The first season of The Terror is about Victorian explorers in the Arctic, and it’s also about being nice. I rarely see people talking about niceness, except to contrast it with kindness and goodness. The Terror, conversely, takes it as a central theme. It examines niceness — being agreeable, polite, acting so as to avoid unnecessary pain — as an economy, a series of transactions, which develops (like many economies) under desperate conditions.
Some characters in The Terror are nice; some are kind; some are good. Harry Goodsir is nice because he’s good, and because he wants to be seen as kind. Cornelius Hickey is nice in order to manipulate. James Fitzjames is nice because niceness is his serial number — it’s engraved on the sole of his boot — although he’s only averagely kind and good. In the board game of The Terror, Fitzjames would be the one character who can generate niceness tokens for the others to trade.
The niceness of Captain Francis Crozier, though, is the series’ emotional center. It is also something of a twist. Crozier is an alcoholic, and although he cares very much for human life (broadly defined), he’s also a mean drunk who can’t make an argument without turning it personal. A lot of the series’ early tension is between the competent but surly Crozier and his friendly but foolish superior, Sir John Franklin, who calls him out for “making yourself miserable” (i.e. making Franklin miserable). Franklin’s obsession with collegiality can be maddening, especially when Crozier is pleading with him to take a less suicidal course through the Arctic, but he’s also got a point: Crozier’s meanness undermines his command. These men are astronauts. They’re in the 1900s equivalent of an Apollo capsule. They must exist in harmony, or they’ll collide with each other. Crozier isn’t to blame for the expedition’s eventual total loss, nor is his drinking a moral failing in itself, but his meanness has a cost.
After Franklin dies, Crozier realizes that he must lead the crew out of the North, and he can’t do that while he’s drinking, so he undergoes an agonizing detox and emerges from it sober. We get to see Crozier as he was many years ago. What’s unearthed from these archeological layers is a nice man, one who cares very much for human life (specifically defined). From then on, Crozier’s priorities are nice ones.
This is how he shows it: grace, patience, unapologetic warmth; treating the dying with a soft touch of denial or a stiff brush of realism, according to what he knows they want; lying to the crew about their chances; lying to the crew about his own past plans; lying to the crew about the fate of the scouts who went before them. He knows that his men are probably doomed, but that despair would doom them for certain, and so he dispenses the truth slowly or not at all. In their disingenuity, in their concern for comfort over morality, and in their good intentions and calculated effect, these lies are quintessentially nice.
They are also the right thing to do, I think. Crozier is an experienced Arctic and Antarctic traveler, and he’s used to cold equations. He’s watched helplessly as, under Franklin’s command, the crew lost their chance to sail safely home, then their chance to walk over the ice from a position of relative strength. What’s left is a death march in which, as Crozier gently tells Fitzjames, “things will drop away.” What can he offer to make it bearable, except for palliative care?
The modest flaw in Crozier’s plan is that he projects; he assumes everyone wants what he wants. This is also the flaw in every plan made in The Terror, from Crozier’s sober-for-five-minutes assumption that what people really need is freedom from pain, to Hickey’s assumption that what they really need is to embrace life’s brutality, to Fitzjames’ assumption that what they really need is to eat him, James Fitzjames, personally. (And, yes, I think that Fitzjames’ last request is classic niceness! It comes from a heartfelt and loving place, but it’s a gesture, and one that’s unconcerned with its own morality — which doesn’t mean it’s morally bad.)
The difference between each of these characters is their answer to the question: “if you were completely fucked, what would you do?” And what I appreciate about the show is that it thinks there’s still a point to acting well in a disaster — not because of Women and Children First, not because We Are Dressed In Our Best And Are Prepared To Down Like Gentlemen, not because What You Are In The Dark Is What You Really Are, but because you always have free will, and you may as well be nice.
This leads me to one of the show’s other great triumphs, the character of Cornelius Hickey. Hickey is a sociopath who thinks only of glory and revenge. He’s also right about a lot of things, and that’s why in the end, he builds a cult of personality and successfully mutinies against Crozier. He knows that cold truth is a quick-burning fuel; that a smaller group will travel faster; that sometimes it’s best to do before you feel; that the ruthless may outlive the scrupulous, if only by a few days. These are cards that Crozier can’t and won’t play.
In lesser stories, the Hickey character would be a fun, subversive villain; cannibalism aside, don’t people love to imagine themselves as anti-authoritarian rebels playing a high-stakes game? But there’s nothing impressive about Hickey. His lack of empathy makes it impossible for him to achieve much, even if most characters didn’t see through him, which they do. He’s good at being nice, in a strictly instrumental way, but he never has any niceness tokens to spare, because his only role in the board game is to cash them in. Nobody gives him any, and Fitzjames stopped generating them a long time ago, although Hickey does loot the last few off his corpse.
What Crozier realizes on the ice, and articulates to the dying Fitzjames, is that in death and isolation we are free. We can step out of the roles that our class, our experience, our career, our lost loves and addictions, have set out for us. Hickey is the only motherfucker on that expedition who doesn’t get this, and that’s why no one listens to him until they are crazed with hunger and lead poisoning. In the long Arctic night, Goofus seeks power, and Gallant grasps the fucking strawberry, and that’s all there is.