Tales From the Loop

Over the weekend I discovered the TV-treasure that is Tales from the Loop. It’s based on the sci-fic artistry of Simon Stålenhag, which in turn inspired the role-playing game released in 2017, and so I was delighted to learn of a cinematic adaption even as I worried about a Stranger Things rehash. It’s set in a small midwestern town in the ’80s (Ohio instead of Indiana); there’s a lab where dangerous experiments are performed; and kids play a key role. But this is definitely its own thing. It’s not about ’80s nostalgia; the period is incidental. And where Stranger Things is full of anxious and overt horrors, using action sequences to supplement the character drama, Tales from the Loop shines in the small and quiet moments. Put it this way: Stranger Things is ET and Gremlins and Alien; this series is Blade Runner and Twin Peaks, filtered through a Kubrick-like lens where everything is held coldly at arm’s length, even as it magnifies the intimate. Dialogue is restrained and used like a precious commodity; every word counts.

The feeling of expansive emptiness has put off some viewers, but it works for me. I haven’t been so dreamily affected by cinema since my last Kubrick or Lynch film. The set pieces and atmosphere exude a sad beauty, as if science exacts a price in direct proportion to its wonders.

The series opens on the face of Russ Willard, played by High Sparrow (as we know him from Game of Thrones) Jonathan Pryce. He’s the founder of the Mercer Center for Experimental Physics (MCEP) — AKA “the Loop” — and speaks to the camera directly, explaining to us that the Loop’s purpose is to unlock and explore the mysteries of the universe: “As a result of the unique research,” he says, “you will see sights that you’d say were impossible.” And with that, the series begins. (Russ Willard will resurface throughout the season’s narratives, especially in episode 4.)

Willard’s tease is largely misdirection. Yes, we end up seeing lot of “impossible sights” —  time travel, body swapping, time freeze, snow that falls upwards, parallel-world travel, and robots with uncannily human traits — but that’s not what the series is about. Tales from the Loop is interested in people: their fears, traumas, and deepest hopes. The sci-fic mechanisms go unexplained; to Mercer’s residents they aren’t even terribly astonishing. These citizens have lived with the Loop for so long (and unlike the Hawkins lab in Stranger Things, the MCEP is no big secret) that its resulting impossibilities are frankly a bit mundane.

The format of the series is sort-of anthology, sort-of serial drama. Each of the eight episodes focuses on a major character who is minor in some of the other episodes. The main family are the Willards — Loretta and George, their sons Jakob and Cole, and of course granddaddy Russ — and this family is anchored throughout episodes 1, 2, 4, 7, and 8. Episodes 3, 5, and 6 are thinly connected storylines standing mostly on their own. Here are the episode themes and synopses.

1. Loop. Time travel. The young Loretta in the ’50s meets her adult self in the ’80s.
2. Transpose. Body swap. Jakob and his friend Danny decide to be each other for a day, but Danny refuses to leave Jakob’s body.
3. Stasis. Time stop. A girl traps herself and her boyfriend in a moment of time.
4. Echo Sphere. Imminent death. Russ is about to die; his grandson Cole is strangely connected to his identity in some way.
5. Control. Loss of control. A grieving father feels unable to protect and provide for his wife and daughter, and so buys a dangerous robot to patrol their property.
6. Parallel. Travel to parallel world. A guy meets his alternate self and has an affair with his doppleganger’s boyfriend.
7. Enemies. Human vs. machine. The young George in the ’50s is left stranded on an island and hunted by a killer robot.
8. Home. Time travel, body-swapping, and the question of humanity vs. machines. All of these come into play in a masterpiece finale.

Here’s how I rank the episodes.

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1. Home (Episode 8). 5 stars. The finale is a masterpiece, but then Jodie Foster directed it. Basically Home resolves — as much as anything is ever “resolved” in this series — the threads from earlier episodes, with Cole realizing his brother Jakob is not Jakob, but Danny inside Jakob’s body. He searches Jakob out in the woods, and finds the lonely mute robot, and the bonding between the two brothers is deeply moving. When another robot arrives on the scene to attack, Jakob-Robot dishes out an ass-pounding that took me by surprise, leaving the other robot in pieces. But Jakob doesn’t last long after this battle, and his robotic self dies as Cole cradles him. Cole ends up crossing a bizarre stream that freezes in warm weather, and that puts him outside the Loop’s time barrier. His escapade with Jakob-Robot felt like only hours, but when he returns to the town, he finds a new Mercer in which his grandmother and father are dead. His mother Loretta is still alive, gray-haired, and polexaed to see him (and to see him still young) after so many years. He also meets Danny in Jakob’s now thoroughly adult body, and Cole tells Danny that Jakob didn’t hate him for what he did, allowing the two a very surprising peace. I don’t know that I could forgive someone who stole a family member’s body and identity. There are countless scenes in Home that soar with transcendent moments, and the ending epiphany — that our lives are over in “the blink of an eye” — hits home indeed.

Tales from the Loop • Episode Script • "Stasis" - 8FLiX
2. Stasis (Episode 3). 5 stars. Riding a theme that Cole will grind in the finale, Stasis is about the desperate need for things to stay the same. The girl May does this in the most audacious way imaginable — by stopping time altogether — so that she and her new boyfriend can make their “moment” of love last. It’s a self-standing episode focusing outside the Willard family, and all the more surprising therefore that it’s so damn good. We aren’t allowed much time to invest in May and Ethan, but I was thoroughly in love with them both by the end, especially for their flaws. Brilliant scenes here, especially those showing the residents of Mercer frozen in whatever they were doing when May flipped the switch, one of whom is her mother in the middle of having adulterous sex, to May’s outrage. When May and Ethan decide to bang each other outside in the middle of the road, that was certainly taking advantage “of the moment”! Their mutual enjoyment doesn’t last however, and in the end May learns a hard lesson — that sometimes things are special precisely because they don’t last. Appreciating that truth takes a lot of maturity and learned experience, usually starting with teenage heartbreak.

Enemies (2020)
3. Enemies (Episode 7). 4 ½ stars. The scariest episode was directed by horror-meister Ti West, and there are indeed scenes on the island that made my heart skip. Its brilliance is that it goes from scary to being just as sad. In the ’50s the young George Willard is left stranded by his cruel friends on the forbidden island, where he is stalked and terrorized by a creature that is a robot. This is how George loses his arm (in the previous episodes, the adult George’s mechanical arm is never explained), and when he returns to the island in the ’80s, he seeks out his childhood terror in order to make peace with it. It many sound corny, but the execution is heartbreaking, and he even gives the robot (who is missing an arm) his own robotic mechanical arm to apologize for hurting it. The union between humans and machines is a common trope in science fiction, exploring what it means to be human.

