• A haunted Dr. Stephen Stanley (played by Alistair Petrie) prepares to set a horrible string of events in motion during what's meant to be a spirit-lifting carnival for the men of the Franklin Expedition. (Photo: Aidan Monaghan/AMC)

    A haunted Dr. Stephen Stanley (played by Alistair Petrie) prepares to set a horrible string of events in motion during what's meant to be a spirit-lifting carnival for the men of the Franklin Expedition. (Photo: Aidan Monaghan/AMC)

Every week, Stephen Smith and Russell Potter will review the latest episode of the AMC show The Terror for Canadian Geographic. Their take on episode 6 — “A Mercy” — appears below.

Russell Potter

Carnivals of the type we saw in tonight’s episode were, historically, a long tradition in the Arctic branch of the Royal Navy’s discovery service. First introduced by William Edward Parry during his ships’ wintering-over on Melville Island in 1819-1820, shipboard theatricals and highjinks had become the standard cure for winter doldrums; as Dr. Stanley explains to a deeply depressed Mr. Collins, “It is a prescription I support for all the men.” Henceforward, expeditions were supplied with costumes, wigs and play-books, with cross-dressing for comic roles among the senior officers a common feature of shipboard burlesques. In addition to plays, masquerades were not unknown, along with Christmas pantomimes, musical soirées, and raucous celebrations of Guy Fawkes Day.

And so Fitzjames — in command while Crozier is soldiering his way off the bottle — quite sensibly orders the same: a carnival on the ice to celebrate the imminent return of the sun. The preparations themselves are already restorative, replacing idleness with activity, and drawing cheers as festive tents are erected and the Union Jack hoisted. Tuunbaq seems to have departed — at least for now — and Mr. Blanky is getting on very well with his hand-carved wooden leg, which doubles as a tumbler. And yet darker notes linger, as Fitzjames presses Blanky for a “true” account of his retreat with John Ross to Fury Beach in 1832. Blanky readily complies, with a list of grievances against Ross — among which, ironically, is his refusal to leave the ship’s boats behind. Had Ross complied, they would never have been rescued — he and his men later managed to flag down a whaler only because they had the boats with them. The key element, though, is Blanky’s assertion that it’s the mind that “goes wrong,” and that that’s what matters most.

Segue to Goodsir’s testing out suspicious tinned meat with Jacko, the ship’s monkey, and Mr. Collins’ visit to Dr. Stanley, who dismisses his malaise as a thing outside his ken or care. We fear for Collins, but the icily professional Stanley seems solid as a rock. That is, until he douses himself with overproof rum and sets himself on fire (having already similarly soaked large parts of the carnival tent). The sight of the formerly festive officers and men, some still wearing parts of their costumes, fleeing the flames in panic, every man for himself, is the very definition of disaster: the sun may rise, but our stars have fallen.

Nothing has prepared us for this — unless Collins’s idle remark about a sketch in Stanley’s notebook, apparently his daughter, points to something far darker than it seems. I’m tempted to say that a fire on the ice works simply because of its intrinsic drama; certainly, in numerous 19th-century paintings — among them, William Bradford’s Sealers Crushed by Icebergs (1866) — there’s a fire just because of the urgency and sense of disaster it lends the scene. This fire, though, is more brutal than artistic, and never more so than when, as villain-turned-hero Hickey slices through the tent that traps the men, he also slices through Dr. MacDonald. The row of charred corpses on the ice evokes other horrors of the intervening centuries, once again spiking the cocktail of history and horror with a bitterness all its own.

Whence from here? We must, as Fitzjames makes plain in the opening scene, emphasize “all things portable” – and haul, men, haul!

Stephen, Stanley is the centerpiece of this episode — I did a bit of historical research on him for my blog — but I couldn’t find anything there, or in the show so far, that foreshadowed his deed. What did you think about this sudden catastrophic change of character?

Stephen Smith

Russell, I can’t say I saw Dr. Stanley’s murderous breakdown coming. In a saga that’s unleashed shock after bloody shock, his deadly bonfire counts as a stunner. It’s not something that even the most attentive readers of the novel that gives The Terror its title and sinister inspiration could have seen coming. I’ve been dipping back into Dan Simmons’ 2007 thriller as the weeks go by, and on the page, it’s the beast Tuunbaq that sparks the mayhem. Not that Dr. Stanley ends up any better off: he’s a casualty in the book, too.   

Deftly portrayed on the screen by Alistair Petrie, Erebus’ surgeon has been keeping mainly to the background up to now. I like your phrase “icy professionalism,” Russell. I see a supercilious edge to what we see of his character, too. Goodsir’s brow may be constantly knitted with doubt and worry, but his compassion never wanes. Dr. Stanley seems to disdain the very idea that the men would approach him for anything other than a daily dosage of disgust. The notion that he’s meant to be caring for them seems to have curdled his whole being.

Still, he seems to have maintained his wits. When Henry Collins stops by the sick bay to report that he finds himself “in a bad way,” Dr. Stanley seems to be his regular scornful self. “Flurried thoughts,” he tells Erebus’ frightened second master. “I do not know what that means.” But he’s not (yet) a monster. We even see his manner soften to something resembling sympathy when he says, “Look forward to the party, Mr. Collins — a little fun is what is needed.”

Maybe Dr. Stanley doesn’t recognize how darkly flurried his own mind is. It could be that his general contempt for treating patients extends to himself. Is it Goodsir’s report on Jacko’s autopsy that finally stirs Dr. Stanley’s sense to destruction? “This is only going to get worse and worse,” Goodsir warns. Somehow, Dr. Stanley accepts Goodsir’s impassioned pre-carnival appeal not as an urgent plea to save the crew, but as a challenge to end them all.

Not even as the surgeon prepares to torch the carnival do we suspect that he has mass murder in him. It has to be our old aggrieved friend Cornelius Hickey setting the firetrap, doesn’t it? But no. Does Dr. Stanley believe, somewhere in his addled brain, that he’s sparing the men an even more ghastly end?

And so the long winter’s darkness of 1847-48 blazes to an end just in time for the new year’s first sunrise. “Your energy is full of panic,” is Stanley’s reprimand to Goodsir, closing out their conference. Well, yes, Goodsir might have said in reply, that’s the point.  

Past recaps: 

• Episodes 1 & 2
• Episode 3
• Episode 4
• Episode 5