Fox’s new science fiction series, The Passage, which is based on Justin Cronin’s trilogy of novels, got off to a great start this week. The pilot served as an appetizer to whet our taste buds for what’s to come in this series, giving us small bites of different aspects of the universe established in Justin Cronin’s books and the changes made in order to transfer it to the screen. So far, all of the important book elements are present (or on their way), and the changes make sense, given the different logistics required for books vs TV.
I enjoyed everyone in the cast, though I can’t say they’re all exactly how I pictured the characters in the book. That’s mostly because the show has done a great job of diversifying what was a very white, male cast of characters in the book version of Project Noah. This is a welcome change. The gender swaps have already made for some intriguing changes in character interactions.
The early part of the story depends on the chemistry and believability of the pseudo father-daughter relationship between Mark-Paul Gosselaar’s federal agent, Brad Wolgast, and Saniyya Sidney’s orphaned 10 year old girl, Amy Bellafonte. The two actors nail it. Individually, they are each talented, charismatic and charming. Together, they share an immediate warmth and light that makes it understandable why they’d bond so quickly. Both characters come into the relationship feeling like they are alone in the world and each is mourning a deep loss. Their chemistry allows them to slot each other into the holes in their hearts.
The virals (vampires) are suitably menacing as they lie in wait for their prey and use hypnotic psychological tricks to draw in their victims. The series has added the threat of a global avian flu pandemic, which kills its victims in 12 hours, to help explain the reasoning for the accelerated pace of the research on the virals, who were meant to cure all diseases.
Since TV doesn’t have the extended time frame of the books to show the doctors’ inner deterioration and it would be tedious to show their interior downward spirals, the urgency of a plague is a suitable trade off to explain the reasoning behind experimenting on a child. Not that the reasoning actually makes sense in the book or here, but the added desperation makes their self-indulgent decisions more comprehensible.
Just don’t examine any of the science too closely, or your head might begin to show large veins similar to what the virals exhibit when they feed. This story probably begins after a long period where the government has been run by people who don’t believe in science or intellectualism, but who do believe in heightened national security. Thus, even the scientists use sketchy logic, and the only way to get any science funded is to prove that it can be useful to the military.
Not naming names or states, but if you look around today’s world, it’s not an implausible scenario.
The Passage was developed for TV by Liz Heldens. It’s executive produced by Liz Heldens, Matt Reeves, David W. Zucker, Adam Kassan and Ridley Scott, with cinematography by Ramsey Nickell and Byron Shah. The Passage also stars Jamie McShane as Dr. Tim Fanning, Caroline Chikezie as Dr. Major Nichole Sykes, Emmanuelle Chriqui as Dr. Lila Kyle, Brianne Howey as Shauna Babcock, McKinley Belcher III as Anthony Carter, Henry Ian Cusick as Dr. Jonas Lear, Vincent Piazza as Clark Richards and Kecia Lewis as Sister Lacey Antoine.
The Passage is narrated by Amy Bellafonte, the orphaned ten year old who will one day save humanity, according to the show’s tagline. The first moments of the pilot show Amy at some later point in the story, when she is no longer a relative innocent. She tells us that she now knows that monsters are real, and they’ve changed everything. It all started with two old friends who wanted to do good in the world.
Flashback to 2015, and an expedition to the remote Bolivian Highlands, where Dr Jonas Lear and Dr Tim Fanning hope to find a legendary 250 year old man to use in their research, which is sponsored by the Department of Defense and the Centers for Disease Control. They are guided by a Bolivian native who doesn’t speak English and accompanied by Department of Defense representative Clark Richards, plus a security team.
After days of walking through the jungle, the guide shows them a cave at the bottom of a gorge. He stops at the top of the gorge and refuses to go any closer to the 250 year old man. They can see a boy carrying a bucket of blood into the cave. The rest of the expedition goes down into the cave to have a look around. They aren’t at all phased by the bucket of blood.
Where did my face palm emoji go?
They are, after all, American scientists with big American guns. Up until now, virtually everything in their lives has taught them that either the science, the guns or being American will win the day for them. Time’s up on those beliefs.
When they enter the cave, the boy with the blood is unlocking a cage holding the 250 year old man, so that he can put the blood inside. The American team doesn’t pick up on this, and wants to know why the man is caged.