Transpose | Tales from the Loop Wiki | Fandom
4. Transpose (Episode 2). 4 ½ stars. Two friends who are opposites decide to be each other for a day. It sounds fun. Jakob Willard is a smart introvert with a promising future to work at the Loop. His friend Danny is quite the opposite — popular with girls, lousy with grades, expecting to pound rock at the quarry for the rest of his life. Jakob and Danny come across a spherical object in the woods, and when Jakob climbs inside, they find that they have swapped bodies. They agree to swap for a day and live at each other’s homes. The next day, however, Danny decides that he wants to stay inside of Jakob’s body forever: to live as Jakob Willard and work at the Loop, not pound rock in a dead-end job. Jakob, desperate, goes back to the forest and into the machine, but he is alone, and so when he leaves Danny’s body, there is no soul around to fill Danny’s body, and Danny’s body goes into a coma. That’s not the worst of it. Jakob becomes trapped in a robot (the nearest creature in the forest), and he will stay a robot until he dies in the finale. Danny, meanwhile, has to live with his crime of ultimate identify theft — living as Jakob Willard for the rest of the season, under the roof with a family he has no right to. Freaky Friday plots are usually predictable, but Transpose gives them nice twists and tragedy.

Tales From The Loop's Tech Explained: What Every Gadget Does
5. Echo Sphere (Episode 4). 4 stars. It’s ironic that the episode focusing on the Loop’s creator is the one that makes least use of the sci-fic medium to tell its story. Russ Willard takes his grandson Cole to a huge sphere that echoes when you shout into it; the more echoes you hear of your voice tells you how long your life will be. Cole’s shout returns six echoes; a promising life. When Russ shouts into it, there’s no echo at all, for (as the doctors have told him), he will soon die. That’s what the episode is about — our inevitable death, which not even the scientific miracles of the Loop can negate. It’s a story about a boy’s pain over a grandfather he loves too much to let go, but with a very arresting twist at the end that suggests Cole’s relation to his grandfather is something impossible.

Tales From the Loop' Review | Hollywood Reporter
6. Loop (Episode 1). 3 ½ stars. I admit I wasn’t wowed by the premiere, but it did hook me with its glacial atmosphere and intriguing time loop. Meeting one’s future self (and vice versa) runs the risk of pesky paradoxes, but Loop deftly sidesteps them by, well, sidestepping the young Loretta’s life when the Loop returns her to the ’50s. She will remember meeting her adult self as a dream, not an actual time travel, until she becomes that same adult in the ’80s when the closed loop replays itself. Many viewers aren’t sure what triggers the young Loretta’s time travel to the ’80s; it’s when she first touches the stone from the Eclipse, in the barren snow field where her house used to be. She returns to her present in the ’50s when she replaces the stone in the Eclipse. The story is one about maternal love, which Loretta never felt (being abandoned by her mother), and so was determined to love her kids — Jakob and Cole — no matter how much her career at the Loop consumed her.

Charlie McDowell on Twitter: "Tales From the Loop is here and ...
7. Parallel (Episode 6). 3 stars. The next two aren’t that impressive, partly because of the stand-alone aspect, where the anthology format is really felt. The main characters (the Willard family) aren’t involved. (On the other hand, see Episode 3, Stasis.) A guy finds a broken tractor in a field, and as soon as he fixes it, it sucks him through a portal into a parallel world. He finds an idealistic version of himself there, romantically involved with a man he had obsessed in his own world. One thing leads to another: he is invited to live with his doppleganger and boyfriend; eventually he has an affair with the boyfriend, which leads to disillusionment and his leaving the home to find a new life in the parallel world in which he’s forever stuck. The biggest problem with this story is that it could have been so much more. I’m a sucker for parallel-world dramas, but Parallel doesn’t exploit the alternate setting in any of the numerous ways it could have.

Tales from the Loop • Episode Script • "Control" - 8FLiX
8. Control (Episode 5). 2 ½ stars. The only episode I’d call a dud. Not just because of the stand-alone aspect involving characters we don’t give a shit about (the ineffectual parents and young sister of Danny, whose body is in a coma and dying in a hospital bed, thanks to Danny now inhabiting the body of Jakob Willard whom he pretends to be; see Episode 2, Transpose). And not just because the sci-fic elements are rather uninteresting. No, what burns my piles above all is the political axe-grinding. This is a blatant anti-gun parable, and while I am no fan of gun-rights fanatics, I don’t like being preached to, no matter how much I agree with the message. That’s hollow artistry. Control is about a guy who is paranoid about his home being spied on, and so buys a patrol robot, that one night almost kills his young daughter whom the robot is supposed to protect. Really, it’s that on the nose.

Ten Films that scared Mark Kermode

I enjoy Mark Kermode’s film reviews and share a lot of his tastes, especially in horror films. What others find scary, he often finds banal and silly. There are no cheap-thrill blockbusters like The Conjuring and It Chapter 2 on his list of 10 films that really scared him.

Here they are. He excludes The Exorcist from consideration, which would be his #1, since he has analyzed the film to death many times.

1. The Vanishing (1988). (The Dutch film, not the ’93 American remake.) The final scene had Kermode in a state of abject panic that no other film (save The Exorcist) has ever achieved. It “scared the life out of him and scarred him”. Just talking about the film freaks him out. It involves being buried alive.

2. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Kermode calls it as close to pure terror as you’ll ever find in a film (save The Exorcist). I think it’s pretty close to that, and it makes my list as well, though not quite as high.

3. The Haunting (1963). Unlike the ’99 remake, this haunted house classic nails it. It’s all to do with understatement and what you don’t see, which is an art lost in most of today’s horror films that drown in the overt.

4. Onibaba (1964). This Japanese historical horror drama terrified not only Kermode, but William Friedkin, who made The Exorcist, so that says something right there. It’s a nightmare vision of psycho-sexual bestiality, set in a 14th-century Japan of feuding warlords, where a woman and her daughter-in-law are forced to murder and loot weakened soldiers to survive. Then the older woman starts forcing her daughter-in-law into ugly carnal acts while wearing a demonic mask. The film has been interpreted over the years as a karmic tale, Buddhist parable, or Hiroshima parable, and all three are valid; it’s also bloody terrifying.

5. The Babadook (2014). The croaking noise made by the Babadook. (This was true of The Grudge too, which I thought scarier than The Babadook.)

