Sometimes stories get under your skin, forcing you to question your worldview and the nature of humanity itself. AppleTV+’s new drama, Five Days at Memorial, is that kind of story. Created by John Ridley and Carlton Cuse, it tells the true story of how 2005’s Hurricane Katrina left a New Orleans hospital partially flooded. The hurricane also left the hospital without power and with insufficient amounts of food, water, and medical supplies. The ordeal lasted for five harrowing days. During that time, 45 of the hospital’s patients died.
Each episode of the new drama begins with actual archival footage of the incalculable suffering experienced by New Orleans’s residents. Shots of traumatized people sheltering on their rooves remind viewers of the wider context in which the tragedy at Five Days In Memorial took place. The archival footage also reminds us that, while the whole city suffered, the government most likely abandoned people they identified as racial minorities.
At the centre of Five Days is Dr. Anna Pou (Vera Farmiga), the surgeon who was later accused of euthanizing seriously ill patients during the disaster. When we meet Anna, the hurricane’s arrival is imminent; the doctor cuts a glamorous figure in a crisp white suit. The esteemed surgeon has a boss who gives the opportunity to go home. But she volunteers to spend the forthcoming storm at Memorial. Anna has never experienced a hurricane at the hospital before and chipperly compares it to camping as she and the rest of the staff await Katrina’s onslaught. Little does Anna know that one of the worst disasters in American history awaits her. And that thanks to shameful levels of government neglect, help will be in short supply.
Anna Pou is a complicated character. In the 2000s, the doctor’s story was documented and debated by newsrooms at CNN and 60 Minutes. Pou herself denies euthanizing patients. But investigators believed there was enough evidence of those accusations to bring her case before a grand jury. Ultimately, the grand jury refused to indict her. However, some still believe Pou euthanized unconsenting patients during the disaster (some of whom may have wanted to keep living).
A capable actress, Farmiga imbues Dr. Pou with admirable bravery. A scene where she prays while saving a weeping nurse from the hurricane captures that courage perfectly. However, there are moments where we see glimmers of arrogance from the surgeon, too. Anna was never convicted of euthanizing anyone (it’s entirely possible that she didn’t.) And yet, Five Days at Memorial makes one wonder if Pou could have a God Complex – the kind that convinced her she knew patients’ needs during Katrina better than they knew their own? It’s also possible Pou was a person who, when faced with unimaginable circumstances, made choices she never imagined making…
While Anna is the focus of Five Days, the cast is rounded out with plenty of other well-developed characters. Cherry Jones provides a nuanced portrayal of a queer senior nurse desperately trying to evacuate patients while caring for her ailing partner. Meanwhile, Cornelius S. Junior delivers a compelling portrait of Dr. Bryant King. He’s an accomplished Black doctor faced with the Herculean task of fighting racism during an unprecedented disaster. Dr. King’s expressive combination of anguish and anger as he realizes the hospital begins turning away Black families – and their children – sears itself into my brain. Bryant King later tells the authorities of Katrina, “The circumstances reveal who you really are.”
Five Days provides an incisive portrait of healthcare professionals struggling to keep a hospital together (literally and figuratively). And it does so under some of the most horrific circumstances one could imagine. But the limited series also takes care not to reduce the staff’s patients to props, a pitfall that frequently befalls lesser medical dramas, like The Good Doctor or The Resident. The show’s most memorable patient is the charming Emmett Everett (Damon Standifer). Emmett is a jovial man living with severe mobility issues, diabetes, and a few other health problems. By many people’s standards, Emmett has a compromised quality of life. And yet, Emmett’s joyful tone when he calls his wife or socializes with the nurses caring for him illustrates how much he loves life. Emmett might be sick, but he certainly wants to live.
As you watch the lovely Emmettsmile while confined to his hospital bed, the viewer desperately wants him to live too. And yet, we know the obstacles Katrina will pose to Emmett’s survival. The contrast between Emmett’s will to live and the audience’s foreboding worry won’t create a profound tension. One that gives us a tiny glimpse of what it might feel like to stare down mortality during a seismic disaster.
Ultimately, Five Days At Memorial is the sort of drama that makes you think and feel in equal measure. It’s a heartbreaking tragedy that earns its pathos. It also presents us with a thought experiment regarding how to behave ethically in an environment where survival seems all but impossible. If you watch one drama this summer, make it this one.
- Rated: NR
- Genre: Drama
- Release Date: 8/12/2022
- Directed by: Carlton Cuse, John Ridley, Wendey Stanzler
- Starring: Adepero Oduye, Cherry Jones, Molly Hager, Robert Pine, Sharron Matthews, Vera Farmiga, W. Earl Brown
- Produced by: Jan Peter Meyboom, Ra'uf Glasgow, Sheri Fink
- Written by: Carlton Cuse, John Ridley, Sheri Fink
- Studio: ABC Signature, Scott Rudin Productions