As we wrap up the second season of Pandemic (aka “2021”), it’s become clear that this season, while not as narratively straightforward as the blockbuster first season (“2020”), tried to explore deeper themes of society and humanity. While Season 1 may have been riveting entertainment, Season 2 moved beyond just “disaster porn” to become a show that clearly has something important to say about us all.
As you’ll recall, the first season of Pandemic was essentially a disaster movie, but with the novel twist of “what if the disaster didn’t end?” Some of the writers’ early attempts to prolong and/or worsen the pandemic were a bit heavy-handed, such as government officials being so obviously insensitive to the dangers posed by the novel coronavirus to the point that it was hardly believable, but once it got going, Pandemic really hit its stride. “2020” really became about the confluence of disasters, exploring what happens when a disaster hits, such as a flood or a wildfire, and there’s already an existing disaster going on, exacerbating both in unexpected ways. From supply chain panics to racial unrest to hurricanes to massive economic instability, the writers of Pandemic left no disaster stone unturned.
Ultimately, as conventional disaster movies usually do, the first season of Pandemic ended on a hopeful note, as we saw the introduction of several highly-effective vaccines, coupled with the election of a more conventional US President, one who actually seemed to want to end the pandemic. However, that left the writers without an obvious place to take the second season, and massive expectations to live up to.
The solution, however, was rather ingenious: run all the same plot lines from “2020” back in “2021”, but against a different political and epidemiological background. It’s sort of a classic strategy for sequels – everything is the same, but different. President Trump is out of office, but as the failed coup attempt in the explosive season premiere portended, he’s hardly out of the picture. There may be safe, effective vaccines, but a surprising new resistance to them became a new form of political opposition. And as the second season of Pandemic unfolded, each episode brought back a classic disaster from the first season – tornados, wildfires, racial injustice, all of it – underscoring just how little had changed between 2020 and 2021.
Probably the most revealing plotline of the second season of Pandemic was the political battle over how to fight the pandemic itself. While Season 1 dramatized how the pandemic was made worse by an indifferent federal government that was interested exclusively in its electoral fortunes, and was actively hostile to expertise of every kind, Season 2 flipped the script, installing a more conventional administration that actively fought the pandemic (with perhaps inconsistent competency). However, rather than eliminating this conflict, the battle was shifted to the states, as red state governors fought the federal government at every turn. We saw the struggle play out across all levels of government, from small towns and school boards to the halls of Congress and the Supreme Court. While former President Trump was a convenient bogeyman in Season 1, and his acolytes a persistent presence in Season 2, it became increasingly clear that American society’s paralyzing inability to address just about any of its current challenges was not just about one man, but in fact lay much, much deeper.
Still, the wide distribution of vaccines muted some of the drama of Season 2, and by summertime, with various other plotlines having failed to generate the same urgency, interest in Pandemic began to wane. In response, the writers broke out a new threat, one they had teased several times before: variants. The Delta variant was the breakout hit of the summer, returning Pandemic to the top of the ratings. The new variant was so virulent that it felt like a whole new pandemic, and characters were forced to reassess risk levels and safety protocols in response.
If Season 1 followed the typical disaster movie script of things getting steadily worse before hitting a hopeful note at the end, Season 2 partially fulfilled that hope, but then not so much snatched it away as slowly ground it down, episode after episode. The vaccines couldn’t contain the outbreak, nor could government policies, and large portions of society refused to do anything to help at all. Climate disasters, class division, and racial strife all seemed to get worse, and through it all, government seemed powerless to address any of these issues, or indeed to accomplish much of anything. Democracy itself faced growing threats, and its future is uncertain. Disaster movies, at their core, are about revealing the character of those facing adversity, and what Pandemic Season 2 revealed about society is a dire undercurrent of weakness, an inability to come together when faced with a major threat.
To top it off, Pandemic finished up Season 2 on a cliffhanger. As if the Delta variant wasn’t bad enough, the final episodes introduced the Omicron variant, spreading with a speed almost unheard of. What trajectory this new variant ultimately takes is unknown, but with Pandemic renewed for at least one more season, it would be naïve to think we were witnessing the endgame. Some of the most popular message board theories think Pandemic might be heading towards an “endemic” ending, where the novel coronavirus never goes away, but instead society and the virus adapt to live with one another. It might not be the most satisfying ending, but then, after the twists and turns of the first two seasons, one worries that Pandemic might turn into another Lost, where the writers keep ratcheting up the stakes and introducing new plotlines without having any idea where the story is going at all.
However Pandemic does finally wind down, it has already assured its place as the most captivating series of our generation. Indeed, it seems certain that once Pandemic runs its course, the producers will generate spin-off series to try and capitalize on its popularity. Already, several subplots show promise of carrying the story on their own -- we may one day look back on Climate Disaster as the Frasier to Pandemic’s Cheers.