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The Terror Q&A – Dave Kajganich and Soo Hugh (Co-Showrunners/Executive Producers)

David Kajganich, executive producer and showrunner who developed The Terror for television, and executive producer and showrunner Soo Hugh discuss whether Hickey was making his plan up all along, why Crozier chooses to stay with the Netsilik tribe, and why they’ll vigorously defend the show’s ending.

Q: What was your approach to the final episodes? How did you try to balance the bleakness of the men’s circumstances with some sort of life-affirming idea?

David Kajganich: We really wanted to offer the audience quite a range of different response to these final, dire circumstances. Once it’s clear that most of the characters don’t believe they’ll be making it out, people really start to lose hope. Knowing these characters as well as the audience does, it becomes possible to transfer that hope from the idea of getting out alive to dying well or helping others die well. We banked on the fact that the answers to those questions are as interesting as the questions that people might have had earlier in the show about whether anyone makes it out alive. We just tried to think of small victories – or great victories – that aren’t the sorts of things you would expect on a show like this.

Soo Hugh: I think we just loved our characters so much. I don’t think we wanted to rob any of them of a moment of dignity. Even Hickey has his moments of dignity. I think that’s really affirming for both of us. … Ultimately, when you consider the finale, it’s the ultimate wish fulfillment because we know that none of the men survived, but our last shot is one man [who] endures. No matter how the audience will read into that experience, Crozier survives. It’s hard to get to that last moment and not feel some sense of triumph for this character who you were with for 10 episodes.

Q: What does it say about how far Fitzjames and Crozier came that Fitzjames’s death was so tender and heartbreaking?

DK: What I loved most about the way that scene was written and the way Tobias [Menzies] and Jared [Harris] played it is in the eye contact. In the first episodes, they can barely stand to even look at one another. You have that story in Episode 1 about Fitzjames getting injured in the war with the Chinese forces – he likens himself to Caesar. Over the course of the episodes, he’s really humbled by his limitation of his ability to lead the men, the limitations of his own constitution, and the revelation to Crozier that he’s never been who he’s said he was and he’s built a life of vanity. By the time he’s on his death bed, he’s got this unexpected friend. The eye contact that they have in that scene where they can’t communicate everything. … That death scene really speaks to how hard we’ve worked and the lengths we’ve went to earn that kind of arc.

Q: Goodsir‘s death was likewise very sad, but also the most heroic in a way. 

DK: Goodsir has been the embodiment of a set of values that are a dwindling supply on the show. He crosses from an optimism about what might be possible in these men’s hearts to realizing he’s been cornered in the mutineers’ camp and he’s going to be asked to do things he doesn’t want to do, and he understands there are still members of the camp he wishes to try to save. Even his suicide and the poisoning of his own skin and knowing he’s going to be consumed by the others – it’s a heroic act. It absolutely speaks to his selflessness and his desire to be a counterweight to some of the other things pulling the other men down. It’s a horrible thing to watch, but the spirit of what he does is very life-affirming. He sacrifices himself to give Crozier and a number of the other men a chance to escape.

Q: How would you describe Hickey’s plan? As much as he talked about destiny and purpose, do you think he was just making it up as he went along?

DK: I think you have to call his character – even though he wouldn’t – a narcissist. He thinks the world is full of questions, like everyone else on the expedition does, but he believes he is the answer to most or all of those questions. In the early episodes, he’s trying to climb up this naval hierarchy. At some point, that hierarchy is so devastated by the disaster that it doesn’t have much power anymore. He realizes there’s this other hierarchy that he has access to and it’s the hierarchy of the mythology of this place. He’s seen the creature a couple of times and this creature has not attacked him, so maybe that means “this creature sees something in me. Maybe if I can just learn enough of the rules of how to interact with it, I can step into this vacancy when the shaman died.” Is some of that thinking spurred by the lead in his blood? Sure. Is some of it spurred by the kind of narcissism that comes from being under that kind of pressure every day over the course of months and years? Sure. We wanted to create a Hickey that was emblematic of a certain kind of confidence you might find in a royal expedition to conquer new lands and really turn it up through the lens of someone who has a narcissistic disorder. You’re talking about a character who is willing to do many things that most other people on this expedition wouldn’t. Eating his men is one of them, but also imagining himself into another culture’s mythological system is audacious.

SH: So much of our audience hates Hickey with a passion, but I’m curious if after the finale airs, whether or not people feel the same. I do believe in the power of biography in that final speech he delivers up on the mutineers’ hill. The way Adam delivers that performance is infused with so much pathos that it’s hard not to see a glimpse of a really tragic life. That doesn’t necessarily explain or mitigate. We never want to apologize for his actions, but I do think our audience will have a shift there in how they perceive him. It’s just hard to hate him completely. [Laughs]

Q: He seems genuinely shocked his plan with the Tuunbaq didn’t work. Is that the miscalculation of a mad man or something greater you wanted to say about the Creature in the final battle?

