'Five Days at Memorial' recap: Hospital staffers must make grim choices

Hospital staffers make grim choices in Five Days at Memorial [Apple TV+ recap]

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Five Days at Memorial recap Apple TV+: Things get increasingly grim inside a New Orleans hospital hit by Hurricane Katrina.★★★★
Five Days at Memorial recap Apple TV+: Things get increasingly grim inside a New Orleans hospital hit by Hurricane Katrina.
Photo: Apple TV+

Apple TV+ medical drama Five Days at Memorial, about the terrible misfortune of the staff of an abandoned hospital during Hurricane Katrina, hits the fourth day of disaster this week.

The power is still off, and the A/C is a distant memory. Helicopters are coming to evacuate, but the elevator to the roof is broken. Things are going to get worse before they get better. The gripping drama stays madly compelling and deeply tragic.

Five Days at Memorial recap: ‘Day Four’

Season 1, episode 4: In this week’s episode, titled simply “Day Four,” hospital incident commander Susan Mulderick (played by Cherry Jones) is desperately trying to orchestrate a full-scale evacuation. But time and resources are not on her side.

Doctors Karen Wynn (Adepero Oduye) and Bryant King (Cornelius Smith Jr.) must get their staff to manually carry every sick patient a full 40 minutes to get them up to the roof with all the detours and dead ends created by the storm.

Dr. Anna Pou (Vera Farmiga) is at her wit’s end when she sees one of her colleagues not helping an elderly patient. So she snaps, goes to a pharmaceutical nook, grabs some anesthetic and injects the patient with it herself.

A growing sense of doom

Her colleagues want Anna to take a break, but she won’t. She’s not the only one fed up with the response the hospital directors are taking. Pregnant nurse Diane Robichaux (Julie Ann Emery) has been overseeing the very worst of the hospital’s patients, and she’s worried they won’t last much longer in the heat.

The trouble is, her patients are technically in a separate facility. Care Life is an independent operation that shares a building with Memorial, but everything is run separately. Tenet Gulf Coast, the company that owns Memorial, is not on the hook for the Care Life patients, Tenet employee Michael Arvin (Joe Carroll) finds out.

When this gets back to Diane, she takes it, understandably, like she and her patients are being left to die. She calls Mark Leblanc (JD Evermore), whose mother, Vera (Dawn Greenhalgh), is dying in Care Life, and sobs out a plea for him to do something to save her. The authorities maintain that they can’t do anything more.

Who do you try to save?

There are still hundreds of people left to get out, and the health department basically says that not everyone’s getting out alive. The question is, do you prioritize the health of your staff, who are exhausting themselves to get the patients out, or the patients, who will die without being airlifted, boated or driven out of the hospital?

Susan makes the call: They’re suspending the helicopter rescues until morning. It breaks her heart to do so; her own mother is in the hospital with her. This seems OK, but then in the middle of the night they’re woken up by a man screaming for everyone to get downstairs to evacuate.

However, when they do, it’s a false alarm. Someone tricked them — and then stole their belongings in the confusion.

This ugly turn of events gets administrator Rene Goux (Stephen Bogaert) thinking. Dr. Ewing Cook (W. Earl Brown) has guns, so he asks him to distribute them to the staff. King takes this to mean they’re scared of the black doctors because all the images they’ve seen on TV are of black people looting all across the city. He thinks something bad is about to happen.

Powerful direction by John Ridley

John Ridley directs again this week (co-showrunner Carlton Cuse directed the last episode) and he finds a lot of great moments inside the din of chaos and decay.

When Susan tells everyone they need to take a break for the night, a doctor we don’t know starts crying and another man comes over to comfort him. For about 15 seconds, we see the action in the middle of the scene as this man comes to comfort another man, his hands on the guy’s shoulders in a medium close-up.

Finding the awful grace notes inside the tapestry of misery is something Ridley’s very adept at. It doesn’t take away from the scene’s point to focus on the emotion of two characters above everyone else’s.

Ridley often directs like a novelist, able to pull out details that would fit in a paragraph’s description of a scene and give them his full weight, without losing the thrust of the narrative. Hence the constant use of subliminal cuts and the insertion of stock footage.

In a moment, any one of these people will be remembering the awful things they did to survive. They’ll remember the news coverage that assailed them when they got free, hey’ll remember the smell of patients dying in 100-degree heat, they’ll remember the sights and sounds that made them give up.

TV drama taken to a higher level

Ridley wants to be able to express all of that without having characters just say it. There are the occasional platitudes in the script. (For instance, Ann Pou says “this” only happens in “third-world countries,” which, while the kind of thing I don’t question people were thinking, is nevertheless a hair on the nose.). But in general, Ridley’s elevating the idea of TV drama into something swifter, more literal, and more adult.

Like Proust or Woolf, Ridley wants to communicate the idea that when traumatic things happen, they’ll never be far from your understanding of the world. Hear a sound, smell something off, and you’ll be back in the worst few hours of your life. That’s what it means to survive.

★★★★

Watch Five Days at Memorial on Apple TV+

New episodes of Five Days at Memorial arrive on Apple TV+ every Friday.

Rated: TV-MA

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.

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