The boy appears to miss noticing the expedition until they’re right on top of him. He opens the cage to give the blood to the 250 year old man. Meanwhile, Fanning is concerned about why the man is being kept in a cage and steps forward to question the boy. When the boy finally notices them, he tells them to leave, using the word “jararaca”, which one of the soldiers translates as “vampire”.
Tim gets too close to the cage. The vampire attacks him and goes straight for his neck. Richards finds a long wooden stake, conveniently left lying around the cave. He throws it, like a spear, at the vampire’s chest. The vampire is driven away from Dr Fanning and probably killed, since he doesn’t appear to come back to Project Noah.
Tim’s neck is bleeding profusely. Lear puts pressure on the bleeding, but it doesn’t look hopeful. Later, he sits and prays in a clinic waiting room. Fanning finds his way to Lear, removing the bandage from his neck as he walks. He’s healed remarkably quickly. Lear notices that Fanning’s mouth is bleeding. Just then, one of his teeth falls out.
Fanning tells Lear that he feels amazing and that they must have found what they’re looking for, a great cure all for disease. They’re going to help so many people. Only he says it in the creepiest voice possible, with a creepy intensity. He’s not at all bothered by his tooth falling out.
Normal people are bothered by these things. I’ve had recurring nightmares about losing my teeth since I was a child.
Henry Ian Cusick (Lear) pulls off a perfectly complex emotional reaction that shows he realizes they’ve just opened Pandora’s box and there’s no way he can close it. And part of him doesn’t want to. Jamie McShane (Fanning) manages to be terrifying, and all he does is stand there, looking like he’s just made an amazing discovery.
Amy tells us that Project Noah came out of the discoveries made in the cave. Then Project Noah led to everything else that happened.
Jump forward three years, to 2018, and Huntsville State Prison, in Texas. Two federal agents, Brad Wolgast and Phil Doyle, have been sent to convince a death row inmate, Anthony Carter, to join the research trials at Project Noah, in exchange for having his sentence commuted.
Once they sit down with Carter, Wolgast does most of the talking. He explains that Project Noah is a medical organization that’s working on a drug which would make people immune to all infectious diseases. Carter has the opportunity to join other infamous death row inmates who have already had their sentences commuted, in exchange for joining the drug trial, such as Martin Echols, John Baffes, and Shauna Babcock. They are all out in Colorado enjoying the scenery
and the joys of becoming human guinea pigs.
Carter has reservations, and would like to talk to one of the other inmates who’s taken the deal. Doyle jumps in to remind him that it’s the drug trial or death. It sounds like a threat. This is why Wolgast does the talking. He sounds like he’s trying to convince Carter to go on vacation.
Wolgast takes back control of the conversation. He acknowledges how unusual the situation is, and assures Carter that he has a choice. But Carter is going to be executed. Wolgast is offering him time. “I can give you an ocean of time.”
In Telluride, Colorado, at Project Noah, Dr Major Nichole Sykes calls a meeting because word has just come through that the team needs to step up the pace of their experiments. An outbreak of Chinese avian flu has mutated and become an epidemic. It’s airborne, there’s no vaccine, and it has an incubation period of 12 hours. Patients are dead less than a day after exposure. There’s fear that it could become a global pandemic, with projections that it could reach the US in 3 months. The CDC feels that their research is the best hope for a vaccine.
This would be one of the areas where we’re just not going to examine the science, and we’ll all be much happier for it.
Lear points out that they haven’t gotten a subject safely through trials. They’re nowhere near close to having a vaccine ready. He suggests incubating in mammalian vero cells, but Dr Sykes shoots him down, saying that they’d need extended passaging with antitryptic activity.
Dr Pet jumps in and says that he has an idea, but it’s unorthodox, and it’ll be unpopular. Dr Sykes is willing to consider anything. Pet leads them down to the cells where the “patients” are kept.
He summarizes the trials so far. Fanning is Patient Zero. He was age 52 at the time of exposure and experienced a brief period of rapid healing, followed by a decline into a veinous, nearly catatonic, blood-sucking monster, who is, none the less, immune to disease.
Immortality comes with a price. Since they are scientists and eschew superstition, at Project Noah they are careful not to call the immortal blood-sucking patients vampires.
