Two Ways of Looking at The Terror: Infamy’s Finale

AMC’s series about the Japanese American internment ends with a message about the importance of remembering the past. But it forgets the historical horror at the heart of the show.

Ed Araquel / AMC

The best scene in AMC’s horror anthology series The Terror: Infamy comes at the start of the finale. Until then, the World War II–set drama followed a group of Japanese Americans living in U.S. internment camps while being haunted by a murderous spirit. But the last episode of Season 2, which aired Monday, opens in an unfamiliar new setting that resembles a dream: An elder named Yamato (played by George Takei) is walking down a country road toward a figure in black. The man turns out to be Yamato’s childhood friend Kazu, who expresses joy that they’ve been reunited in the afterlife.

Kazu explains how he moved to Hiroshima decades ago and raised a family; as he speaks, the camera pulls away to reveal a line of people standing next to him. “Your entire family? They’re all in the afterlife?” Yamato asks. The camera glides toward a small girl at the end of the line. She turns her face, exposing the keloid-covered half and revealing that she and her loved ones were killed by the American atomic bomb dropped on her city.

Though otherworldly, the emotional scene is rooted in brutal reality; it’s a high point in a series that struggled to both meaningfully revisit a dark period of U.S. history and tell a compelling supernatural tale. Unfortunately, the rest of the episode, titled “Into the Afterlife,” doesn’t maintain this balance, and the result is a dissonant finale full of conflicting ideas. In its greatest moments, the conclusion is a testament to the show’s empathy for its ensemble and its thoughtful efforts to celebrate the tenacity of the Japanese Americans who suffered in prison camps. At its worst, “Into the Afterlife” finds unnecessary new ways to traumatize its characters while seeming to abruptly forget everything they had just endured at the hands of their own government.

After the finale’s opening sequence, the bombing of Hiroshima largely recedes into the background. The action centers on the protagonist Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio) as he tries to save his infant son from the yūrei, or ghost, who has been terrorizing his family and who was revealed to be Chester’s birth mother, Yuko (Kiki Sukezane). Tricked by her older sister into marrying a cruel man, Yuko took her own life shortly after arriving in America. Her angry spirit has since been exacting bloody revenge—and not just against those who once hurt her, but also against her son’s wife, Luz; Luz’s father; and Chester’s adoptive father. Despite portraying Yuko as a menace for most of the season, the show ends her rampage with a poignant scene that treats her with surprising compassion.

Unable to ward off Yuko using a combination of religious and folk traditions drawn from Luz’s Mexican heritage and from Japanese Buddhist beliefs, Chester takes a different approach. He tells his mother that if she allows him and his family to live, they will be able to honor her memory for generations to come. In a surreal sequence, he travels back in time with Yuko to the last happy moment of her life: when she was pregnant in Japan, excited about the future, before her fateful journey to America. The gauzy look of the scene recalls the episode’s opening dreamscape: Like poor Kazu, Yuko can find peace only in another world. But unlike Kazu, Yuko’s descendants will live on and keep her memory alive.

This theme of remembering the past, however ugly or frightening, is central to The Terror: Infamy and infuses the finale. “Into the Afterlife” closes a few years after the end of World War II with a scene of Chester, Luz, and their children celebrating the yearly Obon festival honoring the dead. When the credits roll, the show emphasizes just how personal the subject of remembering is for the people behind Infamy. A gently rollicking gospel tune plays as images of various cast (Mio, Takei, Sab Shimono) and crew members (the directors Lily Mariye and Jason Furukawa) scroll by, alongside old photos of their family members who were interned during the war. The very existence of the show, this sequence implies, is a profound act of memorializing, of ensuring that the sacrifices and struggles of previous generations are never erased.

However moving, the conclusion can’t overcome the series’ many misfires. “Into the Afterlife” brings only a small amount of comfort and resolution to an ensemble that endured unfathomable trauma over 10 episodes. In some ways, Infamy was doomed by its premise: A malevolent spirit targets characters who are already victims of state-sanctioned prejudice, xenophobia, and violence. (By contrast, the first season of The Terror featured empire-building colonialists on an ill-fated 19th-century British naval expedition and told a morally complex story.) As someone whose parents and grandparents were also sent to U.S. prison camps during World War II, I first reacted to the idea of a horror show set in this environment with, Didn’t these people suffer enough?

While great horror stories can be built around marginalized communities, it was frustrating to watch a show that was initially about the evils of internment evolve into one about a dead mother tormenting her son and his loved ones. A few of Yuko’s victims include the guards at the camps, but these characters are faceless, their deaths random; her wrath is mostly directed at innocent people. Watching Infamy, I found it hard not to feel as though Yuko’s victims—many of whom, like the Nakayamas, were displaced from their homes—were being punished twice, once by the U.S. government and again by a Japanese ghost. Viewers might get the sense that the “true monster” of the series isn’t actually the internment, but the ways in which older Japanese generations (symbolized by Yuko) can hold back younger generations (American-born children such as Derek).

The question of what the “true horror” of the story is hangs over Infamy. Though the finale’s Obon festival brings Chester peace, it stirs up painful memories for his friend and fellow internee Amy (Miki Ishikawa). While Chester spends several episodes fighting his mother’s ghost, Amy struggles against a more mundane but no less dangerous antagonist: the camp’s overseer, Major Bowen (C. Thomas Howell). Though he starts out as a nuanced character, Bowen evolves into a lazy symbol of the callousness and cruelty of the U.S. government. He murders Amy’s boyfriend with impunity, abducts her for attempting to expose him, and breaks her fingers—after which she kills him and hides his body.

Later at the Obon festival, Amy tells Luz, “I hate that every time I come back to see my people, it gives me nightmares.” Viewers know she’ll always be haunted, not by the yūrei, but by the desperate measures she took in order to survive the camp. Amy has to live with the consequences of a broken system that failed to protect her—and yet the episode spends no time grappling with the ways in which she was victimized by the American government. The death of Major Bowen is seemingly meant to be its own kind of justice and catharsis. But the character’s caricature of villainy only served to obscure the more quotidian forms of prejudice and dehumanization that made the internment possible in the first place.

Rather than using its final hour to reckon with the institutions that propped up people like Major Bowen, “Into the Afterlife” cautions against the dangers of seeking bloody vengeance. “I wanted revenge once. It consumed me,” Amy tells Yamato, referring to Bowen. “But getting it, I didn’t feel any better.” The desire for retribution, as embodied by the stories of Amy and Yuko, is all too human, but trying to move on (or at least adopting a Shikata ga nai, or “it can’t be helped,” attitude) is more important, according to the show. As Chester and his toddler son set miniature light boats afloat to commemorate departed ancestors, he declares the need to remember “not just the people, but the places we’ve been” in order to not “forget who we are.”

It’s a heartwarming yet anodyne ending that assures viewers that the Nakayamas and their Japanese American neighbors have vanquished their demons and, despite some losses, have made it through the war. The many specific forms of injustice that the series dutifully recorded—the infamous loyalty questionnaire given to internees, the military’s call for young prisoners to enlist as a way of proving their fealty to the U.S.—seem to fall away in the final scenes of familial affection and togetherness. As a historical drama, The Terror: Infamy got a lot right, and as a Japanese American, I was gratified to see this painful era captured in a production anchored by Asian Americans. By the end, I felt enormous relief that the yūrei was banished; the trauma of the internment, though, is a far more difficult demon to exorcise.