“Always do the right thing,” Da Mayor tells Mookie in Spike Lee’s instant classic Do the Right Thing. But what if the right thing isn’t obvious? What if it doesn’t even exist? What if the circumstances are such that the only choices before you are bad ones and you have to select the best worst option?
That’s the question Five Days at Memorial asks of its audience, and, to its great credit, refuses to answer. But then to be honest, what the hell would be the right answer?
Five Days at Memorial tells the horrendous true-life story of Memorial hospital and Lifecare hospital (housed in the same building, but operating separately) just as Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans and soon flooded both hospitals, relieving the two entities of power, food, water, and all the tools caregivers use to treat their patients.
The eight-episode series centers largely around the character of Anna Pou, an oncologist at Memorial who volunteers to stay at the hospital throughout the hurricane. As days passed and conditions became more desperate, the staff at the hospital made heroic efforts to evacuate their patients. Some by boat, but many through a harrowing journey up to an outdated helipad whose walk up makes the legend of Sisyphus seem like a modest hike. When told on day five, that all remaining staff and patients have to be evacuated, the staff is left with an impossible choice. Knowing that there is not enough time to evacuate the hospital within the deadline they are given, they must decide what to do with the patients who will be left behind. It is Doctor Pou who decides to end their suffering through a cocktail of drugs that will end their lives.
In much the same way one watches Titanic, hoping against reality that a different outcome might present itself, viewing Five Days at Memorial is a similar experience—minus a shoehorned romance and a request to “paint me like one of your French girls.” The typical dramatization of events notwithstanding, Five Days is largely a docudrama about a moral conundrum that none of us would ever want to face: If no one is coming for those left behind, should they be left to die naturally, in horrible agony, gasping for breath and drowning in their own flop-sweat, urine, and feces, or, should they be given that life-ending cocktail that may end their life, but reduce their suffering? Doctor Pou (played by the great Vera Farmiga) chooses the latter.
For many a viewer, I suspect their opinion on the concept of euthanasia is likely to carry the day. Regardless of whether you consider it a mercy killing or murder, what Five Days does so brilliantly is give voice to those on both sides of the issue. In fact, Pou, a devout Christian doesn’t consider it euthanasia at all, she calls her final act at the hospital, “comfort care.” After all, there are things worse than death. And even if you disagree with her, you do understand her.
The other side of the argument is presented in the form of two DOJ investigators charged with finding the truth, Butch Schafer (in what should be a career-making performance by Michael Gaston) and his partner Virginia Rider (a driven Molly Hager). Together, they create 50,000 pages of evidence that seem to conclusively show that Pou and the staff members who assisted her committed, by the letter of the law, homicide against those that they were charged to care for.
But what is care? For anyone in that hospital trying to keep their patients alive in sweltering heat and increasingly unsanitary conditions, the answer to that question is not a simple one. And while Pou’s choice may have been followed through upon, it was not done so without dissent. The viewpoint of nurses and doctors who believed Pou’s actions represented a betrayal of her Hippocratic oath are given a fair hearing as well.
After the hospital is evacuated and the investigation begins, Five Days becomes a procedural, as Butch and Virginia collect reams of evidence and the case moves forward. But as is often the case in a high-profile legal matter, the media and politicians at all levels (city, state, and federal) all attempt to bend the narrative to their favor. And that favor is largely presented as the desire to make 23 suspicious deaths go away.
While the series brilliantly details the facts at hand, it never loses sight of the human element. Pou may be sure that she is right, but she is aware of the cost to human life. All of the staff members, exhausted and roasting in the New Orleans summer heat, are shown struggling with the impossibility of their circumstances. The patients who are deemed too sick or too difficult to move (such as the paralyzed 380 pound Emmett Everett) are all viewed with grace. Their family member’s post-Katrina suffering is shown as well, and even the toll of the sheer weight of the case is shown through Butch and Virginia.
For the most part, Five Days does not strive to offer you conventional heroes and villains to root for or against. That’s not to say the show avoids blame, but it saves it for the true culprits—the hospital corporation that has no evacuation plan, and the local, state, and federal governments whose response to the tragedy of Katrina was so porous.
Perhaps the bigger question that Five Days at Memorial asks is how could a large hospital in a major city within the United States of America be left to their own devices, which, once the power goes out, consists purely of endurance, brawn, and intelligence. As this powerful indictment of the failures that led to impossible choices makes clear, those three attributes were not nearly enough to care for and evacuate their patients properly.
The hurricane and the flooding that followed were natural disasters. The disasters that came after were of another kind. They were man made.
Five Days at Memorial is available for streaming now on Apple TV.