When I talk about The Terror: Infamy, which concluded last Monday, the word that I keep using is frustrated. Frustrated because Infamy has two potentially great stories going on: a J-horror tale of intergenerational trauma, and a real-life suspense drama about being unjustly incarcerated by one’s own government, and neither of those stories is executed with the finesse that I was hoping for. Frustrated because I—an Asian-American adoptee of Korean descent—have been hungry all my life for more Asian-American representation in popular media; a prestige drama with a predominantly Asian core cast is a huge step forward and I was rooting for it hard. Frustrated because the incarceration of thousands of Japanese-American citizens under Executive Order 9066 is a piece of American history that we need to confront, particularly since American immigration policies of the last two years have made those events uncomfortably relevant all over again.
Note: I’ll be using the terms “incarceration” and “incarceration camp” to refer to the actions and the sites implemented under Executive Order 9066, instead of the hitherto popularly-used terms “internment” and “internment camp”. In this, I’ve chosen to follow the guidance of historian Roger Daniels, whose analysis “Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese Americans” strongly discourages the use of the word “internment.” You can read more about the historiography and discussion over these semantics in this NPR article.
Light spoilers follow, as it’s impossible to talk about the show’s virtues or flaws without them, but I’ve tried to go easy.
The idea of combining Japanese horror film tropes with the very real horror of the Japanese-American wartime incarceration is, on paper, brilliant and provocative. In execution, however, the two narratives of Infamy exist side-by-side, not very comfortably and not really informing one another meaningfully, either. On one hand, son of immigrants Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio) has to confront the literal ghosts of his family’s past in the form of a yūrei called Yuko (Kiki Suzekane, the best performance in the series), in what’s essentially a metaphor for a second-generation child’s reckoning with their heritage and their place in the country where they were born. On the other, the Nakayama family and their community from the fishing village of Terminal Island must endure the injustice of being treated like criminals and prisoners of war solely on the grounds of their ancestry.
But the horror story—which utilizes many familiar visual J-horror tropes while only erratically achieving the proper levels of uncanniness—takes too long to get its feet under it. The fact that Japanese-American immigrants are the vengeful spirit’s target, even while they’re being persecuted by the US government, is more than a little thematically disconcerting at first blush, and the seeming incoherence of Yuko’s motives doesn’t help. When we finally understand why Yuko is stalking Chester in particular, the series is half over. The supernatural waters are further muddled by a recurring gust of wind that may or may not have to do with Yuko; the explanation of that comes on the heels of an ineffectively foreshadowed plot twist. Further complicating this story is the late introduction of the curandera grandmother (Alma Martinez) of Chester’s Hispanic girlfriend Luz (Cristina Rodlo, brilliant in Too Old To Die Young and underutilized here), who brings Latinx folk magic to the mix. There’s a glimpse of something genuinely enthralling in the union of disparate immigrants laying unquiet ghosts to rest, but the execution, as with so much of this show, is awkward and laden with infodumps.
Meanwhile, the incarceration camp story suffers, ironically perhaps, from the showrunners’ understandable desire to treat this fraught subject with the utmost respect. The depiction of the citizens’ incarcerations in the stables of an old racetrack and in the camp of Colinas de Oro is technically excellent and communicates the fear and instability of those awful circumstances, but the showrunners shy away from making any element of it any more horrific than the historical record suggests. There’s an attempt to create a villain in the American commander Major Bowen (C. Thomas Howell), but he’s mostly a creature of cartoon menace; unhelpfully, he and all of the white American characters are awkwardly written and acted.
The scripts are afflicted with clichéd and heavily expository dialogue, weird gaps in the logic of the plot and the characters’ emotions, and a story structure that lurches across time and place and often leaves characters or plot threads dangling. (There’s one from the end of the show that will probably bother me forever.) The acting is largely competent, if not outstanding, and it’s actually quite thrilling to see the cast navigate a bilingual script that requires them to turn on a dime between English and Japanese. Still, lines like “I never used to believe in that old-country stuff” land on the ear like a lead balloon.
Occasionally, though, there are moments of true grace and genuine fear. A sequence in Episode 5 where Chester accidentally becomes an interrogator for a Japanese prisoner on Guadalcanal plays out with genuine pathos and tragedy as the two find unexpected common ground, even as they recognize that their story can only end one way. In Episode 2, Chester’s father Henry (Shingo Usami), Terminal Island elder Yamato-san (George Takei), and Hideo Furuya (Eiji Inoue) confront a man who might be either an informant or a demon during a nighttime ice-fishing expedition; the scene is properly chilling and is one of the times where the mix of horror and history strikes sparks. Major Bowen’s menacing of Chester’s friend Amy Yoshida (Miki Ishikawa) is the most genuinely unpleasant element of his character, and their storyline is Infamy’s primary expression of one of the key themes of The Terror’s first series—supernatural horrors are scary, but the traumas human beings inflict on one another can be devastating in their own way.
And the entirety of the finale is deeply moving. Yamato-san dreams of a childhood friend who has been killed in the bombing of Hiroshima along with his entire family and is horrified to wake to crowds of white Americans celebrating the bombing. Chester and Yuko’s story culminates in a scene of astonishing beauty and poignancy. The episode ends a few years after the end of the war, with the surviving characters celebrating their ancestors in the Obon Festival. As the sight of their floating lanterns fades, we see photographs of the cast and crew’s own family members who were incarcerated in camps during the war—or, in the case of George Takei and Sab Shimono, were there themselves. All of this over Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”.
It is actually an extraordinary ending and I challenge even the most jaded critic to remain unmoved by it. It’s frustrating (that word again) to think of what an entire series rising to that level could have been. Maybe another year to tighten and refine the scripts would have benefited the show immensely. AMC seems to have decided to rush the development, and the decision to produce Infamy as the second part of an anthology series puts Infamy in the uncomfortable position of being held up to compare with The Terror’s first season. I am determined to evaluate Infamy on its own terms and have largely made a point of trying to avoid direct comparison, but unfortunately even by those standards, Infamy still seems half-baked, for all its surface gloss.
Nevertheless, I’m not going to categorically dismiss Infamy either. It’s earnest and well-intentioned as well as flawed, and while those intentions don’t compensate for the flaws entirely, the fact that the show was even produced at all is a major accomplishment, and we need to recognize that. Most importantly, even if Infamy has been less than successful, there is still an audience for Asian-American stories of all genres. We’re nowhere near done with telling stories about the Japanese-American incarcerations, or indeed with stories about the entire history of the Asian immigrant experience in America. Infamy‘s lapses and successes alike should be an inspiration to do more, and do better.
Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX. She can be found elsewhere via hangingfire.net.