chooses between two equally monstrous possibilities, both reflects his internal turmoil and reminds us of its smallness in the face of nature. It's an utterly harrowing episode of television, because there is no blaze of glory, no distribution of cosmic justice and no Spartan last stand. And like Lady Jane and Cracroft, we are too far away from their experience for our judgment to matter.