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Containment (a spoiler-free review)

I finished watching the series Containment on Netflix the other day. Yes: although I hate zombie stories, I have a morbid fascination with contagion stories. The premise of this story is that a flu virus has been genetically modified to cause hemorrhagic symptoms, resulting in an impressive 100 percent fatality rate, killing its victims just two days after exposure. That’s a trifecta for an infectious disease: easily transmitted, exceptionally deadly, and fast acting. In real life there isn’t any disease that’s all three—or rather, there are some (like meningitis), but we have treatments that can cut down on the deadliness, not to mention vaccines. Anyway, this virus gets loose and our story begins.

The setting is Atlanta, but it’s Atlanta the way Boston is Boston in Fringe, which is to say, in name and sky shots only. I know that Atlanta, like Boston, has a large population of people who’ve moved there from elsewhere, but in this series no one—not one character—attempts anything like a southern accent. Not one character grew up there? Not the pregnant eighteen-year-old? Not the 11-year-old son of the schoolteacher, who’s brought her class on a field trip to the hospital? Nope. No one.

It’s also an astonishingly post-racial Atlanta. We see six couples in the series, three of which are interracial (black-white). And aside from one scene in the first episode in which police major Lex Caranahan (who is black, and one of the two main male characters) stops another cop from beating up a black teen (Zander, the boyfriend of Teresa, the aforementioned pregnant girl—they’re one of the interracial couples), there is no mention whatsoever of police brutality or misuse of power, let alone racially charged brutality and misuse of power. Teresa’s mother’s dismissal of Zander as a viable, genuinely interested, and devoted future father may be oblique racism, and a white National Guard commander’s refusal to accept Lex’s authority at one point also suggests racism, but in both cases there are other ostensible reasons for the characters’ actions and attitudes. The show tries hard to be nonracist itself, too: there’s a black gang that commandeers food distribution and extorts the public, but there’s also a white gang of motorcycle-riding druggies, and Teresa’s mother, a convenience-store owner, is shown to have been opportunistically price gouging before the black gang arrived.

Maybe in an attempt to have broad-spectrum appeal in a polarized country, the series combines this wishful-thinking postracial society with the following notions: the cops are by and large noble, self-sacrificing public servants; government officials are liars; social-activist blogging is dangerous and wrongheaded … until it gets guidance from the heroes, and then it’s the light of truth.

I’d say the male and female characters were equally well developed; the main female characters felt complete and interesting, though the series approves more of women in the mothering, caregiving role than in self-reliant or leadership roles. Jana, Lex’s girlfriend, is self-reliant. She works in the clean room of a data retrieval company, and this is symbolic, because she’s got intimacy issues. Her character arc involves becoming less brittle and more warm, which, well… Dr. Lommers (a government official), the one truly powerful woman in the series, is smart, confident, and decisive, but also merciless (she describes her mentor’s literally fatal flaw as compassion), a liar, and the ultimate villain. [highlight to view spoiler]

One thing I did like about the show was that it distributed roles to characters of all ages. Schoolteacher Katie Frank’s 11-year-old son Quentin has a good role. The actor does a great job in some very affecting scenes, and he and his classmates are there as more than just objects to be worried over (although they’re that, too). Teresa and Zander are teenagers, then there’s a slew of main characters in the 20–40 age range, Dr. Lommers and the dissolute blogger in the 40–50 (or so) age range, and the kindly rat breeder and his wheelchair-bound wife in the over-60 range.

I appreciated the lack of Hollywood betrayals, pointless arguments, and random unpleasantry. Schoolteacher Katie and Handsome Cop Jake gradually fall in love with each other, as they were clearly destined to do, without any stumbles or missteps, which may be unrealistic but which was, for me, a relief. In some cases, however, I felt like maaaybe the show could have included a touch more conflict. The schoolkids’ playing together seemed a little stilted. You get a bunch of bored, frightened kids, and you would surely have some quarrels and bickering.

In storytelling you have to strike a balance between making the world believably rich and complicated and focusing on your main characters and plot developments. It may have been a decision to streamline that had the show disappear all nurses, all doctors, and all janitorial staff from the large hospital in which the outbreak is discovered, and in which unlucky disease victims are placed in isolation. Ebola field hospitals in Sierra Leone were better staffed than this hospital. Every now and then there was a scene with an attending nurse or orderly (usually so they could be blood-sneezed on and become infected), but for the most part, the hospital halls are empty, and the only doctor looking in on the sick is Dr. Cannerts, who first identified the outbreak. Dr. Cannerts presses Handsome Cop Jake into service cremating the dead. There’s no one else who could do this? No other hospital employee? Similarly, it’s implausible that Dr. Cannerts alone would be working on a vaccine or cure to something as direly threatening.