6. Audition (1999). One critic was so scared at what he was seeing on screen that he said the police should investigate the circumstances of the film’s creation; that’s how much it freaked him out. I agree with Kermode that Audition is a great film, but it didn’t really scare me or have me panic-stricken in any way.

7. The Descent (2005). People in confined spaces in underground caves. Kermode has never been so claustrophobic as in watching the crawl-through scenes in this film. I agree with him entirely.

8. The Witch (2015). The demonic goat rising up on its legs really got under Kermode’s skin.

9. Nosferatu (1922). The image of the shadowy figure going up the stairs gave him nightmares.

10. Buried (2010). The rising panic that you get from seeing this guy trapped in a confined space throughout the whole film builds and builds.

 

Here are mine, also excluding The Exorcist, but The Shining too. Those two are in a class all by themselves.

1. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). David Lynch’s darkest film contains scenes in Laura’s bedroom so terrifying they still pulverize me.

2. Channel Zero, Season 2: The No-End House (2017). College kids enter a haunted house looking for cheap thrills, having no idea how bad it really is. It turns into a prolonged nightmare that yields some of the scariest material I’ve seen on film or TV.

3. The Pact (2012). This too is about a haunted house, with a heart-stopping twist. It turns out there is a ghost in the house, just as suspected, but also a real-life psychopath living in the cellar, and he has been there the whole time, sometimes being confused with the ghost. A massively underrated film.

4. The Exorcist III: Legion (1990). An acquaintance of mine once made the following comment: “The Exorcist III and Event Horizon are the two absolutely most creepy movies I’ve ever seen, because you can’t imagine anyone making these films if they didn’t 100% believe in manifest evil. They pull no punches whatsoever and carry a tone which says, ‘This is not entertainment. This is a glimpse into the real dark side.’ I cannot say that other films have struck me this way.” I agree with that statement, and the fact that these two films did poorly at the box office says something about the mainstream preference for cheap thrills over true terror.

5. Event Horizon (1997). This is basically The Shining in outer space, set on a spaceship that’s equipped with a gravity drive that sends you to hell. See my commentary on #4 above. The Exorcist III and Event Horizon achieve a particular kind of fright that no other film has matched (including The Exorcist itself).

6. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Unlike the slashers of the ’80s, this terrorizing monstrosity could only have been made in the ’70s, and hasn’t lost any power.

7. The Evil Dead (1981). No one with a heart condition should see this. Scene after scene nearly gave me a stroke as a teenager.

8. The Descent (2005). I felt the same way as Kermode. There are claustrophobic scenes that had me literally panic-stricken.

9. The Witch (2015). Again I’m with Kermode. This historical drama set in the time of the Puritans is organically terrifying, and relishes in the delights of hidden evil. It freaked me out big time.

10. The Grudge (2004). I saw this in the theater and I was literally cowering in my seat. At one point I thought I would have to get up and leave. Production-wise it’s not the most impressive film, but scare-wise it’s mighty effective.

11. (Bonus) The Man from Nowhere (1975). In the year 1976 I watched Once Upon a Classic, hosted by Bill Bixby. I was seven years old, long before I even knew what a horror film or TV show was. This “kids” horror story scared the fucking shit out of me. It’s set in 1860 England with a very effective Gothic atmosphere, and tells of a young orphaned girl who is sent to live with her uncle in his castle. When she arrives, she is stalked by a man in black who appears and disappears, telling her in threatening tones to leave. She is terrorized by this figure, and so was I. He stalks her everywhere and eventually even manages to break into her room in the castle, where he corners her. Another scene that gave me nightmares is where the man in black appears under Alice’s bedroom window around midnight whispering up to her in menacing rasps, “Alice! Alice!” I’ve been wanting to rewatch this to see how it holds up to my adult sensibilities, but it’s almost impossible to find.

Regenesis (Season 1, Episodes 12 & 13): Resurrection & The Longest Night

Analogies to Covid-19 fill the first season of Regenesis, but especially the last two episodes. Here we get quarantines; attempts to seal off traffic; health workers in respirator masks; and everyone is calling it a coronavirus. Which isn’t a bad guess. This virus gets in the lungs and life is over in a snap.

David and Jill arrive in Denver to start picking the virus apart. They get samples from all patients, half-expecting a Marburg chimera to show up, but there are no signs of poxes or internal hemorrhaging. Nothing about the virus looks man-made; it seems perfectly natural and not a bio-weapon. The terrorist threat that was set up in the previous episode recedes for the moment.

The tests run in Denver are only so useful, and David and Jill forward the samples to the NorBAC lab for proper PCR runs. But even the limited tests tell David enough. This is his lifelong obsession and something he dug up four months ago. The Spanish Fucking Flu. Appalled — knowing it’s true but can’t be — he bails on Jill, leaving her in Denver while he flies back to NorBAC to run the sequencing himself. When he sees the proof, the world falls on his head.

It’s at this point that the series brings us to the scene foreshadowed in the prologue of the first episode: an emotionally distraught David Sandstrom, walking the streets of Toronto in a daze, realizing that he royally fucked up, but clueless as to how. He calls his daughter Lilith and tells her he loves her; he musters the courage to go back to the lab and come clean to his co-workers; then he walks straight into the path of an oncoming car. He goes into a coma and is hospitalized.

The Return of the Spanish Lady

With David out of the picture (for now), it’s Jill who learns the truth when she returns from Denver, and reads the sequencing reports done by Carlos and Bob. Like David, she recognizes the Spanish Flu at once, since she did the sequencing for his sample four months earlier. The entire NorBAC team is stunned. How the Spanish Flu get out at all, let alone way down in Colorado? Caroline contacts WHO and other health departments to put out priority alerts, and then calls her associate Congresswoman Shuler. The politics of the phone call sound familiar in the era of Covid-19:

Caroline: “The Spanish Flu is extremely contagious. If not contained, it could turn into a pandemic overnight.”

Shuler: “Can you contain it?”

Caroline: “Right now there are 28 reported cases, all confined to the Denver area.”

Shuler: “That’s good.”

Caroline: “I think we should shut down all access to the Denver area — airport, highway.”

Shuler: “No, no. That’s politically impossible. And Caroline, do we have to use the term ‘Spanish Flu’?”

Keep in mind this is the same congresswoman who blocked Caroline and David’s attempt to shut down all the chicken farms in the Prion case. As I write this review (on April 9), the following eight states have still not issued statewide stay-at-home orders for the Covid-19 pandemic: Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. The governors of these states, like Shuler, have their priorities.