After Fanning, Project Noah began importing Death Row convicts to experiment on. John Baffes, Victor Chavez, Kathy Turrell, Rupert Sosa. They attenuated the formula in between patients, and each patient stayed healthy and human for longer, with fewer side effects, but they still turn into vampires in the end. They are getting closer to the right formula.
Echols, Martinez, June Reinhardt (a white supremacist), all reflected the improvements in the formula. The most recent patient is Shauna Babcock, Patient 11. She’s the best result they’ve had. It was 28 days before she began to decline, and she’s retained her human looks. She’s got both the disease immunity and the blood-sucking monster aspects of the virus, but it’s progress.
From all of this, Dr Pet has figured out that it’s not just the adjustments to the formula that make the difference. It’s the age of the subject, because the formula attacks neurons, and younger people have more neurons. “The more neurons, the less severe the decline.”
Anthony Carter is 25 and will arrive at the compound tomorrow. Dr Pet still wants to experiment on him, because, what the heck, why not? Wouldn’t want to ruin their track record of abusing inmates, which is, after all, a time-honored American tradition.
But what he really needs is a child, with billions and billions of innocent and untouched neurons waiting just for him. The child would react to the formula with zero side effects, like daddy’s perfect little angel.
He says this with near religious fervor,
but there’s nothing pedophilic about it, really.
Sykes spends the day trying to find another way to solve the issue, but eventually she asks Richards, who is now the head of security for Project Noah, if he’d be able to find a child that no one would miss. Richards won’t have any problem locating and kidnapping one of the many children who fall through the cracks in the social services system on a regular basis. But he’s worried about how Sykes will handle this compromise.
She has convinced herself that she has to live with it, because the trade off is one child’s life versus millions of people. This conversation makes it clear that Richards and Sykes have grown close.
Which brings us to the introduction of Amy Harper Bellafonte, who is currently hanging around a fast food joint, arm wrestling other kids for cash. She stays at the restaurant until closing, long after the other kids have gone home for the night, then goes to find her drug addict mom at the fleabag motel where they currently live.
Her mom is dead, having OD’d sometime that day. The police are taking her body away. They bring Amy back to the station with them and arrange temporary foster care for the weekend, since it’s too late to call Social Services. Her paperwork can wait until Monday.
“I’m the girl from nowhere. The one no one will miss. That’s why they chose me. My name is Amy Bellafonte. This is how the world ends.”
Brad and Doyle deliver Carter to the Project Noah compound. A nurse meets them in the lobby of the main building, which used to be a resort hotel. She takes Carter downstairs in an elevator. When the doors close on his face, it feels very final. Doyle asks if Brad ever wonders what happens to the psychopaths after they drop them off. Brad says he doesn’t think about it. Doyle looks like he does. He also looks like he might potentially be one of the serial killers.
Richards greets them cordially, hugging Brad. They are old friends who served 3 tours in Special Ops together. Richards says that Brad taught him everything he knows, and that Doyle shouldn’t make Brad angry, because he’s dangerous.
Hopefully Brad has a few tricks up his sleeve that he hasn’t shared with Richards or Doyle. It pays to stay one step ahead of guys like that.
Richards hands Brad their next assignment, the folder with Amy’s information. There’s a moment of tension, as Richards wait to see if Brad will object to abducting a child. But Brad is loyal to his country and organization, and tells Richards, “No problem.”
When Brad and Doyle arrive at Amy’s foster home, she’s out back wrestling with a girl who stole her most prized possession, the copy of A Wrinkle in Time given to her by her mother. Brad explains that the government thinks that her mother died because she was exposed to a toxin, so they want Amy to see a specialist in Colorado to see of she was exposed as well. Amy tells him that her mother was a drug addict who died of a drug overdose. He continues with his script. She refuses to play along, but does cooperate when the foster mom sends her upstairs to pack her things.
It’s funny that Brad couldn’t alter his script to say that her mother’s drugs were laced with the toxin. Of course, then he wouldn’t be able to explain Amy’s supposed exposure.
Amy has her own plan anyway. She packs up her stuff in her backpack, tosses it out the window, jumps out after it, sneaks into the backyard and grabs her book, then runs away. Brad notices parts of this happening, but doesn’t react quickly enough. He and Doyle have to drive the car down the block to catch Amy. Doyle picks her up to carry her back to the car, with her fighting him the whole way. When he doesn’t like how hard she’s fighting him, he slaps her, hard enough to make her forehead swell.