I’m a carping, critical viewer, but I enjoyed the show enough to binge-watch the last four episodes, so if you share my morbid interest in epidemics, check it out and tell me what you think of it.

PS: regarding Into the Inferno, I did see it, and I'll post about it later.

**The series also includes one gay character, who’s favorably portrayed but whose partner is conveniently off screen, and one character in a wheelchair, who isn’t defined by her physical limitation but is definitely shown as vulnerable and in need of support because of it.



( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 31st, 2016 11:16 pm (UTC)
The description reminds me of the book Station Eleven, except that isn't really a contagion story as a story about art in the plague-transformed world.

The City, Not Long After is also about art in a post-plague world.
Nov. 1st, 2016 12:29 am (UTC)
I should check out Station Eleven.
Nov. 1st, 2016 02:09 am (UTC)
You should. It was unfairly robbed of a hugo nomination.
Nov. 1st, 2016 01:05 pm (UTC)
Contagion stories - that's unexpected! Are they always - the ones you look for, I mean - plague stories? I mean, is the contagion in these stories always of a probably fatal disease?
Nov. 1st, 2016 01:27 pm (UTC)
I don't look for them exactly--I don't like them enough to seek them out--I'm just kind of fascinated with the concept, so if one comes wandering my way (as this one did, via a Netflix recommendation), I'm curious about it. I guess among other things I'm interested in the conflicting desires to take care of others and to protect yourself.
Nov. 2nd, 2016 09:59 am (UTC)
Do you know the (true) story of Eyam village? I expect you do! :) A great story of stoic acceptance of danger to keep others safe.
Nov. 2nd, 2016 01:14 pm (UTC)
I didn't! I'll have to read the link.

(I think I've given you the wrong impression of my degree of focus.... I don't actually seek out information on plagues and disease and so on; it's just that I'm interested when I do hear about them.)
Nov. 2nd, 2016 01:57 pm (UTC)
The link is probably not the best source - I was in a rush. Briefly: when the bubonic plague hit the village of Eyam, they realised that they could become a source of infection to their neighbouring villages. Two clergymen helped lead the village to a decision to quarantine themselves, not attempting to flee the plague and thereby spreading it. The villagers all agreed to cut themselves off, only setting up a place for supplies to be left, and sat out the plague until it had exhausted itself - 260 of them died, including the wife of one of the clerics.



Edited at 2016-11-02 02:03 pm (UTC)
Nov. 2nd, 2016 02:03 pm (UTC)
That's impressive! I like those stories to be known and spread as much or more than the every-man-for-himself horror stories. I remember a story of a woman during the West Africa Ebola outbreak who used layers and layers of plastic bags over her hands, and bleach and water, and took care of her dying family members and managed not to get sick herself, or the stories of people who volunteered to bury the dead, etc. Or maybe we need both sorts of stories--one sort to aspire to, and one sort as cautionary.
Nov. 2nd, 2016 02:31 pm (UTC)
I think it's enormously important that such things are remembered and retold (and retold with historical accuracy).
(I was sickened by a book published a few years back which took this real story and fictionalised it, adding great dollops of invented nastiness and cynicism, smearing the real history with the author's own... pah! I'll stop there.)
Nov. 7th, 2016 02:02 pm (UTC)
I think I'll definitely give it a try! I do enjoy zombie stories even though I must admit that many of them fall into the so-awful-it's-good category...

In passing: from what I've understood, there's a reason why there aren't any diseases that are at the same time fast-acting, very contagious and very deadly: a disease which quickly develops very visible symptoms and kills in a short amount of time will usually not have time to be transmitted to many people, especially since quarantine measures are much more likely to be taken. A full-blown epidemic could only develop if dead bodies can carry on spreading the disease, but even then, as was the case with the Ebola epidemic, it will probably remain localised (the dead don't usually travel around... unless, of course, they're zombies ;)).
Nov. 7th, 2016 02:08 pm (UTC)
Yes, I found the failure of contact tracking in this movie to be one of the places where I had to suspend disbelief. Interestingly, the series is based on a 2014 Belgian-Flemish series, Cordon. It sounds like the plots are more or less parallel, though the Big Bad is different and the ending is darker.

I'll be very interested in your thoughts if you do see it!
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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