The first season of AMC's horror series The Terror was based on Dan Simmons' 2007 novel of the same name, combining known facts about a doomed 1845 British expedition to the Arctic with historical speculation and a supernatural story about an ancient beast hunting the sailors. Rather than continuing that story (which ended pretty definitively), the second season of The Terror, subtitled Infamy, adds horror elements to a different grim historical story: the internment of Japanese-Americans in the United States during World War II. Other than that loose thematic connection and a similar title, the two seasons have nothing in common, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage for Infamy.
While the first season used real historical figures as its characters, Infamy places fictional characters in a historical setting, and it loses some of the resonance from the first season as a result. At the same time, creators Alexander Woo and Max Borenstein have the freedom to take far more liberties with the storytelling than first-season creator David Kajganich did, and Infamy covers a wider range of locations and supernatural phenomena. The horror elements show up earlier, appearing in the first scene in the first episode, and are more prominent than in the previous season. They rely mostly on familiar J-horror elements, with the vengeful spirit of a young woman as the main antagonist.
The series starts in 1941, before the U.S. has entered World War II, when first-generation Japanese-American Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio) is living peacefully with his family on Terminal Island, just off the coast of Los Angeles. Chester is a college student studying photography, and his father Henry (Shingo Usami) makes a modest but respectable living as a fisherman. It's clear that the Nakayamas and the other Japanese inhabitants of Terminal Island experience prejudice (the first episode goes a little overboard in its depiction of Henry's racist boss), but their community is otherwise thriving.
That doesn't last long, since the bombing of Pearl Harbor quickly leads to the rounding up of Japanese citizens and then the forced relocation of anyone with Japanese ancestry. As if that weren't bad enough, Chester and his family and neighbors are being stalked by a demon known as a yurei, in the form of an eerily menacing, kimono-clad woman named Yuko (Kiki Sukezane). Yuko's powers and limitations are poorly defined and inconsistent, and she's either deadly or ineffectual depending on what the plot of a particular episode requires. The U.S. government is a more imminent threat, even though the characters aren't in constant lethal danger from their surroundings, like the seamen in the first season were.
There's more than enough material in the trauma of internment to fuel the drama for an entire 10-episode season, and dragging out the mystery of Yuko's motives and origin doesn't make it more suspenseful or scary. While the sixth episode (the final one available for review) devotes itself almost entirely to Yuko's back story, it's mostly a flat anticlimax for a villain who's scarier when she's an unknowable malevolent force. The creators rely heavily on a single creepy technique, having characters move with unnatural, jerking motions when they've been possessed, and while the opening scene of the first episode uses this effect to appropriately unsettling ends, it quickly loses its impact when it shows up over and over.
The setting moves from Terminal Island to the fictional Colinas de Oro war relocation camp to Guadalcanal, where Chester is deployed as a translator after volunteering his services to the U.S. military, but the storytelling is still limited, reducing this sweeping historical event to a handful of people who lived next door to each other. Putting a human face on statistics and talking points is a smart approach, and the Nakayamas are mostly appealing, sympathetic characters, although Chester can sometimes be annoyingly self-centered. But Infamy fails to convey the scope of either the war or the internment, and its period details are a little too shiny and sanitized.
The best element of the personal drama is the star-crossed romance between Chester and his Mexican-American girlfriend Luz (Cristina Rodlo), a fellow student he's been dating in secret and who's pregnant with his baby when the series begins. The creators could have easily thrown in a token white love interest as a concession to mainstream audiences, but instead they take the opportunity to depict other kinds of prejudice, both in how Luz is treated as a Latina and in how Chester's family judges him for falling in love with someone who isn't Japanese. Pregnant with a child of Japanese ancestry, Luz ends up at the camp, too, and her story is tragic but not manipulative, using the demon as a jumping-off point to explore cultural differences, gender roles and racial injustice.
Even with her deeper connection to Japanese mythology, Yuko doesn't provide as many opportunities for the show to delve into Japanese culture. She's more of a tool to divide the family and the community, and there are some powerful scenes as the American-born Chester clashes with his more traditional parents. The sense of community among the interned is vital to enduring their ordeal, and supporting players including sci-fi legend George Takei (who's also a consultant on the show, and has spoken extensively about his own family's internment experience) and Miki Ishikawa help give a fuller sense of the camp's social bonds.
The show jumps ahead months at a time between episodes, making it hard to get a sense of the rhythm of daily life in the camp, or in Chester's military service. Yuko is seemingly dormant for long periods, only to emerge to enact muddled vengeance on someone new. Sukezane's performance is haunting at times, and there are some effective scares. But as a horror series, Infamy is pretty rote. It has more potential as a historical drama, illustrating a shameful period in American history with disturbing modern implications. It's too bad that annoying demon keeps getting in the way.
Starring Derek Mio, George Takei, Kiki Sukezane, Cristina Rodlo, Shingo Usami, Naoko Mori and Mishi Ishikawa, The Terror: Infamy premieres on AMC on August 12 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.