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Complex and Tangled Discussions — A Look At ‘Five Days At Memorial’

4 min read
Five Days At Memorial (2022)

Adapted from Sheri Fink's 2013 non-fiction book, which itself expands on her Pulitzer prize-winning article for the New York Times, focuses on the events that unfolded at Memorial Medical Centre during Hurricane Katrina, wherein 45 dead bodies were found amongst the wreckage. Showrunners and hone in on the real-world stories of patients and hospital staff alike as they fight back the flood, deal with rapidly depleting resources and eventually make deadly decisions that will stay with them forever. 

What elevates Five Days from being a mere dramatic reenactment are the sensational performances throughout, specifically those of and Julie Ann Emery, who play Drs. Anna Pou and Dianne Robichau respectively. Both actors, along with their fellow castmates, bring so much humanity and relatability to the show that the audience has no choice but to put themselves in the shoes of those involved. It's strong stuff, and all the more challenging when you consider that their performances are tangential to the real-world people involved in this tragic moment in history.

Additionally, the deft pivot from non-fiction journalistic accounts depicted in Fink's work, towards an emotional character-driven story that leans into the personal experiences of those involved is a fine line to tow. One Cuse and his cast are more than aware of and more than capable of navigating. In our brief chat with the great Robert Pine, who plays Dr Horace Baltz, he discusses the specificities of taking on a role like this: “We're not playing these people as exactly who they are… Did they say these exact words or move in a certain way? No, we played the essence of who we believed these people were, and that was our responsibility.” It's a notable, and necessary distinction to make, and one that allows Five Days at Memorial's stellar cast to add much-needed nuance and understanding to its source material. 

What's more, is that Cuse, whose previous television experience includes show running the mystery smash hit Lost and the quirky Psycho spin-off Bates Motel, is comfortable pulling from a variety of genres and incorporating their qualities, where applicable, to Five Days. For example, the first episode, which focuses on the initial impact of Katrina, has moments of high-octane almost Disaster Movie level set pieces, and thankfully these are used both effectively and sparingly to great effect. Add to this the exemplary production design from Matthew Davies, and Five Days at Memorial provides a contemporary insight into the destruction and despair caused by Hurricane Katrina some 18 years later. 

On its surface, Five Days at Memorial functions as an effective dramatisation of the harrowing, true-to-life events that occurred at Memorial Medical Centre in 2005, while also serving as an examination of the choices, actions and due consequences of those involved. The show's main strength, however, lies in its reticence to pass judgement on those individuals at the heart of the tragedy. While speaking to Carlton Cuse, he noted: “That was sort of the first fundamental decision…  that we were going to try to tell this story from all sides and really leave it to the audience to make their own judgement.” 

Judgement being the key word here, Five Days at Memorial also concerns itself with the systemic failings of the American Healthcare system and focuses the majority of its scrutiny on this structure. The parallel to the recent global crisis of COVID-19 was not lost on Cuse and Ridley, who often deferred to the Mark Twain adage while in pre-production that history doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes. It's no surprise then that a show equally fixed on the internal dynamics and external politics of the U.S healthcare system is set to turn heads with its unflinching examination of the inherent structural flaws that led to the loss of countless lives during a tumultuous moment in recent history. 

That being said, while Five Days at Memorial at its heights can function so potently as a collection of genre tropes, socio-political analysis and ethical examination, it's ultimately let down by the tonal whiplash that comes from episode six onwards. Where the first five (of eight) episodes build to a crescendo of stomach-twisting moral reckoning, what follows in the remaining three hours is nothing short of a rather drab legal procedural. One that draws your attention away from what the show does best, and allows new, previously unestablished characters to ultimately moralise in place of its audience. It's all rather anticlimactic and at times the remarkable balancing act that the previous five episodes fought so hard to keep alive is knocked off centre. Thankfully, all is not lost, and for fans of shows that seek to challenge their audience to consider complex and tangled points of discussion from every angle, Five Days at Memorial may just be the show for you.