Brad drives until they’re out of that neighborhood, then stops on the side of the road. He grabs Doyle’s neck and slams his face into the console, telling him that if he hits Amy again, Brad will shoot him in the face. Next, he checks on Amy in the back seat. She’s scared of him at first, but begins to trust him when he asks about her injury to make sure she’s okay.
Richards calls to make sure they got Amy. Brad tells him they got her, but it went sideways, with many witnesses. He thinks they should drop her somewhere and abort. Richards won’t hear of it, and orders Brad to follow their usual procedures to get back to Colorado. Richards warns Brad not to test him or the people they work for.
Amy gets car sick as they’re driving through a small town in Arkansas. Brad helps her and sends Doyle to the store for supplies. While they wait for Doyle, they talk about her book, A Wrinkle in Time. It was given to her by her mother. When they get back in the car, Brad gives Amy the front seat to help with the car sickness. Doyle looks like he sucked on a lemon.
Lear stands outside of Fanning’s cell and stares at his old friend. He’s playing Fanning’s favorite song, Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, hoping it will get through to Tim and cause a reaction. One of the custodians, Lawrence Grey, joins Lear, and asks about the song.
He tells Lear that he thinks Tim is still in there, because he comes to Grey in dreams. In the dreams, Tim says that he wants to go home, and he wants Grey to come with him. Grey confides that it’s not just him. Other guys on the staff are having nightmares, too. Grey asks if Lear is having nightmares.
Lear gives Grey a condescending smile and tells him that it’s just cabin fever. He shouldn’t worry about it.
Said the smug, rational character at the beginning of every horror movie ever.
A few cells away, in front of Shauna Babcock’s cell, Dr Pet tells Richards that playing Fanning’s song won’t do any good, because the virals have no higher brain function. The MRIs have proven it. They all have little quirks, like pacing or staring, but they’re just reflexes that don’t mean anything. He notes that Babcock likes to stare at Richards.
Richards hasn’t noticed. He thought she never looked at him. Dr Pet asks about Shauna’s crimes, so Richards tells him that she was in jail for murdering both of her parents.
Next up is feeding time. They have a trough feeding system set up that is literally a type used with farm animals. A sluice opens up, and blood pours into the trough. The patient uses their hands to scoop blood up into their mouths. When Shauna’s done eating, she has blood all over her mouth and chin, running down her neck. She walks right up to the glass to stare Richards in the eyes.
It’s a toss-up who should be eaten first, Richards or Pet.
Brad lets Amy watch cartoons on his pad while they drive. She teases him when he gets a text from his ex-wife, Lila. They quickly develop a teasing, natural rhythm to their banter. Soon, they drive by a sign advertising a local carnival. Amy doesn’t say anything, but her face shows that she’s excited by the idea. Brad decides they should check it out.
Once they stop, Doyle pulls Brad aside to loudly ask why he’s treating the cargo like a child. Brad is appalled, and tells Doyle that he and Amy are going inside for 90 minutes. Doyle can do what he wants. Brad doesn’t punch him, but it’s a close thing.
Doyle has clearly never taken a road trip with a child, cargo or not. Did he want her vomiting in the back seat the whole way? But then, he slapped Amy 5 minutes after he met her, so he’s at the top of the virals menu as well.
We find out just how close Sykes and Richards have grown when she finds him waiting for her in her room. She tells him that she doesn’t want to talk, and he agrees that’s not what he wants either. They fall into each other, then into bed.
Later, he tells her that Amy should be there in a day or two. He has confidence in Sykes’ interpretation of the science and that Amy will be okay. They kiss again.
Sykes turns into Babcock, who tells him she misses him and asks if he thinks about her. He tells her he does. She says that she thinks about him, too, but he shouldn’t have lied to her. She knows he’ll make it up to her later. Then she reveals her fangs and goes to bite his neck.
Richards wakes up from his nightmare. Sykes is asleep next to him.
Amy wants the giant stuffed unicorn that’s a prize for one of the carnival shooting games. She challenges Brad to win it for her. He easily makes the shot, then coaches her through making the second two necessary for claiming the unicorn. He’s a great teacher and supportive of her, even though other people are waiting.
