Regenesis (Season 1, Episode 8): Blackout

Blackout teaches that the most boring explanation is often the right one. It’s probably the season’s most esoteric episode. It’s also the most emotional one.

There’s a power blackout on the Eastern Seaboard, and everyone thinks it’s terrorism. From northern Ontario all the way down to Virginia. Underground wires have spontaneously combusted, and no explosive residue can be found on the wires. That doesn’t stop everyone from thinking the worst, and it doesn’t help that Caroline Morrison’s CIA contacts have intercepts of a plan to create a blackout and use the chaos to move terrorists from Canada down to the U.S. Nor that a tape has aired on Al-Jazeera, with Al-Gamahad taking credit for the blackout and threatening more across the continent. But as David says, amusingly, “Taking credit and deserving it are two different things. You work in enough offices, you find that out.” Ouch.

The NorBAC team determines that bacteria are crawling in all the wires, and wonder if it’s a bacteria that eats explosives. Then they think the bacteria may be eating pollution, rather than explosives, and produce methane which gets blown up. Then, after a second explosion in Chicago, David and Jill take a field trip there, and find that the bacteria have eaten away at the insulation on the underground cables — which is astonishing, since there is no known bacteria that eats plastic.

New species: metal-eating bacterium

Back at the lab, the team sequences the bacterium, and finds that it’s a new species: a plastic eating bacterium indeed, that perhaps someone introduced into the soil to blow things up and cause blackouts. Through sequencing Mayko also learns that the bacterium seems to have evolved to breathe off metals, meaning that it needs metals to live.

So the question is how the wire metals got into the soil if they’re surrounded by insulation and plastic? David hypothesizes that as the metal in the wire is loaded with current, it heats up, which allows it to somehow leech through a stress point or a crack in the insulation, into the soil, where the bacteria sucks it in. The bacterium breathes in the metal and changes it genetically, so that the new species can eat the plastic. The team finds that the composition of the wires that exploded includes tellurium — a metal that the power companies were using for a while until it became too expensive.

The NorBAC team buys a supply of tellurium and run lab tests, and the pieces fall into place. Somehow the tellurium leaked from the wires into the soil — a crack in the insulation, a bad splice, whatever — and was exposed to one of 100,000 kinds of bacteria living in the soil. In one of those microscopic bugs the tellurium started a mutation process, and then became the plastic eating goo that took out the entire northeast of the continent. The blackout was thus a natural occurrence. Obviously no terrorists could conspire to have tellurium added to underground wires, let alone have any idea that someday the metal would leech into the soil and create a new species of bacterium.

David and Lilith

If the blackout theme is academic, David’s personal life has all the heart. In the aftermath of Mick’s death, Lilith is obviously not doing well. In a particularly upsetting scene, David comes home during the blackout to find her on the couch dozing — and next to her an empty jar of sleeping pills, which he knew was at least half full. He slaps her awake and shakes her, demanding to know how many pills she took, which turns out to be only two; she spilled the rest on the floor, which David couldn’t see at first in the poorly candlelit room. She has a complete meltdown in his arms, saying she keeps seeing Mick’s face and him dying all over again. David, at wits end — and knowing he’s a shitty parent — calls his ex-wife, asking her to fly from Salt Spring to Toronto so that she can help Lilith cope with her loss.

The irony is that David isn’t such a bad father at all. Lilith’s mother, on the other hand, is positively awful, dishing out cheap platitudes when she arrives, on top of the I-told-you-so’s (“she always knew” that Lilith would regret coming out to live with her father). It is David who rises above himself and reaches Lilith. In a moving scene, he tells her that she did more for Mick than anyone, by making him feel like he belonged, and by being with him so that he didn’t die alone.

It’s a sad farewell to Lilith, as David goes on to say that she needs to turn all of this into a good memory, but that’s not possible here in Toronto. She needs to be back in Salt Spring, with people that she knows, and with her mom (“even if she is fucking nuts”). It’s a good swan song for Ellen Page. Lilith Sandstrom is one of her best roles, if not her very best, and while I think her exit in Blackout is appropriate, another part of me wishes that she had stayed on for the rest of the series.

Original release date: December 12, 2004

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

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