Mission to Nunavut

Jill goes through David’s notes to find out where he got the Spanish Flu sample. She finds the Nunavut connection, and the name of Joe Okalik, but is puzzled that she can’t find any dig records or permits. Meanwhile the situation in Denver is getting exponentially worse:

Wes: “The CDC is widening the quarantine area.”

Caroline: “It’s doubled in just the last two hours.”

Wes: “They’re turning the old stables and airport into a quarantine center. Denver proper is reporting 10 confirmed deaths, 204 people in quarantine. Lakewood has 5 reported cases; Aurora 7.”

Jill: [Entering the room] “Here’s what I got. These are David’s notes, from what I can tell was the beginning when he first had a line on the 1918 flu victim. He was working with a guy named Joe Okalik in Nunavut, which makes sense, because the sample we worked on clearly came out of the permafrost.”

Caroline: “How did a flu in Nunavut end up in Denver, Colorado?”

Jill: “I don’t know. But more important than that right now is we need to find the body he exhumed and make sure that it’s contained. But I can’t find any dig records or permits anywhere.”

Caroline: “Okay then, go home, pack your long johns and catch the next flight up there. Jesus, fuck.”

Jill: “What’s wrong?”

Caroline: “I don’t know what’s worse. Thinking that some terrorist released the Spanish Flu or that the head scientist of NorBAC did.”

It’s hard to shake the terrorist threat in the air from the last episode, but Chiernegin’s MO is pox-hemorrhagic combos, not influenza. And it can hardly be a coincidence that the 87-year old Spanish Flu has re-emerged only months after David dug up an intact sample. The disaster has David Sandstrom’s name all over it.

Hospitalized

Back to David. His coma is his just deserts — a season’s worth of assholeries coming back to bite him. He has near-death visions of various people who died on account of his “failures”: Hira Khan, shot by the bullet meant for him (episode 3); Danny Dexter, who swallowed pills after David told him to stop playing hockey if he wanted to stay alive (episode 5); Mick Sloane, who thought he was a clone and begged David to save him (episode 7). David wants to join them, but they won’t have him. Each in turn tells him to get off his sorry ass and fix his mess. The vision of Mick is particularly nice: the kid overturns the hospital bed, throwing David to the floor.

Meanwhile, in the real-world hospital room, Mayko sits by David’s side, and in the final frame of Resurrection he comes out of his coma. But the penultimate’s title isn’t about David; it’s about the resurrection of the goddamn Spanish Flu. David confesses everything to Mayko in self-indictment: that he’s responsible for bringing back the flu; that the sample Jill sequenced wasn’t sent to him, but stolen; that he took it from the body of a miner he dug out of the permafrost in Nunavut, without governmental permission. But neither Mayko nor David see how any of this could impact Denver so far away.

Caroline and Jill rip David a new one

Only hours out of his coma and barely able to walk, David takes his lashings back at NorBAC with considerable grace. Prepared to confess to Caroline, she beats him to it, having already found his records of payment to the Indian Joe Okalik for their grave robbing mission. Also, from Nunavut, Jill has forwarded Joe’s emails to Caroline, which reveal the details of David and Joe’s past communications. (Strangely, Joe Okalik was dead in his home when Jill arrived, having fallen in the shower drunk.) Caroline tears David a new one for breaking the law and scientific protocols — and for making NorBAC look worse than an organization run by Donald Trump. She vows that from now on she will be micromanaging the hell out of him.

At that moment, Jill calls from Nunavut, and Caroline puts her on speaker phone. Jill has tracked down and located the grave of the miner. The grave has been dug up again; there are polar bear tracks everywhere; most of the body is gone, and the remains are a mess.

David, feeling an abyss beneath him, insists to Caroline that he was careful as hell; he had put the body back, burying it exactly as he found it. But apparently disturbing a grave for even a few minutes can fire off a scent to a starving polar bear. Once again, Caroline welcomes David to a new era of micromanagement — where he is henceforth obligated to share with her every scrap of his research — and she orders him to immediately release all of his and Jill’s data on the Spanish Flu to the five top vaccine labs in the world.

When Jill returns from Nunavut, she too is furious — pissed that David lied about how he obtained the Spanish Flu sample, and even more furious that he rejected her advice (in episode 7) to send their data to the World Health Organization. Had he done so, the world would be a lot closer to a vaccine now.

None of this explains how the flu got from a polar bear in Nunavut to victims down in Denver. Redeeming himself as best he can, David (who still belongs in the hospital) sets out to solving that puzzle with his team.

From Nunavut to Denver: Natural born carriers

They find that Patient 0 was a bird-tagger in Colorado who was out camping. David surmises that the flu outbreak started with a migrating bird that fed on the remains of what the polar bear left in Nunavut; the bird must have scratched or bit the bird-tagger. According to a report, the tagger was replacing batteries in GPS bird collars. David examines the last ten birds that she collared, and finds that one of them, sure enough, was a red-tailed hawk — a species that ranges from Nunavut to the western United States. The tagger was somehow infected by the hawk as she was collaring it, and she later infected some Denver locals. Thus is born a pandemic.

NorBAC immediately puts out alerts that the hawk needs to be found and captured (by using the software used to track birds with GPS collars) as a #1 international health priority. And who knows how many other birds feasted on the miner’s remains?

The elusive Ivan Chiernegin

So what about Ivan Chiernegin and the Marburg threat that was set up in episode 11? It seems that the terrorist plot was dropped in favor of natural disaster owing to David’s recklessness. The twist comes that the two plots are tied together, and that the elusive Soviet terrorist Ivan Chiernegin is none other than David’s friend Vassili Borov. I have mixed feelings about this; the logistics are handled okay, but it feels a bit contrived.

Let’s go through it from the start. At the beginning of Resurrection, as David and Jill are working in Denver, Caroline is following up on the Marburg threat in Washington DC, where she learns that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Chiernegin worked for the CIA in Iraq. When relations between America and Iraq went sour, Saddam Hussein offered Chiernegin a palace on the Tigress River and all the money Chiernegin wanted to work for him. The U.S. — not taking kindly to this betrayal — promptly took out the palace with a cruise missile, killing (presumably) Chiernegin and his wife and child. But years later in 1997, Chiernegin reportedly resurfaced in North Korea, and two years after that in Pakistan, leaving behind bio-warfare programs in each country. Then he dropped off the radar again in 2000, just around the time “Ivan Havlac” emerged in Cape Town to start working on the Miranda Virus at Bethke Labs.

