The Terror: Infamy turns America’s WWII internment camps into a bleak ghost story

The second episode of The Terror: Infamy, AMC’s anthology horror-drama, ends with a blatant money shot. A group of confused, weary, scared Japanese-American citizens have just been transported by bus from their home state of California to Colinas de Oro, Oregon — a fictional World War II internment camp based on real ones in Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming.

As the passengers exit the bus and straggle inside the fenced-in military grounds, the camera pulls back to reveal an armed watchtower in the center and an American flag hovering over it all. Right on cue, as the last of the detainees enter, the wind picks up, unfurling the flag and snapping it into picture-perfect position. It’s a visual scream that this is America: legally enforced xenophobia and federal concentration camps.

This image sums up what’s best and what’s weakest about season two of The Terror: It works to remind us at every turn that the atrocities of the present are tied to those of the past, and that America is a country whose inability to confront its own systemic racism means that it’s destined to enact bleak, dehumanizing horror on its citizens again and again.

This is not a subtle message, but then neither is forcibly rounding up people by race and putting them in detainment centers. Unlike season one, whose unease and dread grew slowly out of an atmosphere of stifling isolation, The Terror: Infamy plunges abruptly into the many-year nightmare of the internment camps. And that nightmare is so vividly, uncomfortably depicted, particularly given the unavoidable parallels between America’s treatment of perceived foreigners then and now, that it inevitably makes the season’s supernatural horror feel expendable.

The Terror: Infamy is season one’s aesthetic opposite

A young man in a 1940s-style suit and fedora stands behind a camera on a tripod and in front of fishing nets hung to dry.
Derek Mio’s Chester has no idea what to make of his life anymore. Relatable.
Ed Araquel/AMC

The Terror’s first season won critical acclaim in 2018 for its remarkably well-acted, eerie, and atmospheric narrative of a historical Arctic expedition encountering disaster and cosmic horror. In most ways, season two is season one’s aesthetic opposite: Where season one took place in near-total isolation, far removed from Victorian civilization, season two takes place in the heart of society, sometimes playing out concurrently in California, Oregon, and the South Pacific war theatre of the 1940s. There were few women in season one; season two has many women in the cast as the plot churns around the Japanese folkloric tradition of the spurned-woman-turned-vengeful-ghost, or yurei.

The second season also forgoes the Lovecraftian nature of season one, with its impossible, rarely seen, perhaps-hallucinated monster summoned from the depths of the Arctic wilderness. Instead, it starts with a cold open of a gruesome suicide that may or may not have been caused by a killer ghost, the spirit of a woman we come to know as Yuko (Kiki Sukezane). Soon we’re introduced to the Japanese-American community the ghost is targeting, whose older members believe the yurei may have followed them across the sea from Japan. When the ghost comes with them into the internment camps after war with Japan breaks out, the violence she brings only increases the tension and misery of their imprisonment.

College student Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio) has his doubts about the presence of the yurei, but he can’t ignore the strange, chaotic violence running through the community — especially when much of it seems to be indirectly connected to him. Chester is a frustrating main character, by turns arrogant and clueless, overconfident and indecisive. He seems exasperated by everything: by his family, particularly his stubborn father; his Mexican-American girlfriend Luz (Cristina Rodlo) and her decision to join him and his family in the internment camp after she gets pregnant; by the war and its brutality; and even by the havoc the ghost is wreaking around him.

Mio plays Chester with a fascinating mix of wryness and earnestness — you’re never sure how real his caustic cynicism is when he’s faced with situations like, for instance, the brutal murder of Japanese soldiers by Americans — and over the course of the series they distill into the two halves of his personality. It’s the American in him that treats everything with a mix of forced coolness, mild sarcasm, and overconfidence. It’s the American in him who joins the war against Japan as a translator, where he’s forced to confront his own dual identities while battling his demons — which in his case may be the literal demon who’s caught up with him. The Japanese side of him seems harder for him to parse and contend with; like so many immigrants in a diaspora, he seems drawn to the folklore and superstition of his homeland to help him make sense of what’s happening in the war and at home.

