Hurricane Katrina has come and gone and there are 45 unexplained deaths in a hospital in New Orleans. That’s the hook for new Apple TV+ limited series Five Days at Memorial. The titular hospital is a crowbar used to examine the carelessness of U.S. disaster-relief infrastructure, health care and our attitudes toward one another.
This all actually happened. And show creators John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) and Carlton Cuse (Lost) mean to take us uncomfortably close to the truth of what happens when Americans are faced with unprecedented situations … because we are running out of those.
Five Days at Memorial first three episodes recap
Season 1, episodes 1-3: In the first scene of Five Days at Memorial, which premiered Friday on Apple TV+, a rescue crew finds 45 bodies in a closed-off wing of a hospital. They want answers. The hospital administration wants to plead ignorance (as in, “this is just what happens in a crisis, sometimes”) but the review board tasked with discovering what happened is obviously not accepting that.
Then we flash back to August 29, 2005, the day the hurricane hit New Orleans. Hospital incident commander Susan Mulderick (played by Cherry Jones) tries to strike a calm tone but the writing’s already kind of on the wall.
They have the air conditioning cranked up because the minute the power goes out, they lose the A/C and it’s going to be hotter than hell in no time. People are already sheltering in the hospital lobby for fear of being caught on the street or in their unfortified homes when the worst of the flooding starts.
The nurses razz newcomer Dr. Anna Pou (Vera Farmiga) because all she brought to her shift was a can opener and a lunch box full of food. She’s never seen a storm this bad, and certainly never worked one. She tries to plead with her husband, Vince (Jonathan Cake), to come stay with her, but he’s busy trying to stormproof the house. Dr. Ewing Cook (W. Earl Brown) brought his dog to work so the pooch wouldn’t be alone in the house.
A New Orleans hospital becomes a shelter from the storm
Mark Leblanc (JD Evermore, who by a strange coincidence has the same name as one of this show’s sound designers) is all set to shelter in place when Mayor Ray Nagin announces the evacuation of the city of New Orleans. His mother, Vera (Dawn Greenhalgh), is at Memorial, and now he’s worried about what’s going to happen if they try to move her. Angela McManus (Raven Dauda) is watching over her terminally ill mother, Wilda (Diane Johnstone), when the storm hits, fraught with worry about what her loss will mean to her.
It’s not even midnight when Dr. Diane Robichaux (Julie Ann Emery) notices that the Life Care ward on the seventh floor has a bad leak. She calls Susan, who tells her not to worry, before immediately worrying herself.
The only hurricane-preparedness measure they know how to take is to evacuate the building … but where the hell would everyone go? There’s no plan in place, and no vehicles standing by to take anyone anywhere.
As if on cue, a piece of flying debris smashes into Susan’s window. Then, harsh winds batter the bridge that connects the disparate wings of the hospital. Everyone must get across the bridge before it blows clear off and separates the two wings for the duration of the storm. Unfortunately, only one wing has food and water.
When the levee breaks …
The second day of the storm seems to promise a calming down of the tension. The levees hold, and the hospital hasn’t been completely destroyed. However, there is a rising tide of panic. Looting starts around the hospital. Bad rumors start flying about assaults on hospital staff. And the A/C hasn’t come back.
Susan still doesn’t have answers about what best to do. And when a doctor named King (Cornelius Smith Jr.) finds out that the hospital might start discharging patients, he reads her the riot act. That’s when Susan gets word that the levees cracked open, and water is flooding the streets.
No one is coming to help. The staffers email the hospital’s parent company, Tenet Gulf Coast. However, only one Tenet employee, Michael Arvin (Joe Carroll), seems concerned by their reports. And he can’t get anyone at Tenet to do anything.
John Ridley brings gravitas to this disaster story
John Ridley‘s name on a project is enough to get me to watch it. He started as a comedian and novelist, doing time in comedy showrooms before segueing into screenwriting and directing. (His early, by now all but unrecognizable credits include U-Turn and Undercover Brother.)
In 2013, Ridley broke in a bigger way than before when he won the Oscar for writing the script for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and directed his own movie, Jimi: All Is By My Side, an incredible new-wave-inspired biographical drama about a short period in the life of groundbreaking guitarist Jimi Hendrix.
Ridley has been an outspoken (and at times beguiling) writer on issues like modern Black identity and Black nationalism, and that has bled into his work as much as his incredible sense of pacing and rhythm in the edit. Ridley produced a number of historical projects (including the limited series Guerilla, the documentary Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, and a supposedly finished movie about Shirley Chisholm) about power structures and the people who try to rise above them, and how infrequently people can stem historical tides.
Five Days at Memorial is most obviously analogous to Let It Fall, his documentary about the L.A. riots, as both concern cities falling to explicit violence and revealing the implicit violence done to the people who live in them. It also bears no little resemblance to infamous 1983 TV movie The Day After, about a Midwestern town in the aftermath of a nuclear bomb blast.
Where are you, FEMA?
Ridley frequently edits in actual footage of a disaster into people’s thought processes and perspectives. (He’s got remarkable instincts as an editor.) The real footage reinforces the fact that the dire sights and sounds we see in the fiction aren’t being exaggerated.
After Hurricane Katrina hit, things got bad. Really bad. Five Days at Memorial doesn’t soft-pedal the horror of living through the hurricane. Nor does it struggle to make even the most minor problems into gripping drama. These are only the first three episodes, and somehow things are going to get about a million times worse.
Five Days at Memorial is gearing up to be one of the best miniseries Apple TV+ has yet produced — and some of Ridley’s best work as a writer and director.
Watch Five Days at Memorial on Apple TV+
The first three episodes of Five Days at Memorial premiered Friday on Apple TV+. New episodes arrive on Apple TV+ every Friday.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.