Deadly airborne pathogens threaten to level whole cities. The government must act decisively in order to avert the worst-case scenario. The public spins into a frenzy of fear over misinformation. While the above scans for current COVID reality, National Geographic’s The Hot Zone: Anthrax revisits a similarly tense point of American history—only this time, it’s the lethal powders of mailed anthrax gripping the nation in terror in 2001.
Over its six episodes, The Hot Zone: Anthrax (a follow-up of sorts to 2019’s Ebola-focused The Hot Zone) straddles the line as a piece of didactic entertainment and full sail cable TV thriller, both recapturing the psychological disposition of a post-9/11 America and submerging the viewer within a whodunnit format. Lost and Hawaii Five-0’s Daniel Dae Kim anchors the series as Special Agent Matthew Ryker, a lead investigator in the hunt to stop anthrax attacks, with Dylan Baker of The Americans and Homeland fame playing his boss, Ed Copak. The choice to ground this season’s point of view largely through the lens of law enforcement has its advantages. The ability of deputized characters to transverse rooms and labs with authority also grants access for the audience to come alongside them and glean otherwise unknowable details. However, there are also notable drawbacks.
Like most media fixed around the events and aftermath of 9/11, nationalism is thick. While avoiding a law enforcement angle entirely would have been impossible, Anthrax makes the same ask of its viewers that so many other series featuring cops and uniformed personnel do: trust us. But the show also demonstrates, like so many other shows within its genre, that that trust may also be extremely misguided to hold — and TV’s insistence to center these figures within entertainment only works to reinforce a somewhat dubious standard of public faith in these institutions.
In the same breath, the concepts of mistrust and overconfidence—even delusion—are somewhat thoughtfully handled by the writers on a character level. For a season invested in tracking down terrorists or lone wolf actors armed with bioweapons, Anthrax does pause to give the audience not only a reveal, but also insight into the psychology behind the attacks. For those chasing down the perpetrator, the weight of job and the trauma of 9/11 (especially for intelligence officers aware of their agencies’ failures to protect the public), punctuates episodes. While some gestures at humanizing Special Agent Ryker come off as cornball, even making some sketchy motions at the lives beyond each main characters’ career-facing front pays dividends. Every character—and every person—acts on impulses driven by personal backstories. Anthrax understands the collision of private lives and public consequences intimately.
And while snail mail gets a reputation for boredom, the logistics and detective work of these mailed threats give the show its best flair. From understanding how the powder was packaged to the Postal Services’ particular way of printing and carrying mail to destinations, these moments felt like a place where Anthrax hit a hot streak. For viewers invested in the minutiae of letters (from handwriting, drop boxes, and return addresses), this season finds its footing in the nerdish details. Going one step beyond, the hidden histories and tragedies within the Postal Service’s working class ranks also opens the audience to new revelations: who absorbs the United States national crises first, and who pays for the consequences most bitterly.
The Hot Zone: Anthrax is easy to inhale. It’s nothing that will revolutionize its medium or push its genre forward, but revisiting this history places the present in relief. As we stay masked, cautious of what we breathe in, this season adds to the imagination. What floats around us, what floats within us—all of it converges. After all, what captures unique American neuroses more than Amerithrax itself?
The Hot Zone: Anthrax premieres Sunday, November 28th on Nat Geo.
Katherine Smith is Virginia-based freelance writer and contributor to Paste Magazine. For her musings on popular culture, politics, and beyond, find her on Twitter @k_marie_smith
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