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Systemic failure and human nature

Systemic failure and human nature

Five days at Memorial is a limited series with heavy duty. It aims to dramatize and shed light on the devastating events that took place at Memorial Medical Center in the days following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Oscar winner John Ridley (American crime, Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992) and Emmy winner Carlton Cuse (Lost, Bates Motel) adapted from journalist Sheri Fink’s nonfiction Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospitaltells a story steeped in enduring tragedy, a complex mix of guilt and blame, and widespread systemic failure in American disaster relief.

Ridley’s ability to examine history through a critical lens and Cuse’s skill at building tension through the human experience both lend themselves naturally to this project, allowing the duo to craft a very nerve-wracking story that has a number of conflicting points of view. What happened to the people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina highlighted the failures of a system where functionality was only a facade, as measures to help in such an event broke down at every level. The duo is tasked with paying respect to the people who lived through such a tragedy and bringing it to television as a limited drama series in a way that honors those people and engages the audience.

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By mixing actual news footage captured at the time, Five days at Memorial plays a bit like a dramatized documentary as we jump between the days immediately following the hurricane, as well as the months and years afterward as investigators try to figure out what led to the deaths of 45 people in the hospital’s care.

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While Five days at Memorial is very much an ensemble series, there are a handful of standout performances among the cast. Vera Farmiga delivers an Emmy-worthy performance as Dr. Anna Poo, effortlessly taking the doctor through the full range of human emotions both during and after the crisis. Arguably the person at the hospital who bears most of the blame for these deaths, Farmiga’s Pou is as likable as she is reprehensible. Throughout the first five episodes, Farmiga shows the slow breakdown of the soul that led Pou to make the terrible decision to end the lives of patients the hospital thought could not be evacuated. She also deftly navigates the conflicting emotions after the election and her personal privilege in the final three episodes.


cherry Jones knocks it out of the park as she takes on the role of Susan Mulderick, hospital staff were given the unfortunate mantle of being incident coordinators during the disaster. Jones’ Mulderick operates from a contingency plan with no actionable solutions and absolutely zero support from the very systems meant to prevent loss of life in a crisis. Although no one but the family members of those lost at Memorial can excuse the actions taken by the hospital staff, Five days at Memorial insisting that the audience examine exactly why Jones and Farmiga’s characters thought it was their only option.

Cuse and Ridley do an excellent job of showing the exasperating circumstances that the hospital staff at Memorial were in. From the complete lack of comprehensive disaster protocols, all the way up to the complete failure of the federal government to act quickly enough to save its own. people, the blame for what happened at Memorial is spread over layers upon layers of power and privilege. From the first episode, the viewer can feel a sense of foreboding hanging over both the hospital staff and the citizens of New Orleans, as well as the heartbreak of realizing that none of these people were remotely prepared for what they were about to face.


The series aims to explore systemic failure, and it does so through the lens of several concepts that are highly relevant in today’s world. Five days at Memorial is drenched in themes such as racial bias, sexism, fatphobia, morality, responsibility, consent, agency and accountability. Each episode is a complicated snapshot of humanity and all the intricacies of the human condition. Moments of desperation and desolation are expertly interspersed with scenes that showcase the best of humanity. The triumph of saving a life is juxtaposed with the agony of watching someone suffer, and the quiet intimacy of time spent with a loved one contrasts starkly with the fear and frustration of realizing no one is coming to save you.

It is arguably in our nature to get wrapped up in your own bubble and convince yourself that your experiences are, at least to some extent, universal. But, Five days at Memorial is a good example of how each person’s experience is uniquely shaped by an endless array of stimuli. When a person is pushed to the limits of mind and body, the ways in which we respond are inherently unpredictable. The series suggests that, by and large, most people face such events with the best of intentions, and the discrepancies between one person’s morality and another’s often appear to be insignificant—until they aren’t.


Five days at Memorial is an important but extremely frustrating watch, I suspect by design. Bouncing around to different points of view – while necessary to give each perspective its appropriate weight – creates a dissonance for the viewer where each person’s story feels somewhat incomplete. With Pou in particular, we don’t spend enough time on her point of view, and her actions are largely affected by other characters, rather than shown directly. Early on, the series sets up certain plot points that end up going nowhere. While these details are likely there to reflect reality, when portrayed in a narrative, audiences expect resolutions that never happen.

This is not a feel-good series meant to offer a solution to a national tragedy, but rather a bleak and glaring light shining on how the complete breakdown of the American government and its systems did irreparable damage by prioritizing money and public image rather than people. When the external forces that are supposed to provide support and sanctuary during such a crisis have proven day after day that they are not coming to help, how do you decide what is humane based on the knowledge you have? And how are you supposed to survive when every system meant to help you fails? Where does the blame lie when almost everyone has responsibility to varying degrees?


By the end of the series, you will be filled with outright disappointment and anger at the events that took place during Hurricane Katrina. When those with the power to influence the masses do not use it too well, the individual is forced into the impossible. Five days at Memorial encourages you to put yourself in the shoes of the survivors and victims. And that requires us to examine the systems that are meant to serve us in a crisis, so that something like this never happens again.

Rating: B+

Five days at Memorial will air three episodes on August 12, with the rest of the limited series rolling out weekly on Apple TV+.

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