The Passage: Season 1 Review


Episode Recaps are HERE.

Fox’s series The Passage, based on the Justin Cronin trilogy of novels, finished its 10 episode first season this week with a leap forward into the apocalypse. The series spent its first season on character and world-building during the period immediately preceding the fall of the human race, so that viewers will enter season 2, if there is one, with a firm understanding of this universe’s viral vampires and the mistakes that were made to bring about the end of the world. The challenges and rivalries that the future faces are set in place, so that season 2 can hit the ground running.

For reasons I’m not clear on, pre-apocalypse stories rarely do well with viewers, who often want to skip over the build up to the end of the world and get straight to the destruction and its aftermath. Season 1 of The Passage has suffered from that same biased impatience. I love a good apocalypse story as much as the next nihilist, but I find the lead up to the destruction fascinating as well.

I want to know who made the mistakes and what they were thinking. Did they intentionally end the world, as Fanning did, and why? And why don’t the authorities take the signs that the end is coming seriously? Or do they, but there’s nothing they can do to stop it? To me, a man-made disaster, as in The Passage, is much more interesting, because choices were made at each juncture that could have gone differently.

The Passage showed us this process each step of the way, from the first kernel of an idea hatched between a desperate scientist and a ruthless one to the falling out between nations, based on blame and fear. It’s a story populated with monsters who looked very much like people, monsters who were people, and people who were trying to do the right thing but made the wrong choice, or waited too long to act, or put the fate of their loved ones before the fate of the world.

These are all human choices, made in moments of panic or moments where it seems that a single decision won’t decide the fate of the world. It’s only in hindsight that we realize how important some choices are. The Passage elevated the usual horror story fare of stupid decisions made in a panic to show that under the right conditions, intelligent, well-intentioned people can make disastrous choices, even when they’ve thought them through.

By spending all of season 1 in the present day and on the events that lead to the near extinction of humanity, viewers got to know all of the important players very well. The Passage has a large cast, with potentially as many as 12 characters moving forward to season 2 on a regular or recurring basis, and several more to be added who were born in the postapocalyptic future.

The father-daughter relationship between Brad and Amy is the heart of the show, while the predatory way that Fanning tries to lure Amy into giving into her viral side shows that he’s an evil villain. Lila and Sykes have served as Amy’s benign and problematic surrogate mothers, respectively. Shauna and Clark, who are trying to find a way forward as virals which doesn’t involve the extinction of humans, show one potential path toward redemption and compromise in the new world. Jonas and Lacey, who are trying to inoculate humans against the virus using a weakened version of it, show another path toward redemption and preservation of the human race.

By the end of the season, every character was changed in profound ways, through the virus or through their experiences of loss and trauma. Carter, Guilder, Martinez and Grey are all potentially alive and each has already influenced the future. How will their recent experiences affect each character’s decisions and loyalty moving forward?

Liz Heldens, creator and showrunner for the series, deserves credit for taking a book that was heavy on white male characters and successfully diversifying them, then adding interesting, compelling relationships between those characters. There is more emotional depth  and warmth in the series than the book, thanks to Heldens’ changes and to the writing and cast.

The writing in each episode and across each story arc hit just the right tone and had great pacing. Each episode follows a few different stories, usually one or two within the Project NOAH compound and one in the outside world. Back stories are slowly revealed through flashbacks, which also serve to give the viewer a break from the prison-like compound. By the end of the episode, we know something about the past of almost every major character. We understand why certain characters are drawn together and others choose a path of annihilation.

Each episode has a balance between character moments and suspense, with the suspense growing throughout the season. The horror comes from the build up of the scenario much more than from jump scares or gross outs, though those do show up occasionally. Season 1 of The Passage is a psychological thriller as much as it is a science fiction horror story. There are plots and schemes within conspiracies, and they’re all built up slowly and subtly over the season. It takes a sharp eye to catch every plot twist.

The science behind the viral vampires is also explored in a satisfactory way, something fans of The Walking Dead will appreciate. Thanks to the show spending season 1 in the lab, the viral nature of the vampires is explained, based on science rather than the occult. There is more for the scientists to figure out in future seasons, if they have the opportunity, leaving a potential opening for the series to move beyond the books.

I loved the overall production design of the season. The Project NOAH compound, a repurposed ski resort in Colorado, was a combination of the Overlook Hotel from Stephen King’s The Shining and the underground research lab, similar to the CDC, from The Andromeda Strain. The rest of the world is our world, with the realism that makes it feel like this could happen at any time.

The virals looked sufficiently scary and monstrous, especially in their feeding state, but also looked close enough to human to still have facial expressions and garner occasional sympathy. I’ve tried to get into The Strain a few times, but have never gotten past the first few episodes because the vampires are so off-putting. We need to be able to find the humanity in our monsters in order for their true impact to be felt. The Passage found a good balance, especially since they had to invent the look, rather than use the unfilmable style described in the books.

The choice to have the virals communicate telepathically in a psychic space, and to use a golden filter to denote that, was brilliant. The virals appeared as their ideal selves in the psychic space, and were frequently manipulating humans into believing something that was too good to be true. The golden hue made it look like the fantasy world that it was.

Amongst the actors, my favorites were Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Brad Wolgast, Saniyya Sidney as Amy Bellafonte, Jamie McShane as Dr. Tim Fanning, Henry Ian Cusick as Dr. Jonas Lear, Brianne Howey as Shauna Babcock, McKinley Belcher III as Anthony Carter, Jason Fuchs as Lawrence Grey, James Le Gros as Horace Guilder, and Kamar de los Reyes as Julio Martinez. Each built an indelible character and had at least one scene partner they shared chemistry with.

The scenes between Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Saniyya Sidney and between Jamie McShane and Henry Ian Cusick were particular highlights. Saniyya Sidney is an amazing young actress. As the center of the show, this 12 year old had a lot to carry on her shoulders, and she only got better as the season went on.

The Passage also stars Caroline Chikezie as Dr. Major Nichole Sykes, Emmanuelle Chriqui as Dr. Lila Kyle, Vincent Piazza as Clark Richards, Jennifer Ferrin as Elizabeth Lear, and
Alain Uy as Dr. Daniel Pet. All are also enjoyable to watch.

The Passage, the TV series, made significant changes from the book, none of which bothered me. As I said earlier, I was put off by the lack of diversity, including the lack of women, in the Project NOAH portion of the book. Later in the books, Justin Cronin adds female characters, but gives most of the victories to the men, while the women tend to wither or make mistakes under pressure. If the TV series is renewed and can continue to avoid that trend, I’ll be very happy.

With the 97 year time jump, the show follows the same course as the book. The rest of book 1 introduces the world in 2116, which becomes the present time within the trilogy overall. When I read The Passage, I had a hard time with the jump, even though I knew it was coming, because I felt like I’d just settled into the first part, and was asked to leave it behind too quickly. I’m glad that the show is going to at least keep Shauna, Amy, Fanning, Jonas, Brad and Clark around. Lila and Lacey have good odds of making it to the next century as well. The 97 year time jump is in book 1, but then book 2 fills in the gaps left by the jump. Hopefully the show will too, because those ended up as some of my favorite parts of the story.

Mr Metawitches watched The Passage with me. He hasn’t read the books and had no trouble following the story, nor did he need me to explain parts to him. The Passage ended up being his favorite new series of the year. He loves the relationship between Brad and Amy, the science-oriented viral vampires, and the rivalry between Lear and Fanning. The relationship between Brad and Amy, in particular, is something he said he hasn’t seen on TV recently.

Grade for the season: A-

Image courtesy of Fox.