Isolation plus starvation equals bad times for everybody
Credit: Annette Brown/The CW

Much like how a dead canary in a mineshaft spells certain doom for nearby miners, a dead pigeon on a barbecue spit means things are not going well in a cordon. Truly imagine what your life would have come to if you were de-feathering a dead pigeon while salivating? For most of us this nadir would arrive months, perhaps years after the downfall of society. But in the world of Containment, eating a pigeon could happen a week and a half after a wall was erected between you and a fully functioning Burger King. Desperate times come faster than we think!

This week’s episode of Containment, entitled “Like a Sheep Among Wolves,” found the show moving past the ennui and inconvenience of a quarantine and into actual survival horror mode. For anyone who’s watched The Walking Dead or played a horror video game, we know that much of the appeal of the genre lies in the scavenging and moral choices we’re forced to deal with when civilization falls away. And while Containment‘s premise still feels, uh, less than convincing — would a fully functioning American society in the media age really turn a blind eye to an unprecedented viral outbreak like this? — it’s still undeniably captivating. And dark! Like, you know a series is getting grim when it starts directly referencing Schindler’s List.

On that last point, a small girl scavenging from the trash in the opening scene only to show up later as a corpse Jake had to incinerate was another indicator of how bad things have gotten inside the cordon. While the CDC (in the guise of Dr. Sabine) has focused its energies primarily on snuffing out freedom of speech, it had neglected to provide any kind of rational plan for allowing the uninfected to leave the cordon. (48-hour screening tents? Nope. Additional medical personnel? Of course not.) Worse, its policies had led to actual starvation within the fences. Dr. Sabine kept citing her experience quashing outbreaks in Sierra Leone, but this was downtown Atlanta. At the very least you’d expect a larger committee of people overseeing things here; clearly the two-person skeleton crew of Dr. Sabine and Lex was not enough.

Oh well. Now that we’re five episodes deep, it’s time to stop fretting about the premise’s credibility and start embracing the interpersonal drama. Which, as we talked about last week, is this show’s true focus. Major Lex continued to fret about his leadership skills — stress compounded by how much he missed Jana — but his internal struggles took on a pointed urgency this week when his colleagues on the force demanded he bend the rules for one of their own who’d become trapped inside the cordon. It’s brave of Containment to address the public-endangering cronyism of the brotherhood of blue, but whereas real life police corruption leads to unjust exonerations and promotions, here it could cause WORLDWIDE PANDEMIC. And it’s saying something that not even the threat of mass infection would stop these cops from wanting to protect a brother. Credit to Containment: That’s dark stuff.

Similarly complicated from a societal standpoint was the armed gang who’d taken control of Teresa’s family’s grocery store. Last week made clear that these goons were less about stealing potato chips and more about organizing a sort of warlord zone, an idea underlined by their leader’s cool-headed pragmatism regarding the outbreak. And while it wasn’t a shock this week to see them hijack a food drop, there was something chilling about the leader’s explanation to Jake that this was just simple capitalism. So, for those keeping score, Containment has now openly addressed media corruption, police corruption, and economic corruption. Not bad for a show about bloody noses!

NEXT: Meth-heads on motorbikes!

But “Like a Sheep Among Wolves” had more on its mind than social issues. It also had meth-heads on motorbikes doing wheelies in an underground parking garage for hours and hours. Initially this just meant endless entertainment for Jana and her pals as they watched the shenanigans on closed-circuit security cameras. But later when Jana tasked herself with retrieving food, her decision to enter and exit through the same parking garage led to the episode’s tensest sequence. Bobbing and diving among parked cars with her box of foodstuffs, Jana attempted to sneak to the elevators without being seen by any of the meth-heads, yet ultimately had to stab one in the neck after he came for her. Again, few things signal crumbling society like having to stab a meth-head in the neck, but that’s where Jana was at now. Fortunately the rooftop hunk helped her get away from these goons, and not a moment too soon. (She’s going to need another love interest for this show to finally acquire a legally mandated love triangle.)

Although Katie has not been the most interesting character on Containment, this week found her turning into a sort of Lady Fox Mulder after she uncovered a possible conspiracy behind the outbreak. Everybody — including we the viewers — had been led to believe that Patient Zero brought the virus into America, possibly as part of a stealth terrorist attack. But Katie began to question why a pair of doctors had succumbed to their symptoms before he had? And why was there a page torn out of the visitors’ log that day? And why was Dr. Victor refusing to answer any of Katie’s questions all of a sudden? Again, while Containment has made clear it would rather have its characters flirt and/or perspire in tank tops, it would be pretty great if there was a larger, more terrifying story behind the virus. Wouldn’t it be nice if the stakes felt slightly higher?

It’s this last question I can’t stop asking myself. At this point Containment wants it both ways: It wants to feel like a limited (perhaps due to budget constraints) look at a viral outbreak in a contained space, but it also wants to show us a crumbling society. I’m not convinced it can do both things at once. Again, the abject silence from the outside world feels baffling considering every tiny outrage we’re forced to read about on the internet every day. Everybody was rightfully livid about the poisoned drinking water of Flint, Michigan… Just imagine if several thousand Atlanta citizens were cordoned off without communication or food or a plan for evacuation? We wouldn’t be talking about anything else!

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As it is, though, we’re talking about Containment, and it’s at the very least a half-step of plausibility above The Walking Dead. Would we rather see this show fully embrace its nihilism and darkness and become a nonstop horror show week to week? Maybe? Just not yet. For now it’s equal parts compelling and pleasant, and as long as it continues to examine some of the smaller-scale injustices our society deals with every day, it’s worth our time. Canaries may be dying right and left, but that just means we’re in the right place.

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