So Chiernegin is still at large, but who knows where, and who knows when he ever plans on using his Marburg concoction. At the end of The Longest Night comes the dramatic reveal, when Daisy, the mother of baby-bomb Miranda (from the season premiere), comes to David’s home. She heard that he was injured, and remembers his kindness to her when he tried to stop her from mercy-killing her baby. When she sees his friend Vassili Borov getting into a taxi, she goes completely ape-shit — screaming that he’s the man who operated on her in Africa. David, stunned that Vassili (of all people) could be Chiernegin, calls Caroline and has her put out an APB; Vassili is taken by the police.

When David visits Vassili in jail, the terrorist and natural-disaster plots bleed into one. Vassili explains that Chiernegin (who was Vassili’s boss from the ’80s, recall) ended up marrying his (Vassili’s) daughter and having a boy. Those two — Vassili’s daughter and grandson — were killed in the American missile strike on the Iraq palace. Chiernegin was killed too, contrary to what the intelligence agencies believed. Vassili assumed Chiernegin’s identity, going from North Korea to Pakistan, arming them with the bio-weapons programs, and then settling in Cape Town as “Ivan Havlac” to begin synthesizing poxes and hemorrhagics. “Acts of justice” against the west, he says to David. Miranda he put into action (in the season premiere), but he ditched his plans for using the Marburg chimera when a much better opportunity presented itself. On a night they got drunk together, David told Vassili about his illegal Nunavut adventure and how he acquired an intact genome of the Spanish flu. At that moment, Vassili seized his golden opportunity:

Vassili: “You thought the nights of vodka and conversation were about friendship? You think we were comrades? You talk very freely when you drink, David.”

David: [Aghast] “Jesus, it was you. You went and dug up the body, didn’t you?”

Vassili: “And I left it exposed. How sloppy of me. I let Mother Nature do the rest. The bears and birds were my delivery system, they spread it all over. And who knows? Denver may not be the only outbreak. We freed the Spanish Flu, David — you and I — and I thank you for it.”

And this explains the strange coincidence of the Indian Joe Okalik being found dead in his shower when Jill flew up to Nunavut. Vassili left no loose ends. That he, as David’s buddy, turned out to be the big-bad smacks slightly of lazy plotting, though it does make sense as to why Vassili cultivated David’s friendship to begin with.

Nature spread the Spanish Flu, but not because of David’s carelessness. He had reburied the body properly, exactly as he thought. It was Vassili who went up to Nunavut, dug up the body, and left it blatantly exposed. That sort of gets David off the hook — though he doesn’t cut himself any slack. When Caroline insists that the Colorado deaths are Vassili’s fault and not his, he replies: “You can’t split the atom and blame the crew that drops the bomb, Caroline.”

And with that, David Sandstrom resigns from NorBAC. He’ll be back in season 2, but not before a self-imposed exile takes him to China, where he can work off his guilt and get into more trouble. As for season 1, it remains some of the best TV drama I’ve seen. These final episodes pay off the narrative debts with a merciless blow from nature, and make me pray that the Spanish Flu never comes back. Covid-19 is bad enough.

Original air dates: January 16 & 23, 2005

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

Regenesis (Season 1, Episode 11): The Promise

There’s something foreboding about The Promise as things spiral out of control on every front. From an intense military drill, to the reappearance of an enhanced Miranda virus, to the threat of an even worse bio-weapon, to a priorty-1 alert of a SARS-like outbreak in Denver — it’s clear that the pen-penultimate episode is setting us up for a mighty slam. And loads of misery besides.

Regenesis never pretended to be optimistic, as how can it be when it deals in viruses, disease, and high body counts? Nature is uncaring as science itself; the best we can hope for is to put off the inevitable day when microscopic lifeforms wipe us out. One way of doing that is anticipating the worst, and practicing accordingly. Thus the opening scene of The Promise.

War Games

Those first five minutes are a brilliant piece of misdirection. The NorBAC scientists are chasing tails around the lab, yelling and tripping over each other, frantically making phone calls, punching keyboards, trying to gather data on a smallpox outbreak. David goes from room to room barking orders, demanding this and that, throwing people out of their chairs. He wants to know why the Windsor Detroit tunnel isn’t sealed; he gets a report that national guardsmen are sick, even though they were inoculated; a flight to China is being diverted to Guam for fear of smallpox carriers; the Canada-U.S. border has been closed. The lab is crawling with military personnel — like martial law. All of this is filmed in a long tracking shot that captures an ordered chaos. When Jill finally gets David’s attention with a report confirming “hemorragics”, David gets a poleaxed “oh shit” look on his face; then he knows why the smallpox is so deadly. He tells Caroline… and the game is over.

For that’s what it was all along: a drill run by U.S. Joint Forces Command, to test NorBAC’s response time to a bio-catastrophe. The team did very well, solving the problem in 2 days with only 22,000 people dead. (A lab in Atlanta took 5 days and paid for it with 600,000 deaths; and a lab in Mexico took 4 days with close to a million dead.) David, gloatingly, explains to an audience of scientists and military how he figured it out: In the game the military rushed in to fight what seemed to be a clear-cut smallpox outbreak, but there was something else inside the smallpox. The very inoculation that warded against the smallpox triggered a release of green monkey disease — AKA Marburg fever — that was hidden inside the pox.

But if this is a game, it sounds distressingly familiar: pox and hemorragics, synthesized to make a supervirus. That’s what happened in the first two episodes, where a terrorist engineered camel pox and ebola, and put it in a baby to spread through the Toronto area. The terrorist remained at large, and now, six months later, what? — the military is suddenly having labs in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico play war games involving another pox-hemorragic chimera?

Ties to the Miranda Virus

David is no dummy, and neither is Caroline, and they both suspect that the North American governments are worried that whoever manufactured the Miranda Virus may possess another, and even more lethal, biological weapon, that’s ready to be let loose. Caroline’s intelligence sources reveal developments confirming this.

For one, the terrorist William Zanzinger (who engineered the baby Miranda) is in fact no longer at large; he recently committed suicide in Cape Town, but intelligence officials don’t think it was suicide. Zanzinger was a mercenary, and he must have had help from someone smarter in creating the Miranda Virus; he was probably killed as a loose end by that someone. Cape Town rings a bell with David; he remembers a state-of-the-art DNA sequencer in a lab there, and asks Mayko to research it. She finds a Bethke Labs in Cape Town, but it was destroyed in a fire only a month ago — supposedly an industrial accident — and the facility has been sealed. That’s enough for David, who asks Caroline to have her British spy buddy to obtain all the bio-hazard samples he can from Bethke Labs.