Meanwhile, Luz is isolated by the others in the camp, desperate for the communal acceptance that Chester himself has largely taken for granted, if not altogether rejected. When he travels to the South Pacific war front with the army, he leaves her at Yuko’s mercy, and Yuko, whose anger is born out of tragedy, is not in a merciful mood. Now fixated on Luz’s unborn twins, she poses as a gentle, caring midwife — but that façade can’t last; her anger is too all-consuming.

Infamy’s real-life horror is so visceral, the supernatural feels less entwined

A young woman stands outside a shabby dwelling at night underneath a line of washing hung to dry.
Yuko isn’t dropping by the camp for a nice chat.
Ed Araquel/AMC

The Terror’s first season was a slow-burn descent into madness with a monster whose viciousness doubled as a psychological metaphor for a lot of things at once, maybe: the hollow lure of capitalism and colonialism, the collapse of civilization under the threat of climate change, the shallow veneer of civility over man’s inhumanity to man. These are all familiar themes; what made season one work so well was the subtlety and deftness with which showrunner Dave Kajganich blended them all together as thematic texture that never overshadowed the drama of the plot at hand.

Season two’s showrunner Alexander Woo has had a bit more difficulty doing that. The task in front of him is inherently difficult as-is: the sheer horror of the plot at hand, of a group of families being ripped from their homes and forced into a prison, is the kind of thing that’s hard to wrap a supernatural element around, especially combined with the desire to faithfully recreate the internment experience. (The stellar ensemble cast includes George Takei, who was originally hired on as a consultant because of the three years he spent living in an internment camp as a boy, then written into the show as a community elder.)

Woo and the show’s other writers, including Max Borenstein and Japanese literature expert Steven Hanna, have chosen to leave us in little doubt that the ghost is “real;” Yuko has a past that ties her to the Nakayamas and their community, and her vengeance has specific targets. But Yuko’s story seems to be detached from the larger allegory of what’s happening in this community as it grapples with racial injustices, family division, life under daily militarized supervision, and the war itself.

The more brutal the war becomes for Chester, the closer he senses Yuko getting in her global pursuit of him; but Infamy, at least in its first six episodes, doesn’t do much work to explore why a spurned woman, a young, lonely social pariah of unknown background, is the nexus around which its metaphorical ouroboros of past and present infamy must spin.

None of this tarnishes the harrowing achievement of Infamy’s take on the internment camps. The set, a faithful recreation of real internment camps, appears claustrophobic and cruel, as if some once-idealized children’s summer camp has been distorted and twisted into something ugly and unspeakable. The camera frequently hangs back before entering low-ceilinged, dusty, and shadow-filled rooms, almost as if it can’t bring itself to enter. In one beautifully shot scene, a character has a dream in which she remembers dancing to swing music with her husband when they were young; her dreaming mind conjures the music hall’s bright lights and elegance into the middle of the camp courtyard — a glamor cast desperately over a savage and barren reality.

The authenticity of the cast’s Japanese heritage contributes to the sorrow that hangs over the production; I found even relatively banal parts of Infamy more bleak and difficult to watch than far scarier shows, purely because of how real and contemporary everything felt.

Infamy never stops reminding us that all this racial unrest is happening again now, from scenes where Chester’s former friends in the army turn hostile and suspicious overnight after Pearl Harbor to scenes where orphaned Japanese children are rounded up to join the camps. But beneath this history, the Terror could have done more to show us how and why Chester’s community is particularly vulnerable to Yuko’s spiritual attack and delved even further into Chester’s complicated relationship with his family, particularly his strained relationship with his disapproving but loving father.

Instead, I found myself wishing more than once that Infamy had not been attached to The Terror at all, that it had just been a gripping drama about the war from the perspective of some of its most vulnerable victims. Though creepy and often effective, its supernatural horror plot is largely built around clichés involving women and motherhood, which are harder to sustain as compelling drama over a 10-episode season. (Luz in particular is ill-served by this quandary.)

By contrast, the war and the various ways in which it impacts each of the characters yields endless drama. In its most successful episode, Chester confronts a Japanese prisoner of war who taunts, threatens, and ultimately bonds with him over their shared love of baseball and their exhaustion with the battlefront. It’s a deeply compelling episode of television and warrants a place for The Terror in any list of the year’s must-watch series. But it has nothing to do with ghosts. I wish The Terror had done a little more work to make its ghosts feel as necessary as its timely history lesson.