While Amy’s waiting for her unicorn, Brad gets a call from his ex-wife Lila, who’s calling because she wanted to check in with him as their daughter’s birthday nears. Eva died three years ago and it hasn’t gotten any easier. Also, Lila’s new boyfriend, David, asked her to marry him. Since Brad isn’t getting over the loss of Eva, which he shouldn’t blame himself for, and coming home, she said yes. She needs to move on, and maybe have another baby.
These two are a mess.
Amy has her unicorn, and asks Brad if he’s okay. Before he can answer, Doyle appears, ready to drag them back to the car, because he’s anti-fun. Brad says he needs to use the men’s room, but Doyle wants to go first, so Brad lets him. Brad follows Doyle a moment later and puts Doyle in a sleeper hold until he passes out.
When he gets back to Amy, he tells her that they’re ditching Doyle and not going to Colorado, because it’s a bad place. He starts to make a speech about why she should trust him, but Amy’s already ten steps ahead of him, literally and figuratively. They need to get to the car and leave, before Doyle wakes up, and she trusts him. She’s got no one else, and he’s a good guy.
At Project Noah, their escape is bad news. A disembodied voice reminds Sykes and Richards that, “Brad Wolgast earned a silver star in 2005 and was credited with 98 kills in Afghanistan. This is not the guy we want going rogue. We need this contained…He knows enough to make him a liability. Do what you have to do.” Richards tries to talk the voice out of an extreme response, with no luck. After that, Richards is resigned to doing his job.
Brad takes Amy to a wooded area next to a river. Before they get out of the car, he looks at a family photo of himself with Lila and Eva. Then he takes Amy to stand on the riverbank, and explains that he thought they could remember her mom here, since there wasn’t a funeral service for her.
He asks Amy to share some memories. At first, Amy is stuck on her mother’s drug addiction. Brad tells her anger is poison, and suggests she leave some of it there. Then Amy focuses on positive memories. She remembers when her mom made her a birthday cake out of donut holes and whipped cream. She let Amy lie in her bed to watch TV and was always nice when Amy got scared. And she always said that Amy was the joy of her life. By now, Amy is crying. Brad hugs her.
Anthony Carter waits in an examining room at Project Noah, until he’s joined by a doctor, who says he’s going to do a quick exam. We can’t see the doctor’s face. The doctor says that Carter seems healthy and will be a great addition to their research. Carter asks what the doctor’s name is.
Dr Tim Fanning is revealed, looking human again. Cater asks what’s going to happen. Fanning tells him that it’s going to be rough, then it’s going to get worse and worse, but Fanning will be with him the whole time. As he talks, Fanning looks less human, and his mouth begins to bleed. He tells Carter that it will get better, and when it does, “Oh brother, it’s gonna be glorious!”
Carter wakes up, still alone in the examining room. Down in his cell, Fanning smiles.
Apparently there’s more going on in the vampire’s heads than an MRI can show.
Brad stops at a convenience store to buy drinks and snacks, and sees that he and Amy are all over the news. They’re saying he abducted Amy. He calls Lila to warn her that the feds might be asking about him, but Richards is already at Lila’s house. Lila is on the ball, and pretends that Brad is a patient calling. She tells him that Richards has a tactical team with him. Brad tells her that he’s just trying to do the right thing, she was right about everything and he loves her. He never stopped.
He couldn’t tell her all of that when he wasn’t about to be killed?
Brad decides that since he’s not going to be able to get her across the border, they should surrender to the local cops, and try to get Amy on TV, so the feds can’t disappear her. He turns himself in, but the locals do everything wrong. He’s handcuffed to a chair when Richards shows up with at least two tac teams. He has Amy grab the keys and he unlocks the cuffs, then they try to make a run for it.
The local sheriff doesn’t understand what’s happening, until the feds shoot him instead of helping him. Brad has a shoot out in the police station with Richards and the tac teams. He really is a better fighter than everybody else, though, and Amy has good instincts from years of hiding out with her mother. Brad comes face to face with Richards, and tells him that he doesn’t understand why they need Amy so much. But Richards won’t explain why they need her. Instead, Richards shoots Brad in the side as they’re escaping.