When the bio-hazard samples arrive, Carlos and Bob run tests on them and PCRs, and to their horror the Miranda Virus is among the samples. And something worse than Miranda too — a Marburg virus, sure enough, that, as Jill says, “if you put on a plane from L.A. to New York, everyone would be digested from the inside out over roughly Trapdoor, Missouri”.

So on the one hand, Bethke Labs turns up Miranda and Marburg together, and on the other, a bunch of generals have the NorBAC team running around playing war games based on the Miranda scenario but using a Marburg chimera instead. The conclusion presses: whoever created the Miranda (ebola-camelpox) virus is getting ready to throw an even-worse chimera (marburg-?) virus at the world, and intelligence agencies are acutely aware of it.

Russian Hero: Vassili Borov

David goes to see a friend of his, Vassili Borov, who used to be a Soviet agent and worked on Marburg back in the mid-’80s. Vassili had defected and came west after the Berlin Wall fell, and assisted the Canadian and American governments in stopping various terrorist plots. Now he paints all day in his room, attended by nude models. He has quite the life.

At David’s request, Vassili examines the DNA images from the Marburg samples found in Cape Town, and tells David that it’s been weaponized: from the sequencing it looks to Vassili like whoever made it increased the incubation period. So someone could be walking around for weeks and not realize they had it — “a 10 megaton bomb in a hand grenade”. In the time between ’85 and the collapse of the Soviet Empire in ’91, there wasn’t time for the Soviets to weaponize the Marburg, so whoever did this, says Vassili, probably wasn’t Soviet.

Back at the lab, Caroline tells David that the chief scientist of Bethke Labs is an Ivan Havlac, but he disappeared about six months ago (which would be shortly before the time the Miranda Virus was let loose). No one can find Havlac, or his resume for that matter, and neither British nor South African intelligence can figure out who he is. It’s a safe bet that this Havlac is the creator of the Miranda Virus, and the one who killed William Zanzinger, and now has plans to unleash an enhanced weaponized Marburg virus.

From his sequencing work, Carlos believes the Marburg samples must be American, which would mean they were taken from Fort Egan. An appalled Caroline makes a trip to Fort Egan, and learns from one of her contacts that indeed Fort Egan had been experimenting with Marburg decades ago, and was committed to destroying all their samples in the early ’70s — but not all of those samples were in fact destroyed.

David goes back to see Vassili again, who confirms that Marburg was stolen from Fort Egan sometime in the ’80s. The Marburg ended up in the hands of his boss, Ivan Chiernegin — the head of germ warfare for the Soviets. David believes that the elusive scientist of Cape Town who can’t be found, “Ivan Havlac”, is probably Vassili’s old boss Ivan Chiernegin. Chiernegin has likely continued to work on germ warfare as a terrorist in hiding, long after the fall of the Soviet Union in ’91. The terrorist appears to be Soviet after all, with a serious grudge.

Last-second bomb shell

As Caroline plans to get Chiernegan’s name on the radar of every intelligence agency, she and David are intercepted by Wes, who drops a bombshell: NorBAC has received a Priority 1 Alert for a SARS-like case that has broken out in Denver, Colorado. The local doctors and public health officials can’t identify the virus, but it’s nasty, and quarantines are already in place. David looks at Caroline and says, “I don’t want to sound paranoid, but let’s hope to God this isn’t coming from the same guy who gave us Miranda.”

David has a shitload more to be worried about than Miranda and Marburg, horrible as those threats are. The SARS-like virus in Colorado — as the final two episodes will reveal mercilessly — is nothing less than the Spanish Flu, resurrected unwittingly by David Sandstrom himself.

The Promise is a first-rate episode that simmers with shady plots and imminent terrors, and damned if it doesn’t make me fear the finale.

Original air date: January 9, 2005

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

 

Regenesis (Season 1, Episodes 9 & 10): The Secret War & The Source

Besides the loss of David’s daughter Lilith, it feels like others are absent all of a sudden in Regenesis. The virologist Jill Langston is having panic attacks and needs time off. Her published work (on Hepatitis-C infection of macrophages) is being trashed by other researches who claim she made errors, and she wants three weeks to redo her experiment. David and Caroline are pissed about this but try to accommodate her.

As for biochemist Bob Melnikov, he’s quitting NorBAC altogether — to work for a perfume company. That’s right. Perfumes have been his life-long passion; biochemistry at its purest. Naturally Bob returns to the fold almost as soon as he quits; the NorBAC geeks are his family. But in the meantime, throughout The Secret War and The Source, the lab is short-staffed.

Which leaves David, Mayko, and Carlos to do most of the work on two new cases, and they get little support from boss-lady Caroline. She flat out rejects taking on the first case, until David and Mayko can convince her that it falls within NorBAC’s mandate.

Case #1: Cleanup Crews in the Gulf War

At first blush, it seems to be a case of garden variety post-war traumas. A group of American civilians were privately contracted by the Pentagon to do cleanup work at a military base in Kirkuk during the Iraq War. The civilians were sent to do hazardous waste removal at bombed out sites, and they returned home to the U.S. showing a wide range of illnesses — joint pain, asthma, hair loss, organ failure, depression. Two sets of doctors concluded that their conditions were unrelated to one another and to their duties in Iraq, but they offered no explanation as to what made the civilians sick. Caroline is inclined to lump it all in with “Gulf War Syndrome” — complaints over which are still being stalled in the courts — and says that issues like this aren’t NorBAC’s mandate. With illnesses that diverse, it hardly seems likely that there’s a common culprit in any case.

David and Mayko aren’t so sure, and work closely with one of the victims, Louisa, who is now wheelchair-bound. They analyze the protective suits that Louisa and the other workers wore on duty, which includes a Reimer, a purification system designed to keep out nasty particles and bacteria. The integrity of the suits seem top-notch. The filtration system would keep out all bacteria, except maybe ten in a million, which the human body could easy fend off. The Reimer even recycles the wearer’s own sweat and urine to make clean drinking water (similar to what astronauts use), which David illustrates to Caroline — amusingly pouring a flask of his own piss into the Reimer and then drinking the pure water that comes out.

So why did so many cleanup workers get sick, and in different ways? In the tenth episode, Bob (now working in the perfume industry, but temporarily helping his old NorBAC team) suggests an answer: phages.

Phages: Viruses that infect bacteria

I’d never heard of these before. Phages — or bacteriophages — are viruses that infect bacteria. Bob thinks they might be the culprit, believing that DNA was somehow transferred to produce the variety of illnesses in the Iraq workers (some phages carry DNA). David is instantly on board with the hypothesis, and they explain it to Louisa:

David: “Let’s say you know you’ve got some nasty bacteria in the salt marshes in Iraq. So you’re going to want to run this through a filtration system like the Reimer, right?”

