‘Five Days at Memorial’ series review: A heart-wrenching story undone by ineffective storytelling

Though the medical drama has a engrossing story that informs audiences about the state’s apathy towards the victims of Katrina, the episodes feel too stretched with dialogues that are flat and ineffective

September 23, 2022 01:02 pm | Updated 01:02 pm IST

A still from ‘Five Days at Memorial’

A still from ‘Five Days at Memorial’ | Photo Credit: Apple TV+

“Wade in the water, wade in the water children

Wade in the water

God’s gonna trouble the water”

...is how we’re tactfully lured into watching Five Days At Memorial. But as we wade through the eight episodes, the intro seems to be the only part of the show that succinctly manages to convey the intention and message of the show. 

Five Days at Memorial is a medical drama-cum-philosophical investigative thriller based on the 2013 book of the same name. The eight-episode limited series takes the form of a docu-drama while relaying the events in the Memorial hospital, New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The first five episodes depict the preparation by the hospital staff and common citizens to brave the hurricane, and the devastation and rescue operations that follow in its aftermath.

Five Days at Memorial
Directors: John Ridley, Wendey Stanzler, Carlton Cuse
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Cherry Jones, Cornelius Smith Jr., Robert Pine, Adepero Oduye, Julie Ann Emery, Michael Gaston, Molly Hager, W. Earl Brown
No. of episodes: 8
Plot: Based on actual events in Memorial hospital. When the floodwaters rose, power failed, and heat soared, exhausted caregivers at a New Orleans hospital are forced to make profound heart-wrenching decisions

In the first episode, we see local residents join patients and staff in the hospital to seek shelter — something they have done during hurricanes before. Katrina hits and passes without much devastation, and the audience is allowed a sigh of relief, but soon the levees break and let water into the city, flooding it and leaving it fully inundated. The power is out, people are stuck, and there’s no rescue in sight; the second episode is where we sense signs of impending doom.

Susan Mulderick (Cherry Jones), the person in charge of the hospital soon realises that there is no protocol for evacuating patients and staff in the event of a flood. Basic essentials are in short supply, and the staff are committed to doing no harm to their patients and providing them care to the best of their abilities. Rescue operations by the government slowly kick-start with helicopters landing on the helipad (which has not been in use for 15 years) of the hospital. Each helicopter, according to the rescue team, can only accommodate a patient or two. After about four drudging days in the hospital, help arrives in the form of boats, and helicopter landings become more frequent. But as it is made clear in the show, nothing is smooth sailing when the government is involved. Instead of 24 hours, the hospital staff are given only five to evacuate — leaving them with hard choices to make.

In the process, doctors Anna Pou (Vera Farmiga) and Ewing Cook (W. Earl Brown) reach an understanding that patients who cannot be evacuated should not be left to die a slow lonely painful death; they administer these patients lethal doses of morphine to “comfort” them. The final three episodes follow two detectives in their mission to persecute Dr. Pou for the death of forty-five patients, and simultaneously bring to the fore the debate surrounding ethics in medicine, and what it means to care for patients in disastrous times when the state has completely abdicated its duty.

Five Days at Memorial makes for a brilliant story; it has its heroes inhabiting grey zones, an unprecedented natural calamity and evil villains flying Air Force One — but it fumbles in its storytelling. The eight episodes feel long and stretched-out with cracks developing along the way. The series has too many instances when we are told about the devastation in the wake of the hurricane in detail by the characters, instead of just limiting it to the visuals, which dilutes the power of the archival footage and VFX effects.

In one specific scene, Dr. Pou is frantically trying to reach her husband while the city starts flooding; the archival footage interspersed with her anxious face in quick cuts not only takes away from the drama, but almost comes across as insensitive. The dialogue writing is flat and fails to initiate a conversation with the audience, considering the series deals with the highly-contested field of medical ethics. The three-minute-long monologue from Dr. Pou in the last episode also feels like a disservice to the spirit of doctors at Memorial.

Ryan Murphy, who was slated to direct this very story, gave up on it after admitting that the story was “just too vast and expensive” and that he could not figure out how to crack it. After watching the Apple TV+ show, the audience might come close to understanding Murphy’s apprehensions. While Five Days at Memorial is a brave attempt at directing the audience to the state’s apathy towards the victims of Katrina, it never takes us to the intended destination.

Five Days at Memorial is currently streaming on Apple TV+

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