“The Terror: Infamy” didn’t need ghosts to be frightening. Alexander Woo and Max Borenstein’s new iteration of the “Terror” series, both thanks to its subject matter and supernatural apparitions lurking at the edges, is permeated by an ever-creeping sense of dread that proves undeniable. Tracing the needless devastation of Japanese-American internment during World War II, the second installment of AMC’s anthology series is straightforward about the human cost of racist paranoia. Even when “Infamy” is blunt, it’s understandable; it’s not exactly like the horrific reality that inspired it was subtle, either.
By largely following a single family, “Infamy” also finds a way to make a staggering historical event that can sometimes feel too big to comprehend feel as personal as it truly was. After immigrating to San Francisco from Japan, Henry (Shingo Usami) and Asako (Naoko Mori) have built a life for themselves and their restless son Chester (Derek Mio) based on the strength of Henry’s fishing skills. Chester, torn between two countries to which he has never fully belonged, wants to explore the world beyond their neighborhood, a desire he enacts vicariously through photography. When Executive Order 9066 completely upends the Nakayamas’ lives, however, it’s all they can do to keep themselves together in one piece.
The Nakayamas anchor “The Terror: Infamy” in what is, in essence, a straightforward historical family drama. The moments that work often depend on the characters driving them, and it’s unfortunate that Mio’s Chester isn’t quite as compelling as he, the ostensible firebrand tying the story together, probably should be. (This holds especially true with Chester’s tragic but ultimately unconvincing romance with Cristina Rodlo’s Luz.) The series draws a stark divide between the Anglo-American soldiers rolling their eyes through their duties and the devastated people they’re imprisoning, but deliberately keeps the focus on the latter.
Despite having significantly less material to work with than Mio, Mori, Usami, and George Takei find nuanced, deeply affecting ways to portray their characters’ building trauma. Usami is especially heartbreaking as Henry, who so fiercely believed in the American Dream before the internment, finds his world crashing down around his head through no fault of his own. As AMC has noted, many involved with the “The Terror: Infamy” — including Mio, director Lily Mariye, and Takei — have connections to the real internment camps, and the care they take to get it right shines through even the show’s bleakest moments.
This being “The Terror,” however, the specters of racism and injustice aren’t the only things haunting the series. Chester finds himself dodging a vengeful spirit (i.e. a yurei) who seems to be trying to steer his life in a direction he doesn’t want or understand. With the help of some gorgeously eerie cinematography that emphasizes her ephemeral state, Kiki Sukezane’s Yuko is brittle, chilling, and eventually, as the show begins to unveil her backstory, heartbreaking. The series doesn’t especially need her to tell its timely story; “The Terror” refers just as much to the careless human malice wreaking destruction as anything else. But if it does need to exorcise its demons, it could do worse than Yuko, whose overwhelming sadness bleeds into every frame. Even if she is not solely of this earth and all its attendant horrors, her story is inextricable from the rest of “The Terror: Infamy” and its meditations on suffering, surviving, and withstanding more than anyone ever should.
“The Terror: Infamy” premieres Monday, August 12 at 9 p.m. on AMC. (Drama; 60 minutes. 10 episodes, 6 watched for review.)