Partings and fracturing alliances are the themes in 'The Ladder'. Quick recap: Lieutenant Gore got done in by what we're assuming is a bear, and the Inuit man who seems to have had some measure of influence over an unknown force which lives on the tundra. That was definitely a bad vibe, but any horror and ghost story aficionado knows the real damage comes at the top of this episode.
Rule one of any horror-adjacent scenario is you don't mess with talismans, icons, runes, or creepy little handmade dolls. Invariably, you're either calling down some kind of wrath from The Great Beyond or destroying whatever protection they've been providing against said wrath from The Great Beyond. Multiply that by treating a body with disdain for local customs and you're sealing your own fate.
As the Inuit shaman's body is unceremoniously dumped into a pit in the ice along with his ivory charms, the die is cast. Or, more accurately, the die's been chucked down a big hole and into the sea.
Back on the Erebus, the officers' quarters have a distinctly uneasy feel: the whole ship seems to be cracking and creaking, and knives and forks scratch at notably emptier plates. There's a lot of action out on the wastes this time, especially at the climax, but the most telling developments are in Captain Franklin's head.
He starts spending a lot of time in reveries in this episode, you'll notice. Perhaps, despite his outward stoicism and trust in Providence, he bitterly regrets the terrible decision to head into the ice fields and finds an escape in memory. Specifically, he finds escape in the story of Jacob's ladder and the memory of a monkey called Jacko who wears delightful little pants. Oh, and the several times he ignored everyone else's advice re: heading into near certain death.
"Death is slow in the great white nothing," Arctic veteran Sir John Ross tells him in one flashback, here filling the role of the sage old man telling you to get back in your car, young 'un, and turn right back around. Yer doomed! This place is cursed, I tells ya!
This whole shebang is, you sense, about pride for Franklin. He desperately wants to recover the respect he lost as governor of Van Diemen's Land, and can't admit that maybe – maybe! – he should've had an escape plan. That's what really snaps the relationship between Crozier and Franklin; when Franklin chides Crozier for "the vanity of your outlook," it feels a lot like projection from a man whose vanity has doomed everyone, even if nobody says it.
Down below, the food's gone weird: the cooks are finding bad seals (hands up if you, like me, thought he meant reserves of sea-mammal chops were on the turn), grey meat and weird smells. This is an interesting little turn. It could be the earliest evidence that the curse is descending, but it could be a nod to one theory about the real expedition's demise: lead poisoning. A rushed order of 8000 tins of food placed only seven weeks before the expedition set sail led to some crap lead soldering work, which meant lead in the food and consequently a risk of death by poisoning.
At least as intriguing as the bear and the impending death of everyone on the ice, though, is the ratcheting tension between Gibson and Hickey, who were discovered by Irving just after having sex. It's a really important note of intimacy and yearning in among the big spooky bits and the blustering about command and duty and all that. Actor Adam Nagaitas' plays it brilliantly as Irving lectures him about giving up banging in favour of something equally satisfying, like singing, watercolours, or climbing. There's disbelief there, but hurt too. There's something more than just the occasional tryst happening, which is why Hickey's so stung by Gibson's accusation that he was forced into it.
And before you can say 'famous last words', Franklin's toddled out to the hide where a crew of men sit in wait for this here bear to pass on some encouragement: "Educate this creature as to the dominion of the Empire, and the will of the Lord behind it."
Naturally, a couple of seconds later Franklin's just a leg in a coffin. It's worth trying to unpack the last few flashes of memory which a shocked Franklin sees: the admiralty, tumbling before him; Crozier and his niece; and his own legs, in happier times. They represent, I think, the three competing responses Franklin shows to the looming doom, each of which contributed in their own way to the expedition's failure. Respectively, they show his pride, which blinded him to his poor preparations; his guilt, which pushed him away from Crozier, the most sensible man on either ship; and his pure shock at the size of what he has to do.
As Crozier finally sends for help, the being visits Lady Silence, who's carving new talismans. It leaves a seal. Is it an offering, or a warning?
It's heartening that revenge speaks the same language whether you're Andy Bernard leaving Dunder Mifflin in The Office or a betrayed sailor out on the barren Arctic tundra. A steaming dump on your enemy's turf is worth a thousand words.
"More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise," the crew sing. Is there a revolt on the cards? Feels like there might be.
More Jacko, please.
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