Guest Post: The Emperor

By Isaac Fellman

This is exceptional tarot writing— of course it is, it’s Isaac— but my favorite thing about this piece is that I can just feel how much Isaac loves The Terror, and all I ever want is to be near people talking about what they love. So pleased to share this with you.


The Terror (2018) is a show about who’s going to be dad, until it’s a show about eating people, and even then it’s rather concerned with who’s going to be dad. In every group of polar explorers on a doomed imperial adventure, there are as many needs for a dad as there are potential dads. Virtually all of the men on the show had bad or absent fathers, and a number of them present their suit to become the bad or absent father of the expedition, now that its assigned father, Sir John Franklin, is dead. But being the bad or absent father of the Franklin Expedition isn’t just about meting out rum and the lash. It’s also about representing the British Empire, and each potential dad gives that monster a different face.

The Emperor is a peculiarly empty card. He doesn’t have as much personality as the various kings, queens, and knights of the pack; he lacks even the attribute of a sword or pentacle. He is overshadowed by his wife, the Empress, who at least gets to be the card of earthiness, fertility, and life. An Emperor is nothing more than a stand-in for an empire, and when you try to pack so many million lives into one man, his personality disintegrates under the strain. How can a man be an aggregate? That’s an idea for science fiction, not reality. 

The Terror is nominally horror; the dangers of the Arctic landscape are represented by a great big smart bear designed by Neville Page. The show’s take on the concept of the Emperor – one man as an aggregate – is horror too, not either science fiction or reality. Indeed, it’s a much more plausible horror element than the big bear. You see, it knows something about the imperial dad that the characters don’t figure out until the end: he is Saturn, and he devours his children. You can’t be a good emperor, I’m sorry.

Of the two characters who make serious plays for dadhood on The Terror, Francis Crozier is the one who makes the mistake of trying to be a good emperor. As the late Sir John’s second in command, he formally inherits the expedition when it’s already very fucked. At first he is a pulsing unstable mass about it. He’s torn apart by despair and late-stage alcoholism, and by a heavily implied abusive childhood which he reenacts on his crew. About halfway through the series, he recognizes what he’s doing and gets sober. The rest of Crozier’s arc is about his sudden and radical enlightenment. Even as the expedition is forced to abandon its ships and begins to devolve into a death march through Canada, he devotes himself to giving his men dignity and palliative care. I think only a handful of characters believe in Crozier’s change, or care about it. His claim to be dad is further undermined by his Irishness, the usurpation of the imperial throne by a citizen of a colonized country. But he does manage to hold it together for a while.

Cornelius Hickey doesn’t give a shit about being a good emperor! A mutinous petty officer who murdered a guy and stole his identity before he even got here, Hickey is practical, clever, and sadistic. When he makes his play to be dad, he has the sense not to engage Crozier on his own ground. Instead, he emphasizes the revolutionary potential of the wilderness, the ways it can overturn the social order. Hickey is, however, limited in his imagination – for one thing, he does see the North as a wilderness, rather than a place already inhabited by people, and for another, he literally can’t imagine a revolution except as a new empire with himself at the top. Hickey swans through the last episode in buff-colored long underwear and a lieutenant’s uniform coat; I am not the first fan to point out that he resembles Napoleon in this outfit, a citizen-emperor in a kingdom of ego.

The crew splits up, and Crozier and Hickey end up leading separate factions, each one the dad of a different family. Crozier’s guys focus on dying beautifully, while Hickey’s guys commit to subsistence cannibalism. Eventually, Hickey kidnaps Crozier and forces him into an act of cannibalism as well – with the intent, I think, of proving to him that he was never a good man. It doesn’t work, though, because they’re both such fucking sad sacks. Hickey’s dramatics fall flat, and Crozier is far too self-aware to learn anything about himself just from acquiring a new trauma or committing a new sin. After a certain point, he sees the pattern, and he’s impatient with being told what he already knows.

Both Hickey and Crozier fail to become the Emperor – Hickey dies by big bear, and Crozier loses his crew to starvation, scurvy, exposure, exhaustion, lead poisoning, and big bear. You can’t be the Emperor if you’re dead, and you can’t be the Emperor if you have no subjects left. Both of them, however, take on the Emperor’s punishment for his crimes: they become aggregates of people. Hickey’s body becomes a graveyard for the people he’s used and consumed. Crozier’s brain becomes a graveyard for the people he couldn’t save. He is the only one who can remember them now, all of them; they had friends, family, loved ones, but in terms of how they lived and died together, Crozier’s memory is all they have left. They are trapped inside of him. 

The effects of being the Emperor, or even trying to be, are personality-obliterating. You can’t be dad to that many people; you can’t devour them all and wake up in the morning feeling well. I see this card as a warning not to have empires, whether in the world or internalized. I don’t see the Emperor as a warning not to have dads – not quite – but he does emphasize that, if you’re going to be a dad, you need to be prepared, know yourself, think of what you can give rather than what you can do. Otherwise, you’ll only get close enough to know what you should have been. 


Isaac Fellman is a writer and archivist in San Francisco. His debut novel was the award-winning The Breath of the Sun, published under his pre-transition first name. His next novel, a love story about an archivist who is a vampire, is upcoming in 2022 from Penguin Books. You can read his newsletter at https://isaacs-law.ghost.io/, or follow him on Twitter at @isaac_fellman.


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