DK: There’s a relationship between the Tuunbaq and these outsiders that dooms them both. They’ve come into a place where they weren’t invited and in such numbers that they’ve upset the equilibrium of the place. At the beginning of the series, the Tuunbaq is really just doing its job and trying to place things back in balance. The men are so riddled with various illnesses, mainly lead, and we also come to realize that the Tuunbaq doesn’t just eat the men. It eats their souls, and they’ve brought things in their souls that are unpalatable to the Tuunbaq. The predicament they’ve gotten themselves into is making them ill and their predicament is making the Tuunbaq ill. It becomes this cycle and by the time we get to the 10th episode, the Tuunbaq can’t be controlled anymore. When it bites down on Hickey’s arm, Hickey has this look of complete surprise laced with intense disappointment that this god is letting him down. Then, it eats Hickey’s soul – the worst of the lot in terms of the contents of his soul. It’s Hickey who thought he was going to be the Tuunbaq’s new savior and actually damns the thing to death.

Q: Why do you think Crozier ultimately decides to live out his days with the Netsilik tribe? Is he atoning for disrupting the natural order?

DK: Part of the reason is atonement. He understands that their emergency and disaster was also an emergency and disaster for this Inuit community and probably for generations to come. They have marked the opportunities and hopes of this community in a negative way. But also, he’s saved none of his men. He’s the last man standing. The idea of going back and having to explain how the deaths of the rest of the crew happened – any real love or dignity or heroism will be stripped out of it and people will see it as a monumental failure. He decides to stay, but his life among the Netsilik is not going to be easy. This is going to be a rough life for him, but it’s a more honest life than if he went back to England. He’s done trying to unpack all the complexities of what it means to be a victorious British man.

SH: Doesn’t it just feel inevitable? I can’t imagine any other decision for Crozier. There’s this great line that Sofia says to him in a flashback in Episode 4: “I don’t understand why you would go to a place that wants you dead.” I guess that’s true of Victorian England for Crozier – a place that wants no part of him. We understand that ending might be controversial, but we will defend that ending vigorously because I don’t see how you could end it any other way.

You made some changes to the ending of Dan Simmons‘s novel. Did the difference of the medium drive that or was it more about your interpretation?

SH: I think the only major difference with the very ending between the book and the show is that Dan has Crozier and Lady Silence in a relationship and they have the two children together. And our Lady Silence has just become a different person from the book.

DK: One of the other things we wanted to change from Dan’s book was that he does an amazing thing at the end of the book, which is unexpected and pretty bold. He immerses you in Inuit mythology and Inuit lore for about 40 pages. And we knew that, in terms of how a season of television would work, that it wouldn’t benefit us to wait all of that time and then do it all at the end, that it would unbalance things in the show. And so we chose a middle route, which was slowly layering in more and more and more insight as to what the Inuit perspective would be on all of this, so that, at the end, you are in a no man’s land between cultures for Crozier. He no longer belongs to his culture, if he ever really did, and he certainly doesn’t yet belong to this culture, if he ever will. He makes the decision to stay in that no man’s land and hope for the best because he realizes the cost that it’s meant for this community and, if he can even remotely begin to pay it by earning their trust little by little and helping them provide for themselves and continue to survive in a place that really not many other people have successfully survived, then that’s not a bad fate.

Q: What is your intention in that beautiful last shot?

DK: Some people think he’s frozen in the end; I think because they’re watching on an iPhone. When you can’t see the details, they think it’s a bit of a Jack Nicholson shot at the end of The Shining. He’s not frozen; he’s very much alive. One of the reasons we put this sleeping child on his leg in this final shot – anyone paying close attention to the timeline will know that can’t be his son; the boy’s too old. But this community has now brought him in enough where he can hunt with them and also that they don’t mind if he shares in the communal duties of taking care of children or things, and we wanted that to be a little moment of hope in that final shot.

SH: Some people may not understand what Crozier’s doing – that he’s seal hunting. At first, it bothered me that the audience may not know what Crozier’s doing. But I like that it’s up for interpretation, that it has this ambiguity. I think audience members will wonder these very basic universal questions of human emotions. Is he happy? Does he have any regrets? I think it’s such a long, long shot, that pull out, that how can someone not pose questions about who this man has become?

What has the experience of making the show meant to you both?

DK: It’s everything Soo and I hoped it would be. The cast obviously is just stellar and our department heads, costume design, production design, hair and makeup design, visual effects design, our composer. The chance to work with people who are working at the tops of their games and with such generosity and creativity and a spirit of open collaboration – that is the first reward. And then to have a community of fans embrace about the show what we also embrace about the show – to love its quiet moments and to love the way that it tells its story, which is much more patiently than I think a lot of horror shows would. And to turn away from the show for that, but to feel encouraged by it. It’s such a reward to feel like we had a conversation creatively with our collaborators and then again dramatically and creatively with the people who are watching it. I’ve never had an experience like this. I’ll never forget it.

SH: I echo everything Dave said so eloquently, and it’s been a true honor. We had some long, dark nights during production. We believed in [the show], but there were so many times when we wondered whether or not we were the ones that were crazy. And to sit here and to just see the outpouring of love for this show, it’s really affirming to us. We made something that we are so proud of, that we will be proud of for the rest of our lives. I think in any creative field you don’t get to say that that often, so it’s been a privilege.

Read a Q&A with Tobias Menzies, who plays Captain James Fitzjames. Get updates on The Terror by signing up for the Insiders Club.

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