'The Terror: Infamy': TV Review

More expansive and relatable, if less scary, than the original.
8/12/2019

Max Borenstein and Alexander Woo's Japanese internment camp-set ghost story is a solid and spooky follow-up to AMC's 'The Terror.'

The Terror didn't seem like an instantly logical seedling for an anthology series. Based on a close-ended novel by Dan Simmons, AMC's adaptation was also thoroughly close-ended. Heck, the very title was close-ended, referring figuratively to the show's mystical, marauding ice-bound menace, but literally to the HMS Terror, an ill-named Arctic exploratory vessel.

There are no concrete connections between the terrific first season of The Terror, which should have been an Emmy player in technical categories and for star Jared Harris at the very least, and AMC's new The Terror: Infamy. No new inanimate object has been stupidly dubbed "Terror," no fresh troupe of British thespians has been conscripted into facial hair accumulation, nobody attempts to say "Tuunbaq" even once.

What The Terror: Infamy has in common with The Terror is the imposing of supernatural elements on a historical drama already fraught with suspense, forcing an ensemble caught in harrowing proximity to reconcile an unfathomable nightmare. And both chapters are very good.

The Terror: Infamy starts out in 1941 (you'll be able to guess exactly when in 1941 without any real trouble) with the introduction of the Nakayama family, part of the fairly insular Japanese American community on Terminal Island, California. You can trace the process of immigrant acclimation and assimilation from parents Asako (Naoko Mori) and fisherman Henry (Shingo Usami) to their son Chester (Derek Mio), college-educated and baseball-obsessed. Chester's ultimate act of rebellion is a secret girlfriend Luz (Cristina Rodlo), who comes from a line of Mexican immigrants herself. 

That will have serious consequences, though on a micro level it's only part of the bigger tapestry once Dec. 7 — "A day that will live in infamy," in case you aren't on top of the timeline or the meaning of the title — happens. Soon, soldiers are rounding up anybody with even a drop of Japanese blood and moving them into internment camps. This would be bad enough on its own, but the Nakayamas seem to be followed by a dark force of some sort, a spirit capable of taking over bodies, turning them into lurching puppets and forcing them to harm and self-harm.

Created by Max Borenstein and Alexander Woo, The Terror: Infamy is in all ways easier to connect to directly and personally than the first season. Part of that is because The Terror: Infamy invariably slides itself into contemporary discussions of how the U.S. treats immigrants and the disconnect between a country founded as a melting pot but prone to scapegoating "otherness" at every turn — though I guess if you find "Don't put American citizens in camps surrounded by barbed wire" to be a disagreeable sentiment then you probably won't like this season very much at all. It's not like Infamy is anti-ICE/anti-Trump propaganda, but splitting up families, imposing loyalty oaths, confiscating properties and putting citizens in camps surrounded by barbed wire was and is bad.

There's that, but The Terror: Infamy is a more expansive story on human levels. It's generationally expansive and culturally expansive and linguistically expansive, telling much of its story in Japanese. It's a story with a generally male focus, but key female characters given real interiority and not just token mystical value include Rodlo's Luz, Mori's Asako and Kiki Sukezane's Yuko, a difficult-to-describe role. It's geographically expansive, too, spending much of its time in the Colinas De Oro camp in Oregon, but also moving up and down the West Coast and even overseas to the Pacific Theater of World War II. Maybe this is going back to the contemporary resonances, but it's easier to imagine yourself in the circumstances laid out in The Terror: Infamy than to find instant empathy with polar explorers seeking the Northwest Passage.

As a period piece, Infamy continues to position the Terror franchise as a showcase for top-tier technical credits. Production designer Jonathan McKinstry evokes the nostalgic beauty of 1940s California and the claustrophobia of the camps equally, and costume designers JR Hawbaker & Tish Monaghan offer a similar contrast between touches of style and glamour on the outside and the soul-draining minimalism of forced incarceration. It isn't quite the treat for fans of near-invisible special effects and nuanced sound design that the first season was, but that's just a matter of preference.

Credit casting directors Carrie Audino and Laura Schiff with building up a deep ensemble populated mostly with actors of Japanese descent. Mio is giving a performance of show-anchoring stability — he may not be as complex and tormented as Jared Harris at the center of the first season, but it's the sort of instantly relatable "everyman" part that immediately takes on a progressive quality because it's a Japanese-American character. I've liked Mio going back to his work on Greek, and so it's fun and satisfying to see him getting this opportunity at a leading role. If there's a downside to the more expansive storytelling it's that individual pieces of the ensemble maybe don't get as many standout moments as they could, but Usami, Mori and Sukezane are all very good. George Takei, a credited consultant as well, is such a wonderful source of lived-in wisdom and gravity that I would have loved much, much more of his character.

Outside of the core Japanese and Japanese-American cast, Rodlo generates a lot of emotion with very little dialogue, and C. Thomas Howell and Reed Diamond do fine work as token representatives of the American military in this awful situation. It's a key distinguishing factor that in the first season, the supernatural elements derived from the Inuit characters, "othered" even if it was their native land. Here, the white characters are "othered" and the supernatural elements emanate from the Japanese and Japanese American characters who are the voice and perspective of the season.

Hollywood has been so uninterested in telling stories that explore and acknowledge the internment camps that I could have been completely satisfied watching The Terror: Infamy and being moved by the historical injustice alone. Or just listening to Takei tell stories. In the same respect, the survival aspects of the first season probably would have been enough. Still, the supernatural elements in the first season were actively scary and disturbing, maybe more so when most of it was left to our imagination, with a claustrophobia that built episode-by-episode. Infamy is less visceral in the fear it generates and its buildup through the six episodes sent to critics is less dramatic, going for a tone that's more folkloric than horror.

That's largely its intent, of course. Early director Josef Kubota Wladyka makes sure that the pilot has a couple images that might inspire eye-covering and then whole episodes go by in which the "yurei" and its motivations are a thing discussed without being a source of direct action. Viewers will probably find more stress in a POW interrogation or in-camp medical procedures than anything in the ghost story.

That's the genre that Infamy is playing in, and the result is spookiness instead of eponymous terror. It's a campfire tale that won't jolt you immediately, but it packs an unsettling punch that lingers. Woo and Borenstein have also illustrated how The Terror is, indeed, a franchise beyond that original yarn Dan Simmons spun, and I look forward to seeing how this anthology might weave in other stories and, more importantly, other voices and experiences.

Cast: Derek Mio, Kiki Sukezane, Naoko Mori, Miki Ishikawa, Shingo Usami, George Takei
Creators: Alexander Woo and Max Borenstein
Premieres: Monday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (AMC)