Literature has often used major chapters in history as the backdrop for horror stories, but it’s not seen as often in original films or TV series. Perhaps creators worry that the true horrors that man has inflicted on man in the past would steal focus from their original creations. At a certain age, we all learn that there are real monsters out there, which is often right around the time that the cinematic ones lose some of their power to work their way into our nightmares. One of the many remarkable elements of AMC’s “The Terror: Infamy” is how it balances a history lesson with the parts of it that you would never learn about in school. At its best, it intertwines the two, suggesting that one begets the other, and it holds a mirror up to 2019, forcing us to wonder what will be unleashed by the current horrors in our country. It can sometimes be too slow for its own good, or numbingly depressing (this is a great example of a show that works better week-to-week instead of binged on a streaming service – just so you can recover between episodes), but this is accomplished, risk-taking television. You certainly won’t forget it.
The first season of “The Terror” was based on Dan Simmons’ 2007 novel, which used a real mystery—the disappearance of a ship and its men in the Arctic in the middle of the 19th century—to craft a story of monsters (human and otherwise) on the ice. The follow-up is an original production with an entirely different team led by co-creators Max Borenstein (the writer of the recent monster reboots, including “Kong: Skull Island” and “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”) and Alexander Woo (a vet of “True Blood”), but it shares the DNA of a historical backdrop for a fictional story, and this one shines a light on a particularly shameful chapter of U.S. history that some have argued is currently being reflected in the deplorable conditions on our border with Mexico. The “Infamy” of the title refers to one of the most famous political statements in history, when FDR called the attack on Pearl Harbor, “A date that will live in infamy,” as well as how the country treated Japanese-Americans over the years that followed, imprisoning them in internment camps and subjecting them to cruel punishment based solely on the birthplace of their ancestors.
“The Terror: Infamy” opens just before Pearl Harbor, introducing us to a young Japanese-American man named Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio). We also meet Chester’s girlfriend Luz (Cristina Rodlo) and his parents, Asako (Naoko Mori) and Henry (Shingo Usami), a hard-working fisherman who is facing increased prejudice as the war on the other side of the world starts to threaten life in the United States. And then Pearl Harbor happens, plunging all of these characters into internment camps and eventually sending Chester overseas to serve as a translator for prisoners of war and wherever else he may be needed. Even Luz is forced to live in the camps because she’s pregnant and her baby will be born half-Japanese, making him a potential enemy. George Takei plays an elder of the community named Yamato, and he brings a potent gravity to everything given he actually lived in an internment camp as a child.
Woven into all of this potent, resonant historical drama is a ghost story. In the startling opening scene of the series, a woman stumbles to a pier, kneels, and kills herself by driving a hairpin through her own ear canal. Why did she kill herself? And why does another character go blind shortly thereafter? And what of the man who pulls a gun on the guards at the camp, almost knowing it’s a form of suicide? People aren’t in control of their own actions, and Chester starts to believe that he’s the cause of all of this suffering, someone who brought a spirit or ghost into the spheres of those he loves. He becomes convinced that a Yūrei has come to destroy them.
Japanese horror stories often emerge from the concept that human horror creates supernatural repercussions. It’s embedded even in the modern hits that defined J-horror like “Ringu” and “Ju-on”—two stories of ghostly vengeance. The best element of “Infamy” is the ever-present dread and the question of what is the greater threat—that which goes bump in the night or that which knocks on the door and smiles as it ruins your life?
However, “Infamy” is careful not to turn their story into something that relies on jump scares or slow shots of long black hair. It’s a show that really takes its time, feeling through the five that I saw like more of a historical drama with supernatural elements than the other way around (although I suppose the balance could shift in the back half of the season). It’s also a legitimate history lesson—I had forgotten about the No-No Boys, and that becomes an important subplot—at a time in our country when it feels like a story about prejudice and hatred is as timely as ever.
Now, history lessons are not always welcome in serialized television, and it will be interesting to see how people respond to this one. There are times when “Infamy” gets so bleakly depressing that it reminded me of another Monday night hit from cable earlier this year, “Chernobyl.” Like that series, “Infamy” takes a dark chapter in world history and gives it both a humanizing and ghostly touch.
Five episodes screened for review.