They make it into a police car and drive away, with the feds in pursuit. Amy is close to panicking. Brad tells her to look at him. When she does, he says, “It’s gonna be okay. You understand? I’m not gonna leave you, I promise.”
Amy: “Of everything that happened, this is the part I think of most. Whatever was coming, we would face it together.”
Brad tells her to put her seatbelt on, now.
Strap in everybody, the end is nigh. It’s going to be a wild ride.
Dr Lear and Dr Pet
I don’t know where the series is going with that slight indication toward pedophilia they indicated with Dr Pet, but it was a huge theme in this part of the book. Dr Pet is a new character who was created for the series. So far, he seems to be the unethical side of Dr Lear from the book. My guess is that they split Lear’s personality into two people, one good, one ruthless, so that his/their motivations would be easier to understand. (Neither Lear nor Amy were involved in the pedophilia aspects of the story, but they could be transferring those aspects to different characters.)
Vipers and Vampires
Besides being a vampire, a jararaca is also a species of South American snake in the pit viper family. It’s a common snake within its range and is one of the major sources of snakebites in the area. It’s venom was used to develop ACE inhibitors, medications used for the treatment of hypertension and some types of congestive heart failure. The viral vampires do have a snake-like quality, sitting and staring for hours at a time, then leaping into action to feed. A formula from each has been used to extend life.
“Typical [jararaca bite] symptoms include local swelling, petechiae [a red or purple spot on the skin, caused by a minor bleed], bruising and blistering of the affected limb, spontaneous systemic bleeding of the gums and into the skin, subconjunctival hemorrhage [bleeding in the whites of the eyes] and incoagulable blood [blood that won’t clot]. The systemic symptoms can potentially be fatal and may involve hemostatic disorders [blood disorders involving difficulty clotting], intracranial hemorrhage, shock and renal failure.”–Wikipedia
It sounds like the early symptoms of viral vampirism are very similar to the symptoms of the jararaca bite. They both involve issues with bleeding and clotting. Causing victims to have an inability to clot would be useful for a vampire, for obvious reasons. Maybe it’s also helpful for the transition stages, to help the patient bleed out whatever is now unnecessary to the body.
The Jararaca and Karma
You can look at the expedition to the Bolivian cave in at least two ways. You could say that the Americans corrupted the indigenous guide into selling out his ancestors and their secrets, leading ultimately to the end of their people. Or you could say that he conned them out of their money and took them to the cave thinking that the jararaca could get a few tasty meals out of them, and the secrets of his ancestors would be protected. It was bad luck that the confrontation went the other way.
On a deeper level, there’s an element of Colonialism to the story, as the Americans feel they can go into the third world country, supported by their military, and remove whatever resources they find valuable. They feel free to murder the indigenous people at the first sign of trouble. They ignore the locals who try to explain the traditional wisdom surrounding the 250 year old man, assuming that indigenous people only traffic in superstition, while they will use their own superior form of science.
250 years gives many opportunities to test out theories using trial and error. Devices and lab coats aren’t required to do experiments.
When Europeans came to America, they brought with them diseases, such as smallpox, for which the indigenous people of the Americas had no immunity, causing massive epidemics and mortality. It’s only fitting that the Colonists’ descendants should bring about the end through a plague, started by underestimating the native culture.
The jararaca was 250 years old, yet he was a buried legend, even in Bolivia. The people he lived with had learned to take his power seriously and keep him under control. The people in the surrounding areas had learned to ignore the legend, because it led in a dangerous direction. It was only the scientists and the military, who thought they had conquered nature, that were foolish enough to bring the virus out into the world and experiment with it.
In that sense, the vampire virus is a metaphor for all of the stupid, self-destructive ideas humans pursue, while telling themselves that these are great ideas. We love to open Pandora’s box, even as others are trying to tell us why it’s a mistake.
If You Like The Passage:
Containment was a fun one and done CW series about an outbreak of a plague in Atlanta. It’s now on Netflix. The Rain is about the ongoing crisis following the spread of an engineered virus in Scandinavia, following a group trapped in a quarantine zone. It’s a Netflix Original with one season already available and a second season in the works. The Strain is another show which follows an outbreak of super creepy viral vampirism. It lasted 4 seasons/46 episodes on FX and is available on Hulu.