After a brief uptick in quality with last week’s ‘”The Weak Are Meat,” The Terror: Infamy returns to disappointing form with “Shatter Like a Pearl” — an aimless and underwritten checklist of events and concepts related to the Pacific Theater and Japanese-American internment. Seppuku? Check. Denouncing the emperor? Check. Inmate protests? Check. We spend time on this stuff not because the show has anything particularly interesting to say about it but because it’s recognizably related to Infamy’s setting. Ken and Amy’s principle-versus-emotion conflict over the loyalty survey is conveyed in colorless broad strokes, and while Miki Ishikawa as Amy has the chops to make something of the thin material, Christopher Naoki Lee as Ken just doesn’t measure up.
The onscreen relationship between the two only makes the gap between their respective talents more plain. In a scene set just after they make love, Ishikawa is playful and wry while Lee sounds like an over-earnest guest lecturer speaking to a room full of high school students. After that scene together every exchange between the two boils down to Amy’s insistence that Ken denounce the emperor and stay with her and Ken’s that he must resist their oppressors. The episode’s other great mismatch — this one located more in material than acting — hamstrings one of its handful of genuinely emotionally affecting moments. When Henry runs to the grief-stricken Luz to hug and reassure her before she leaves the camp, her leaden affect and the cartoonish, shopworn quality of her story in the episode mutes the impact of Shingo Usami’s well-earned emotional thaw.
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Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3
The loyalty test eats up much of the episode’s running time without telling us much of anything about the people taking it. Again, the material with Major Bowen lands like a brick as he grumbles about the need for consequences for the non-compliant and the well-known obedience of the Japanese, his by the book racism disconnected from any deeper sense of the man behind it. Other than that we get a brief explanation of the questionnaire, Yamato-san asking Amy for help filling out his form, and Ken and Amy’s argument about it. The characters with whom we’ve spent most of our time so far are nowhere in the mix for any of it, a filmmaking mistake so basic and elemental that it retroactively undoes much of what last week’s episode was beginning to set right.
Luz’s postpartum depression is another storytelling dead end, relying on cliches like her humming a lullaby while rocking nothing in her arms. In one scene she stands in a river and stares at the specters of her stillborn sons under the water, her eyes vacant, her hair disheveled, her inexplicable lacy Victorian nightgown stained with mud. It’s only an image of grief, archetypal and without personal nuance. Chester’s interrogation of a downed Imperial pilot at least has the benefit of pitting Chester against a sharp-jawed spitfire, but so little comes out of the protracted series of scenes that when it’s over it might as well not have happened. Additionally, his commanding officer taking the prisoner’s clearly assisted suicide in stride strains credulity to the breaking point.
What’s in the Box?
The image of Chester’s tormentor Yuko — along with an inkling that we’ll finally hear her story next week — emerging as a rotted ruin from a duffel bag after the fake-out of the imprisoned pilot pretending to be possessed is at least somewhat creepy, though even there the show’s clumsy blocking limits the image’s effectiveness. To stop exploring Yuko’s motivations immediately after starting in on them too late is a major step backward for the show, and the time it spends on the replacement translators — one of them possessed — making their way to Chester’s outfit is hard to justify even without considering all the stage-setting work the show has simply opted not to do.
Directed by Lily Mariye and written by Steven Hanna, “Shatter Like a Pearl” is an overstretched and visually unappealing episode. There’s no trace of the life Michael Lehmann briefly breathed into the show’s imagery — the pit of the dead, the dance between Henry and Asako, and the overhead shots of the camp at night remain the best things the show has yet done — in Mariye’s lifeless shots of shipboard cargo holds and tent interiors. With the season half over and the show’s baseline set so low, it seems doubtful that anything coherent will emerge from this ambitious followup to the greatest show of 2018.