Louisa: “Yeah, they did that. But wouldn’t the filtration system keep the bacteria from getting through?”

Mayko: “All but ten in a million, as we’ve discovered.”

David: “Right, and that’s nothing for your body’s natural immune system to take care of. That’s why people have been calling you [Louisa] a paranoid hypochondriac. But if those ten little bacteria got infected with bacteria phages, that’s all it would take. Isn’t it, Bob?”

Bob: “That’s my theory.”

Louisa: “What theory?”

David: [Moving to the chalkboard] “It’s not the bacteria, it’s the bacteria phages infecting the bacteria that’s the problem. Check it out.” [Draws diagram] “Let’s say this is one of the nasty bacteria that miraculously managed to get through the Reimer filtration system unscathed, okay? All by itself, it’s not a problem. Except it’s been infected with a bacteria phage, which is a virus. So it multiples, and pretty soon, one becomes a million, and eventually they bust out. Now here’s the thing. Some bacteria phages can carry DNA. So when they all explode out of the cell — and remember, there’s millions of them now — they could be carrying toxic genes that they’ve picked up from the nasty bacteria.”

Bob: “Toxic genes attack internal organs. They can develop cancer cells, they can do anything.”

David: “Bob, you’re a genius.”

Bob: “Only if we can prove that that’s what happened to Louisa and her friends.”

David: “No, Bob. You’re a genius.”

More tests are run, and Bob’s hypothesis is confirmed. DNA-carrying phages account for the variety of illnesses in the Iraq workers. Phages infected the bacteria with new genetic material, causing the bacteria to mutate and secrete toxins that spread to every corner of the workers’ bodies — resulting in everything from cancer to organ failure to fibromyalgia.

It also explains why not all of the Iraq workers got sick. In some cases, the immune systems of the healthy ones were able to conquer the mutated bacteria, and in other cases, they just became asymptomatic carriers — shades of Covid-19 — spreading it without even realizing it.

Case #2: Rampant Hemophilia in Mexico

The second case is brought up by Carlos. He wants the team to investigate multiple cases of hemophilia in the Mexican state of Campeche. The incidence pattern is bewildering, because hemophilia isn’t contagious, and yet the disease is ranging over a wide area. Carlos and Jill fly down to Campeche and find that a large multi-national laboratory is working on strange GMOs, in particular, a hybrid plant designed to detect land mines by turning a certain color. But that theory is a dead end; none of the GMOs are causing the problem, and the local air and water supplies are fine too.

Jill flies back to Toronto to work on proving Bob’s phage theory, and David flies down to take her place. He and Carlos guess that mosquitoes might be the culprit (David thinks of this as he’s out collecting soil samples and getting bitten by a shitload of them), since mosquitoes use an anticoagulant to keep blood from clotting when they steal it. Maybe, somehow, there are mutant “super mosquitoes” whose anticoagulant is strong enough to cause hemophilia.

They collect and run tests on zillions of mosquitoes and finally find an anomaly in one: evidence of genetic engineering. But no one in Mexico is doing any genome work with mosquitoes. In Toronto, Mayko’s off-the-grid research turns up that there is a Belgian biotech, Jacques Rafause, doing mosquito research over the border in Guatemala — apparently working in that country because the government excuses him from environmental laws.

David and Carlos pay Dr. Rafause a visit, and learn that he is breeding mosquitoes as part of a bold project to eliminate malaria. His genetic engineering has produced side effects, however: the mosquitoes’ anticoagulation proteins are being hugely overproduced, thus blocking coagulation in human victims for extended periods of time. The anti-clotting period is about 24 hours, after which time the human body recovers. But during those 24 hours, if you cut or scrape yourself, you bleed to death. Theoretically, Rafause’s mosquitoes are confined to the farm… but it doesn’t take long for David and Carlos to show him how more than a few are escaping out of the cages and into the wilderness, and right over the border into Campeche.

The Secret War and The Source aren’t the most inspired episodes of season 1 — they feel a bit by the numbers — but they are enjoyable enough, and educational like all the scenarios in Regenesis.

Original air dates: December 19, 2004 & January 2, 2005

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5

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

Regenesis (Season 1, Episodes 6 & 7): The Trials & Faint Hope

Clinical trials are about odds and risk ratios. Testing to see if new treatments are safe, and making sound judgments without obsessing the what-if’s. In these episodes the NorBAC team is asked to mediate a dispute in a clinical trial. How this plays out is impressively unpredictable.

The dispute is between two researchers in a trial for a gene therapy that cures leukemia. Dr. Julius Booker is the one running the trial, and one of his lead researchers, Dr. Lauren Foley, is claiming that the treatment may not be safe. But then the whole point of a trial is to find out if it’s safe.

Three kids with leukemia have been given the experimental treatment. Two are in remission doing very well, and one is dead. The dead boy, 11-year Maxwell Peterson, died from a stroke four hours after receiving the treatment. Foley thinks that the boy’s immune system over-responded to the treatment — maybe the dosage was wrong, or the timing — and she’s furious that Booker wants to write off the stroke as a normal occurrence in an AML patient. David is skeptical and doesn’t think Booker was necessarily wrong to do that. Kids with leukemia do die, after all, and if two other kids were saved by the treatment, then the Peterson boy could just be a one-off. Foley also thinks it’s about money: her university wants to keep money flowing into research, and Julius Booker is a money magnet. But that’s just capitalism; it doesn’t mean that Booker is making the wrong professional call. But what exactly does the gene therapy do?

Virus Injections

Booker’s gene-therapy treatment appears to be cutting edge science. The procedure involves injecting a healthy virus into the patient — a virus that’s had all its nasty bits removed, and replaced with health instead of harm — that goes to the cancer cells and “infects the patient with health”, killing the bad cells. So what happened to the Peterson boy? This is what three members of the NorBAC team debate in pouring over the bio-data of the three kids:

Carlos Serrano: “This shows the cancer cells of the Peterson boy one hour after treatment. [Click.] Two hours, most of the cancer cells are infected with the virus. [Click.] Four hours, the majority of the cancer cells are dead or dying.”

Mayko Tran: “Everything is going great, and then the kid gets a stroke and dies.”

David Sandstrom: “So what went wrong?”

Mayko: “What if the Peterson kid had a hyper-response to the virus? He could have had an allergic reaction, that caused the swelling that led to his stroke. He had high cytokine levels that could have caused vessel damage.”

David: [Looking at Carlos] “You got a problem with that?”

