The first season of The Terror, an adaption of Dan Simmons’s novel of the same name, was a show that balanced two types of horror: the supernatural, and the natural. Sure, paranormal figures are plenty scary – but nothing is quite as scary as the inhumanity of human beings. Season 2, subtitled Infamy, jumps to a whole new set of characters and decides to crank-up the supernatural shenanigans. And yet, the underlying truth is there: ghosts and ghouls pale in comparison to fearful, foolish, hateful mortals.
Infamy is set against the backdrop of World War II, with the first episode – “A Sparrow in a Swallow’s Nest” – set literally on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The season is set within in a Japenese-American community that will soon find itself shipped-off to internment camps. This forced relocation of “outsiders” to camps is unfortunately timely, and comparisons between current events involving America’s current atrocious border camps will abound. But the Japenese internment camps are plenty horrifying on their own – a blemish on U.S. history. The thematic connection to history and current events makes The Terror: Infamy even more worth watching.
An Ill Omen From Across the Sea
One morning in 1941 on Terminal Island, located in San Pedro, California, Masayo Furuya (Yuki Morita) dresses in a snowy white kimono and stumbles out of her house. As she travels down a dock, her footsteps are awkward and clumsy. Is she drunk? Is she sleepwalking? Her body jerks and twitches, and we can hear the bones in her body popping. She proceeds to fall to her knees, at which point the camera cuts to a close-up on her pale, haunted face. We’re forced to watch as she removes a long, pointy hair stick from the back of her head only to then very, very slowly insert it into her ear. She pushes the stick further and further, blood running down her face, and then – CRUNCH. A sickening sound as she falls over dead.
With this opening scene, The Terror: Infamy lets you know it’s not playing around. Infamy leans into body horror with this episode, filling its soundtrack with plenty of popping, cracking bones. The sound design is impeccable, creating a perfect moody atmosphere that will send shivers down your spine. The atmosphere is heightened by production design that you can feel – one look at the locales this season, and you can all but feel the dampness soaking off the screen as the camera traverses over slippery docks and the decks of old fishing boats.
After Mrs. Furuya’s demise, we’re introduced to our main character, Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio). Chester is the American born son of Japenese immigrants Henry (Shingo Usami) and Naoko (Asako Nakayama), and while his parents still hold on to their old-world superstitions, Chester is very much a modern-day American man, impervious to such foolishness. Or so he thinks.
But it becomes clear quickly that something is amiss in Chester’s community. Mrs. Furuya’s funeral is heavy with bad omens: Chester has a nasty premonition of pulling a long, bloody string of flesh from around his wrist, and later, an ill wind topples Mrs. Furuya’s coffin over, spilling her body onto the dirty ground. Chester’s parents, and other immigrants in the community, including Yamoto-san (George Takei), are quick to blame a malevolent spirit, and while Chester is sure that can’t be the cause, he begins to have his doubts.
Because things continue to get weirder and weirder. Chester fancies himself a photographer, but recent photos he’s taken are coming out with blurry, blackened figures in them. On top of that, Chester keeps having flashes of the dead Mrs. Furuya. And then Mrs. Furuya’s abusive husband is struck blind after something unseen forces him to stare directly into the sun. Just what is going on here?
Living in Two Worlds
Evil spirits are one thing, but Chester has plenty of real-world problems to deal with. His girlfriend Luz (Cristina Rodlo) is pregnant with his child, and the couple – who seem to have broken up at this point – decide they can’t have the baby. Chester turned to Mrs. Furuya for herbs to help induce a miscarriage and is now wracked with guilt – worried that this request somehow drove Mrs. Furuya to suicide.
Chester is also clashing constantly with his father. He sees the old man as foolish, and even cowardly. Henry allows cruel, racist cannery foreman Stan Grichuk (Teach Grant) to constantly boss him around and withhold payment for certain fishing hauls. A mishap with a piece of machinery (caused by something supernatural, perhaps?) almost leads to Grichuk’s death, but Henry saves the man’s life. However, the episode costs Grichuk his job. Rather than be grateful Henry saved his life, he proceeds to get drunk and blackmail Henry into giving him the fancy new Packard he just bought. If Henry doesn’t hand over the car, Grichuk says he’ll report him as a spy. Henry complies, much to his son’s disgust. Chester insists that Grichuk’s xenophobic threats would hold no weight. “People don’t think that way anymore,” he says, blissfully unaware of the trouble to come.
It must be said that Chester isn’t a very likable lead – but that’s not a knock against the show. Mio is brave enough to play up the character’s flaws and embraces Chester’s foolish cockiness with vigor. It’s balanced beautifully against Shingo Usami as his father. Usami’s performance is quiet and dignified but shot through with melancholy.
Chester later finds himself at a brothel with his buddies, one of whom is about to get married. While his friends head upstairs with the ladies, Chester remains at the bar, content to wait. There he encounters the mysterious Yuko (Kiki Sukezane). She seems out of place in this location – otherworldly, even. The two strike up a conversation, at which point Yuko invites Chester up to her room to read his fortune in tea leaves.
There in the room, surrounded by a cavalcade of creepy masks hanging on the wall, Yuko gazes at the tea leaves and tells Chester he is “two people. Light and darkness. Life and death. You live in two worlds but are home in neither. You are a sparrow in a swallow’s nest. The moment you believe you are safe, the swallows will peck you to death.”
As Yuko’s sweet, ASMR-inducing words come flowing out, Chester realizes he wants a life with Luz – and that he wants her to keep the baby. “The child can still be yours,” Yuko says. That’s enough for Chester, who immediately runs out to steal his father’s car back and then drive over to Luz’s house, where he learns she has yet to take the herbs to induce a miscarriage. Lovelorn Chester spills his guts, begging Luz to keep the baby and to run off with him. But Luz is more realistic – she doesn’t think they can make it on their own. “How much money do we’ve got? Who do we know? How will we find work?” she asks. “There’s no future for us…anywhere.” Heartbroken – but putting on a good face – Chester slinks off into the night.
While this unfolds, Grichuk – outraged that the car he stole was stolen back – goes onto Henry’s boat and attempts to light it on fire. Before he can strike the match, he’s attacked by something off-screen. The next day, Henry and Chester haul Grichuk’s bloated waterlogged corpse out of the sea in a fishing net. This lands Chester and Henry in potentially hot water, and the two are hauled off to the nearby army base to answer some questions. Chester is convinced it was an accident since Grichuk was a drunk, but Henry believes that an evil spirit is responsible, punishing the community for their transgressions. He knows that Chester got Luz pregnant and that he was trying to abort the baby.
The reveal leads to a heated argument between father and son, which director Josef Kubota Wladyka brilliantly underscores with the sense of something bigger happening in the background. Over the shoulders of Henry and Chester, we can sense a commotion, and little by little wee hear more and more phones begin to ring. The reason for the commotion becomes clear: Pearl Harbor was just attacked, and nothing will ever be the same for Chester and his family. Late that night, Henry and other men on the island are hauled off in a bus by the military and the FBI, under the guise of “safety.” And somewhere out there, Yuko pampers herself before a mirror, only to have her skin peel away like old parchment.
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