Five Days at Memorial, the riveting Apple TV+ drama about a hospital staff enduring Hurricane Katrina’s wrath — and the aftermath of their decisions under pressure and hellish conditions — comes to a close this week.
In the miniseries finale, entitled “Reckoning,” Dr. Anna Pou may or may not be put on trial for murder. And investigators Arthur “Butch” Schafer and Virginia Rider come up against the limitations of justice when a city’s future is on trial.
This tremendous series ends on a cloud of doubt, with the promise of lives lived in suffering and uncertainty.
Five Days at Memorial finale recap: ‘Reckoning’
Season 1, episode 8: As the series finale begins, Dr. Anna Pou (played by Vera Farmiga) and her husband Vince (Jonathan Cake) are in full lockdown. She is out on bail until the trial, which might become a murder trial if the New Orleans district attorney decides to pursue it.
Anna and Vince unplugged the phone and aren’t going outside for fear of the news vans parked out front. She’s reluctant when her lawyer (Jeffrey Nordling) says she should go on 60 Minutes to tell her side of the story. What if the TV news show makes her look worse?
Meanwhile, Arthur “Butch” Schafer (Michael Gaston) and Virginia Rider (Molly Hager) are meeting again with county coroner Minyard (John Diehl) and a team of pathologists to look at toxicology reports in advance of the trial. They go through all of the 45 dead people in an effort to rule them as homicides or accidental deaths.
The district attorney doesn’t show up to this meeting, sending an upstart deputy named Morales (Ean Catsellanos), who is hostile and touchy. He acts like the case is beneath him. Then Rider and Schafer get asked to cease their investigation altogether. They’ve basically been fired. This is out of their hands.
At a backyard barbecue, Dr. Ewing Cook (W. Earl Brown) has it out with Dr. Horace Baltz (Robert Pine) about the deaths at Memorial Medical Center. Baltz wants to discuss Pou’s choice, but he also doesn’t think the issue is as black and white as Cook says it is. It’s easy, Cook reasons, for Baltz to assume he knew what it was like — but he wasn’t there.
When Pou goes on 60 Minutes, Butch realizes they’re gonna need more than just the pathologist’s word that what happened to the patients was murder. Rider is furious that he can’t get excited about the sternness of the evidence. She, rather naively, assumes that the medical evidence is enough. This is America, though. Half of everything is theater.
Later, Pou meets with Minyard. Their heart-to-heart leads Minyard to announce that he found no evidence of homicide. This leaves Rider furious. She drives to Minyard’s office and accuses him of negligence. He has a pretty reasonable argument, however. What happens during the next hurricane, when people don’t trust doctors or relief workers anymore?
Rider doesn’t care. “Do your damn job,” she tells Minyard. “Do what you’re supposed to do!”
A symbolic decision
When the hearing proceeds. Anna’s on pins and needles. They decide not to indict her on any counts. The district attorney declined to use any of the hard evidence. The point was to keep New Orleans from seeming like a city that truly lost its humanity when disaster struck.
Rider, enraged by the decisions made on the way to the verdict, quits. And though he won’t admit it to her, Butch is angry, too. He finally breaks down in front of his wife. (Gaston’s performance here is superb.)
Rider goes to Emmett Everett’s widow (Lanette Ware) to personally apologize for the legal outcome. They have a lovely chat about the way Emmett courted her back when they were young.
Anna finally gets a chance to tell her story when honored a few years later with an award for her contributions to the medical field. The only person who isn’t thrilled to hear her speech at the conference is Baltz, who remains convinced there were options she should have chosen before the one she did.
Baltz also notices some irregularities in Anna’s speech. The Federal Emergency Management Agency didn’t take their boats away. The Coast Guard did agree to fly at night.
“Just because you remember them one way doesn’t make them true,” Baltz says. Then he departs.
A job well done
The definitive piece of visual media about Hurricane Katrina remains Spike Lee’s two documentaries about the catastrophe, When the Levees Broke and its follow-up, If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise. (Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly also comes close, in a funny way.)
Lee’s two films take a look at the hurricane and its aftermath through interviews with eyewitnesses, who also delve into New Orleans’ history of natural disasters and how they tend to bring out the city’s racial and economic disparity more than just about anything. They give a panoramic, street-level view of everything that was lost and the pitiful response from the federal government in trying to help out.
That Five Days at Memorial, at its best, gets very close to replicating the sense of cataclysmic loss and poetic longing and fury of both Lee’s documentaries is quite a feat indeed.
Unfortunately, splitting the series into concrete sections — the disaster, the investigation — causes Five Days at Memorial to lose a little of its thrust in describing what happened to a multitude of people during the hurricane. It goes from an ensemble disaster drama to a show about two detectives trying to take down Anna Pou, which necessarily jettisons the tension and the humanity of the early parts.
Still and all, Five Days at Memorial stands as a remarkably paced, acted, directed, scored, shot and edited work of TV. Everyone involved can rest easy knowing they did this story justice.
Watch Five Days at Memorial on Apple TV+
You can now watch all eight episodes of Five Days at Memorial on Apple TV+.
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.