Carlos: “Yeah, look. [Click.] All three kids had high cytokine levels. One is dead, the other two are in remission.”

David: “Jesus. So is it the treatment or the disease that killed the kid?”

Carlos: “Maybe Peterson’s brain was set to go, you know, it’s not uncommon in AML [leukemia] patients. He might have suffered a stroke with or without the treatment.”

Mayko: “Are you willing to bet lives on that, Carlos?”

David: “Listen, the question we’re dealing with here is, if 3000 kids get this treatment, will 1 of them die or 1000?”

That’s what it’s about: odds and risk ratios. After extensive research, David can’t find any reason not to proceed with the trials, and he gives the green light to continue. The trials resume… and there’s a repeat tragedy. Five more kids are given the treatment, and four of them go into remission. But the fifth, a boy named Justin Ricci, goes into blast crisis and is left in a coma. Foley, enraged, confronts David at his home, and David mockingly patronizes her until she tells him that Justin Ricci is in a coma, thanks to him. David beats himself up at first, but did he really make the wrong call?

David has Mayko review the bio-scans of the eight kids. They all show the same abnormality: an 8-11 translocation, which is the kind of chromosomal mess-up you’d expect in a leukemia patient, but nothing other than that. There’s no evidence that Justin Ricci’s blast crisis (a phase in leukemia when more than 30% of the cells in the blood or bone marrow become dangerous “blast” cells) or his subsequent stroke were triggered by the treatment. David stands by his judgment, telling Caroline he made the right call at the time, despite what happened to the Ricci boy. There was no good reason to stop the trial.

A Tale of Two Assholes

The assholes being Doctors Julius Booker and David Sandstrom. We’re used to David, as he’s the show’s lead and endearing in his own way. Booker is easily pegged as the callous villain. Against these two, Lauren Foley comes off as a lone voice of caution and compassion. It doesn’t help that David brushes off her concerns with a fair degree of contempt and hardly takes her seriously — except for his attempts to get her in the sack with him. In the Me Too age, David is a politically incorrect protagonist to say the least.

But assholes aren’t necessarily wrong, and the NorBAC team can’t find anything unsafe about Booker’s treatment.

David: [Exploding] “Look, we’ve got six kids in remission, two are negatively affected, but without this treatment, eight kids would be dying. If I’m wrong, somebody convince me.”

Caroline: “So Justin Ricci was just unlucky?”

David: “Yeah, maybe!”

Caroline: “Can we be clear about anything here?”

Bob: “I think Justin was unlucky. To have a blast crisis and a stroke, all within four hours. That’s like having two car accidents on the same trip home.”

David: [Leaning forward] “What did you say?”

Bob: “I said –“

David: [Waving him to silence] “Justin Ricci couldn’t have been that unlucky.”

Mayko: “Yeah, it does seem kind of quick.”

David: “Why are we fighting this? If it couldn’t happen in four hours, it couldn’t happen in four hours.”

Bob: “He must have been already in blast crisis when he was given the treatment.”

Mayko: “He wouldn’t have been accepted in the trial in that condition.”

David: “He shouldn’t have been accepted into the trial.”

Mayko: “David, we have his records. Justin wasn’t in blast crisis when he was approved for trial.”

David: [Long pause] “What records?”

David’s hunch is right. Dr. Booker faked the paperwork and admitted Justin Ricci into the trial when he was already in blast crisis. But not out of gross malpractice. He did that only because the kid’s parents begged him to. Justin was dying anyway; the chances of him coming out of blast crisis were zero. His parents thought he had nothing to lose. So Booker gave him the treatment. David — ready to shoot Booker when he realized the paperwork was faked — admits in the end that there’s nothing the treatment could have done at that point to make Justin’s situation any worse.

As David tells Caroline in the end, “We weren’t asked to judge Booker. We were asked to judge his trials.” Once again he advises that the trials should continue. They could end up saving many kids’ lives, and so far there’s no evidence that the treatments caused the death and coma in the two boys. David can be arrogant but he knows his science, and he mediated this dispute by the book.

The Spanish Lady

Which isn’t to say that David Sandstrom does everything by the book. When it comes to his pet obsession, he completely disregards proper channels, and even breaks the law. In the midst of the leukemia trials, he flies up to Nunavut to retrieve a sample of what he believes to be the Spanish Flu from a corpse that’s been frozen since 1918. This corpse is off the radar of all the known digs, and only an Indian knows of it. David digs up the corpse in secret — without governmental permission — takes a brain sample, and pays the Indian for his help and silence. When he returns to the lab, he puts his new virologist Jill Langston on the sequencing and PCR tasks at once. To their utter astonishment, the RNA is completely intact — all 8 viral RNA segments of the Spanish Flu.

Jill is a bit deflated however, when David refuses to share his results with the World Health Organization. He wants NorBAC to make the vaccine, and gives her strict orders that no data leaves the lab. Jill tells David that their protected patent protects them from being ripped off, and that WHO has the manpower and equipment to crank out a vaccine in less than a year’s time. But David won’t budge; he wants to go all the way with his precious discovery.

As far as Jill, Caroline, and the rest of the NorBAC team are concerned, David got the Spanish Flu sample from a proper channel. They know nothing about the corpse in Nunavut or the Indian contact. David’s ego and illegal behavior will spell dire consequences by the season’s end. For now he hosts a party at home in celebration. It’s perhaps fitting that right as he’s dancing and boozing it up, Lauren Foley comes crashing in with the news that Justin Ricci is in a coma (see above), and that he is to blame for it. He’s not, as we’ve seen, but an asshole like David Sandstrom surely deserves to have his unpleasant moments of self-doubt.

Tearful End

These two episodes pick up Mick’s story from episodes 1-3, and terminate it dramatically. In the final scene of Faint Hope, he dies in Lilith’s arms — a heartbreaking end on a beach in Quebec.

The subplot of Lilith and Mick’s journey to Quebec complements the main plot of the leukemia trials, as both deal with kids about to die. Mick wants to see a whale before he dies, and so Lilith (much like her father who takes off to Nunavut without accounting for himself) leaves with Mick for Quebec. She has her father’s credit card, and so she and Mick can pay for the bus rides, eat, and stop at a motel along the way.

The motel scene is one of the most touching of the series, where Lilith, breaking down crying, asks Mick if he wants to have sex before he dies. And here is the final moment, Mick’s death on the beach. The scenes speak for themselves.

The Trials and Faint Hope are a great pair of episodes, second only to the double-bill premiere.

Original air dates: November 21 and 28, 2004

Rating: 5 stars out of 5