‘Five Days at Memorial’ tells the harrowing story of a deadly choice
By Chris Vognar
It was tense and sweaty on the set of “Five Days at Memorial,” the new Apple TV+ limited series about systemic and personal failure at a New Orleans hospital in the days after Hurricane Katrina. The cast, emotionally invested and physically drained, was wiped out.
It was time to play some Mafia.
The freewheeling, ice-breaking role-playing game, which also goes by the name Werewolf, is a favorite of Cornelius Smith Jr., who plays the distraught Dr. Bryant King in “Memorial.” He brings it out whenever bonding is in order, and to hear the “Memorial” cast tell it, they would have wilted if they hadn’t come together when the cameras stopped rolling.
“It was really extraordinary because here we were, telling this story that is not all smiles; it’s a very deep story, a very troubling story, a very heavy story,” Smith said in a video interview from Washington, D.C., where he was playing Frederick Douglass in the musical “American Prophet.” “So it was nice to be able to counter that with a very joyous relationship and spending quality time with castmates and really developing a bond off-camera.”
The eight-episode “Five Days at Memorial,” which premiered recently, can indeed be tough sledding. Based on the 2013 book by Sheri Fink, which was adapted from her Pulitzer-winning investigative article for ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine, it tells the story of Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans, where 45 bodies were found in Katrina’s aftermath, in September 2005. (Sold in 2006, the hospital is now Ochsner Baptist Medical Center.)
The hospital had been flooded, its power and generators knocked out. Chaos reigned. Several health providers on the scene raised concerns that patients had been given lethal injections during the evacuation process.
Both book and series depict the Memorial crisis as a series of impossible decisions, made by flawed individuals under unimaginable pressure, and complete systemic breakdown. In this sense, it’s a microcosm of Katrina, which had a death toll of more than 1,800 people.
In a video interview, Fink, who was also a producer on the series, pointed out that the hospital had a 101-page bioterrorism plan. This was, after all, the post-9/11 era. But there was no emergency plan in place for evacuating over water.
“I really hope that people watch the series and engage in thinking hard about the consequences of a failure to invest in preparedness for rare but potentially catastrophic and very foreseeable circumstances,” Fink said in a video call. “A hurricane and a flood in New Orleans were very foreseeable.”
Indeed, the levels of failure involved in the Memorial disaster, and Katrina in general, were staggering.
“When you have this kind of systemic failure, it’s also a mechanical failure,” said John Ridley, who created the series with Carlton Cuse (“Lost,” “Bates Motel”). “It’s an electronic failure. And it’s a human failure. You’ve got to look at how humans interact in the systems we build.”
In the hurricane’s immediate aftermath, hospital administrators did the equivalent of a victory lap and heaved a sigh of relief. Meanwhile, the levees, which had begun failing almost immediately, got progressively worse. Then the severe floods came. (Readers unfamiliar with what happened next may want to stop reading now.)
The show depicts several Memorial staff members, including Dr. Anna Pou (played by Vera Farmiga), making plans to provide “comfort” for patients who they have determined would be difficult to evacuate, in the form of injections. Someone, you keep thinking, has to pay for this. But nobody does. (Pou, along with nurses Cheri Landry and Lori Budo, played by Sharron Matthews and Sarah Allen, were later arrested on multiple counts of principal to second-degree murder but were never indicted by a grand jury.)
Viewers are likely to feel outrage at some of the events depicted. The series creators, however, argue that thirsting for revenge is pointless. To them, it was an impossible situation, with no clear-cut villains.
“We didn’t want to dictate how people should feel about this story; we didn’t want to take a side,” Cuse said in a video interview. “I’m curious to see where people come out about all of this and what kinds of different opinions people have about how things went down.”
One character who definitely has an opinion is King. He takes a look around and determines that something is rotten at Memorial. He seethes at the idea of lethal injections.
He is also among a handful of Black doctors at the hospital — and the only one on duty during the crisis. He can see that most of the people affected by the breakdown are Black, as are most of the people seeking help who are turned away. King is acutely aware of this, even as it unfolds.
“I like to say race is another character in the series,” Smith said. “It’s there whether you want to acknowledge it or not. It plays a role in how we all perceive things in life.”
“They’re in New Orleans,” he added. “It’s a predominantly African American community. And what he experiences is clearly, to him, outlined by race. That’s what he’s seeing.”
Farmiga acknowledged that human failure was rampant. “There was incompetence on every level of leadership,” she said in a video call. But she also defended Pou’s commitment to help, pointing out that she remained on duty after being told she could go home.
“She was not on the call sheet that day,” Farmiga said. “She was motivated by humanitarian aid. She chose to face those intolerable conditions. That takes an extraordinary amount of courage.”
“Five Days at Memorial” was initially optioned to be a movie by producer Scott Rudin and then by producer Ryan Murphy, who planned to use it for his “American Crime Story” anthology series. When Murphy scrapped those plans, Cuse came calling, won Fink over and approached Ridley to be his partner.
Fink liked the idea of making “Memorial” into a limited series, with the time and commitment to present a detailed and balanced adaptation.
“It just seemed like a great way to tell this story, because if it were done in a movie, there wouldn’t be enough time to bring out all of the nuance,” she said. “It is a long and detailed book, a work of journalism that took many years.” (Fink, who was a staff reporter at ProPublica when her article was published, is now a domestic correspondent for The New York Times.)
Cuse is well aware of the parallels to a more recent health crisis. He remembers his partner, Ridley, reminding him of the adage that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. And so “Five Days of Memorial” went into production amid the global health crisis of COVID-19, a crisis for which many argue the United States was ill-prepared.
“Instead of the question of who’s going to get on a helicopter to evacuate, we’re dealing with who gets a respirator or who gets a vaccine or who gets a monoclonal antibody,” Cuse said.
Some of “Memorial” was shot in New Orleans, but much of it was shot in a custom-made, 4-million-gallon water tank just outside Toronto. Cast and crew had to quarantine upon entering Canada from the United States because of the pandemic. It was a stressful process and a prelude to a stressful shoot.
They knew, however, that unlike the characters they portrayed, they would return to their ordered lives when their work was done — that they were ultimately playing make-believe. And they knew they needed to get it right.
“I felt an enormous sense of responsibility to the people of New Orleans, to the survivors,” Farmiga said. “It’s their heartache. It’s their trauma. It’s their story.”