The Terror: Infamy, “A Sparrow in a Swallow’s Nest” Review

The Terror, Dan Simmons’ horror/sci-fi novel on which the first season of AMC’s horror anthology series of the same name was based, is so titled as a play on the Royal Discovery Service ship Terror, aboard which much of the season occurs. The show’s second season, subtitled Infamy, is still called The Terror presumably because it is meant to be scary. With the departure of showrunner David Kajganich and virtually all off and on-screen talent from season one, Infamy is a shabbier, shoddier vessel from the moment it launches. 

The first episode’s script is about what you’d expect given that writer Alexander Woo’s most prominent credit to date is that episode of True Blood with all the “AIDS burger” jokes. In one scene series lead Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio) and his love interest, Luz (Cristina Rodlo) deliver monologues about their dashed dreams while sitting side by side and avoiding one another’s eyes. It’s like something out of an over-earnest college stage production where the characters take turns coming up into the spotlight and talking about their sad pasts. In an earlier scene they lie together in bed under the sheets, whispering stilted nothings in bizarre Hallmark commercial morning light.

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Infamy deals with the cultural friction between Japanese immigrant parents and their US-born kids with all the tender, thought-provoking subtlety of series co-creator Max Borenstein’s Godzilla movies. Chester and his father Henry (Shingo Usami) spell out their dueling American and Japanese ideas of masculinity to one another so often that the show never has the time to actually show them behaving accordingly. It doesn’t help that Mio’s performance is hopelessly flat and looks even worse next to Usami’s careworn, quietly prideful turn as fisherman and family patriarch Henry. By the time the possibly spirit-possessed prostitute Yuko (Kiki Sukezane) tells Chester he’s a sparrow in a swallow’s nest and will soon be pecked to death, the whole thing feels brutally over-established.

For a period series about such a distinct and traumatic moment in time, poised on the lip of Japanese-American internment, Infamy is painfully light on atmosphere. Most of its actors lack the charisma to pull viewers fully into its world, and its generic “scary buzzing” score and clean, unlived-in sets only make it worse. Its close shots of women performing small beauty-related tasks are much more interesting, a visual exploration of the same kind of dual identity and hiding in plain sight the episode’s script tackles so awkwardly. Director Josef Kubota Wladyka captures Yuko’s grotesque self-surgery and Hideo Furuya’s (Hira Ambrosino) solemn dressing and application of cosmetics before her violent suicide with patience and empathy. Hideo’s long walk down a pier at sunrise is the episode’s standout image, only slightly marred by too-frequent cutting. 

Even Here, We Are Not Safe

The episode’s most pronounced flaw is its handling of its supernatural elements, laid on thick from the get-go and never amounting to much. Hideo is implied to kill herself because of possession by an evil spirit, possibly one angered by her preparation of the herbal abortifacient Chester gives his pregnant girlfriend. Later, her drunken and abusive husband is blinded by a spirit, perhaps the same one. The racist dockside cannery supervisor Stan Grichuk (Teach Grant) gets offed by the same supernatural presence at the episode’s end.

For contrast, consider that the show’s first season didn’t give us so much as a glimpse of its monster until its second episode. Restraint allows tension to build, and in its absence the supernatural becomes commonplace and uninteresting. The most egregious moment in the episode is a short scene in which Chester, always carrying a camera, goes to take a picture of the sea and briefly glimpses some kind of manifestation in the shot. The effect is almost too hacky to be believed.

All the “Evil spirits? From the homeland? But why would they come to America?” dialogue is miserably overwritten, leaving no room for any kind of nuanced depiction of Shintoism. It’s hard not to think of Borenstein’s Godzilla movies, which took the goofy Shintoist mythology of Toho’s original movies and reduced it to square-jawed drudgery. When, inevitably, the attack on Pearl Harbor occurs and the Japanese residents of Terminal Island are bussed away for questioning, Wladyka unwisely pulls away from the action to show it from above, avoiding the emotions of the taken and their confused and frightened families. The effect is more diorama than television show, and with only modest visuals to offset its weak writing, overexposed scares, and uneven performances, Infamy’s first episode sinks before it’s left the bay.

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