There is no shame, in good times or bad, in craving light, escapist fare. If you need less Chernobyl and more Holey Moley in your life, that’s fine. And if that is you, then there’s good news and bad news with regard to Infamy, the evocative, chilling second season of AMC’s anthology series, The Terror. So here’s the good news: Showrunner Alexander Woo and his team have crafted a hell of a ghost story (or, more accurately, a kaidan), continuing the first season’s knack for mixing together mythology, ambiguity, genre, and striking imagery to chill the bones. If you want a good scare, you’re in great shape. The bad news—and it’s only bad news if you don’t have it in you to confront the horrors of the real world—is that no ghost could be more unsettling than the historical and depressingly everyday nightmares that The Terror has in store.
That first season of The Terror centered on the crews of ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, each lost on an expedition to find the Northwest Passage in the 19th century. That they were lost is a matter of historical record, but their more precise destinies are explored in that exemplary season in horrifying fashion. As with the first go-round, Infamy approaches documented history with an eye toward exploring its ugliest corners and crevices, using terror (and the genres in which that emotional state thrives) like a pipe-cleaner. Such a primal response can reach places your average emotional response perhaps can’t so easily reach. In this case, the historical event being explored is an American (and sadly timely) one: the internment of Japanese Americans in camps during the Second World War.
In the first two of the six episodes provided to critics, we watch as this shameful chapter in U.S. history starts to come together, the tension slowly building, the paranoia, racism and xenophobia swelling like a catastrophic wave. We track it through the growing fear and concern of the Nakayama family, who are soon evicted from their home on Terminal Island and forced into a camp: Chester (Derek Mio), the young son hoping for a more cosmopolitan existence; Henry (Shingo Usami), the patriarch struggling to keep his pride and keep his family safe and fed at the same time; Asako, the mother trying to bridge the gap between them while barring dark forces from the door. There are other friends, neighbors and loved ones—notably Yamato-san (George Takei, excellent), a person of long and potent memory; Amy (Miki Ishikawa), clever and resourceful; and Luz (Cristina Rodlo), a young Mexican American woman and a fellow student at Derek’s college, whom he has been romancing—but the figure who eats up the most energy is the one to whom the Nakayama family’s ties are both non-existent and endless.
That would be the character played by Kiki Sukezane (Westworld). Who or what she is can’t really be put into words—to spell it out would be to spoil what little we learn of her in the first five episodes. (The compelling sixth hour, “Taizo,” tells us much more, but not a word of it will be revealed here.) Suffice it to say that Sukezane’s character is somehow tied up in the darkness that characters like Asako attempt to hold at bay, with motives that remain mysterious but never absent. Sukezane’s physical performance is almost hypnotic in its specificity and strangeness, seemingly changing for whomever she encounters or the room she enters. It’s an instant classic horror performance, certainly in the television realm if not all mediums. She acts with her fingers.
Even with that performance, even with the bounty of nightmare fuel (much of it centered on Sukezane), the real horrors aren’t supernatural. A drunk bully threatens Henry with accusations of espionage if he doesn’t hand over his prized possession, then casually tosses off a thank you—seeing as Henry had very recently saved his life. Chester walks across campus, slightly ducking his head, but that doesn’t stop the eyes of all of his peers from following him with pointed suspicion. A young woman carries four suitcases, even though she’s only allotted two; she spits at an officer that she’s got these extra bags because they were her fathers, and the camp’s guards killed him.
All of this—and these are three examples of many—is heightened by the show’s exemplary production design, rich in detail and texture. The viewer is immersed in the camp and the brothel, the jungle and the fishing boat, the icy water and the spare infirmary. You look at the wooden floors and can see how carefully it’s been swept and cared for by residents of this barracks. You can also see that no amount of cleaning makes it a fit place to live. Those details co-exist. They tell you that the people who live on that floor are doing the best they can, and that the floor is going to give them splinters anyway.
The Terror: Infamy is not a comfortable viewing experience. If the body horror or creeping dead don’t turn your stomach sour, the reminder of the ugliness of the past (and the present) surely will. But if you’re ready and willing to experience it, the rewards are considerable. It’s captivating, provoking and complex, as eager to earn your stunned silence as it is to send you pushing back from the television in revulsion. Most importantly, it never sacrifices story and especially character in pursuit of those reactions. The Terror might use terror (and its cousin, dread) to unlock doors in your stomach and psyche, but it’s not a parlor trick. There are horrors of worlds beyond ours, and horrors of our own making. By confronting its characters with both, Woo and AMC make the latter much, much harder to ignore.
The Terror: Infamy premieres Monday, August 12th on AMC.
Allison Shoemaker is a TV and film critic whose work has appeared in The A.V. Club, Vulture, RogerEbert.com, and other publications. She is also the co-host of the podcasts Hall Of Faces and Podlander Drunkcast: An Outlander Podcast, the latter of which is exactly what it sounds like.