Why Did Lt. Little Pierce His Face on The Terror Season Finale?
It was the best horror series of all time.
This is a powerful statement and for me, it’s not hyperbole, I mean it. It was so intricate and complex every second was filled with gorgeous imagery and brilliant dialogue. If you were anything like me you loved the season finale even as you were sad to see the series end. My heart hurt for Jopson, Goodsir and the rest. Most of these were good men who found themselves in the worst possible circumstances. One of the quickest and most visually arresting moments of the final scenes of last Tuesday’s finale featured a gold festooned Lt. Edward Little breathing his last word to Captain Crozier, “close”. Questioned swirl around his face jewelry. Why did he do that to himself, if he did? Was there a purpose? Was it madness? Did it hurt? Thankfully I’m able to answer a few of those questions.
There is a long history of piercings in maritime culture. Pirates of course almost all had earrings. They’re almost as commonplace as the obligatory eye patch or a peg leg. The need to have pierced ears derived from a bevy of superstitions and traditions. First, the earrings were used as a way to show rank and experience. The jewelry often came from far off lands and proved either one’s ability to steal or pirate from another more traveled seaman or experience on the job. A second less obvious reason is the very wrong belief that an earring could improve eyesight. An additional false medical reason was the belief that metals in the jewelry would leech into the wearer and could help cure seasickness, scurvy and a whole host of other illnesses. Pirate lore attributed good luck on the sea to gold earrings. Still more believed a man could not be drowned while wearing a gold or silver earring. These are all false of course but to use the piercings as an emblem of status makes sense, also who doesn’t look good in a gold hoop.
A common use of piercings was as a traveling bank. If the precious metals were literally on the person they could not be stolen. Silver and gold were just as valuable back then as they are today and there wasn’t a First Pirate’s Bank of the America’s although my guess if there was it would have been robbed. By keeping the jewelry close they could also assure they would be buried appropriately. The cost of the burial could be taken from the jewelry. Many of the sailors would engrave their names, places of home birth or port of call as a way to identify them and get them delivered back to their homes for burial. It’s actually kind of tragic when put into that perspective. It also is very smart. Without any way to identify people, this may have been their only hope.
Formal military sailors also used jewelry as signs of rank. Young sailors got gold earrings to commiserate crossing the equator for the first time and surviving a trip through the dangerous waters of Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America. Since military ships and pirate ships both contained cannons a less sanitary but necessary use can be found. One very practical use of the hoop was as a holder of wax balls used to protect the eardrum during cannon firing. If you were a member of this group of sailors wax was imperative to avoid going deaf on their first sailing.
Likely Lt. Little mutilated himself for a multitude of reasons. He, after all, was suffering from lead poisoning, potentially scurvy, and extreme hypothermia. All of these are known to cause mental deficiencies. In his last days he would have been confused, starving, sick, freezing and deeply depressed. He was beaten down by a two-year ordeal that can only be described as grueling. He had seen men burned alive, frozen to death, die from food contamination and eaten by the Tuunbaq. It would be enough to break anyone. When Captain Crozier was taken by Hickey’s mutinous group in the previous episode he wanted nothing more than to rescue him. The men under his command wanted to follow Crozier’s orders and forge on without him but Little is a loyal man. The deep sense of morality and goodness Crozier displayed in the last year of the deadly saga was then instilled in his closest friends. It was seen keenly here in Little’s desperation to rescue Crozier despite his Captain’s orders. For him, Crozier likely represented the last hope for the group’s rescue and when he was taken from them all was lost literally and figuratively. His decision to mutilate himself was far more likely a nod to the novel by Dan Simmons from whom the series was fashioned. The Inuit told stories of Englishmen with gold adorned faces wandering the Arctic. They were bedazzled zombies. Inuit oral history tells tales of these men and we now believe they were the dying men of The Franklin Expedition.
Why anybody would do the things to their face that Little did is still unknown. The piercings have added one more element of mystery and depravity to an already stuffed series. Theirs was an expedition that was doomed from the start, toss in one pissed off mythical creature and one sociopath and the odds effectively drop to zero that anyone will survive. An argument could be made that no one got out alive as the isolated Crozier seems to be an entirely different person than the Captain Francis Crozier who started the trek. What we do know was this was an incredible series and set the bar very high for horror shows in the future. I have but one hope, Little’s final word “close”, was not a reference to being close to the Northwest Passage or even close to rescue, but we are close to season two. A girl can hope.