As we sit in the shadows of the COVID-19 pandemic in a society where conspiracy theories and “personal research” are touted, some regard the medical field skeptically. However, many still view healthcare professionals in the highest regard, often without reproach. The general praise of doctors has allowed a few in the profession to get away with murder, literally. Based on the Wondery podcast, “Dr. Death: Miracle Man,” the second season of Peacock‘s anthology series “Dr. Death” follows the real-life story of Dr. Paolo Macchiarini (Edgar Ramírez), whose web of deception stretched and spun across his private and professional lives, destroying anyone who dared to stand in his way. A whirlwind romance contrasting against horrific malpractice, the eight-episode season is a solid and compelling tale of the lies we tell ourselves when we are desperate for hope.
“Dr. Death” Season 2 begins with a pair of bloody gloved hands and the sounds of a transplant patient gasping for breath. This imagery and the audio are showcased countless times throughout the season. Before his deceit came crashing down around him, Paolo was believed to have revolutionalized regenerative medicine and organ transplantation by inventing synthetic tracheas or windpipes for both compassionate and elective use. Though the show takes place between 2011 and 2014, sliding back and forth in time, the opening chapters are primarily set in 2013. They focus on Benita Alexander (Mandy Moore), a talented New York City-based journalist working as a producer, juggling a busy career, a young daughter, Lizzi (Celestina Harris) and her ex-husband’s terminal cancer diagnosis.
Sharp and put together, Benita first meets Paolo when she interviews him for a segment on his miracle procedure. Despite her ethics and boundaries, the reporter is swept away by Paolo’s passion and intelligence. While putting together her piece on his work, the pair embark on a secret love affair that comes to a screeching halt just three weeks before their intended wedding. Moore and Ramírez’s intense chemistry reveals how easy it was for such a self-assured woman to get lost in the charm of a world-renowned surgeon. Despite knowing the direction of the narrative, the doctor is endlessly likable.
Benita and Paolo’s romance is intercut with the goings on at Sweden’s prestigious Karolinska Institute in 2012. In Stockholm, Paolo and his groundbreaking research are given free rein to all the organization’s resources. Dr. Ana Lasbrey (Ashley Madekwe) is eager to learn about Paolo’s synthetic trachea transplants and even assist in surgeries. Dr. Anders Svensson (Gustaf Hammarsten) is more than willing to use his lab of rats to conduct trials using the transplants. However, Dr. Nathan Gamelli (Luke Kirby) is weary of Paolo from the beginning. For Nathan, the science involving stem cells and plastic doesn’t quite line up.
Though the series is fine, the timeline feels convoluted as it jolts over the years before Benita and the good doctor connect. Moreover, the most compelling episodes of “Dr. Death” lie in the season’s second half. In Episode 4, “Tarantela Telaraña,” Benita uses her journalism training and starts picking at the holes in Paolo’s incredible life. Her investigation uncovers things she could have never expected. In portraying the disgraced surgeon, Ramírez is so controlled and endearing that when his facade finally shatters to show his overt narcissism and sociopathic tendencies, it’s almost shocking to see how monstrous he is.
Episode 4 is intriguing, but the following chapter, titled “191,” is a standout. As Benita allows herself to indulge in a fairytale, a young Turkish woman, Yesim Cetir (Alisha Erozer), puts her trust in Paolo and his plastic windpipe. The heartbreaking episode showcases Dr. Nathan Gamelli’s race to save her as her organs begin failing. If some of these latter, hospital-focused sections that display rampant institutional failures had been put at the forefront of the season, with Paolo and Benita’s relationship trailing, it would have made for an even stronger, more sinister show.
While the earliest episodes drag a bit, Moore never presents Benita as incapable or naive, but instead as someone who simply thought she had another chance at love. Additionally, in a series full of medical terms and countless visuals of surgeries and procedures, writer/showrunner Ashley Michel Hoban and the cast carefully ground the audience in this expansive con, plainly illustrating the complex medicine and malpractice that propped up the Italian doctor for so long.
The show carefully constructs a monument of a man who has never truly faced real repercussions. The series also addresses the doctors and institutions who were duped and complicit in Paolo’s lies and the one woman who was willing to stand in her truth in the face of misogyny and disbelief so that Paolo’s house of cards might come tumbling down. Disturbing and well-acted, “Dr. Death: Cutthroat Conman” is about what we wish and hope for and the cruel realization of what’s actually possible.
“Dr. Death” Season 2 premieres on Peacock Dec. 21.