Why ‘The Hot Zone: Anthrax’ Created a Composite Investigator to Tell Terrorism Story

NatGeo The Hot Zone Anthrax
Courtesy of Natgeo

Mailing envelopes full of anthrax spores to individuals is certainly an intimate and personal attack, but because of the ability of anthrax to infect anyone in the area who inhales it once it is in the air, it is also a widespread act of terrorism. The second season of National Geographic’s “Hot Zone” anthology, aptly subtitled “Anthrax,” balances both elements while covering a seven-year period in the FBI’s case to uncover who was responsible for the 2001 attacks.

The Hot Zone: Anthrax,” which premieres Nov. 28 at 9 p.m. on the linear cabler, follows 2019’s freshman season of the anthology series that centered on the 1989 Ebola crisis. Brian Peterson, co-showrunner of “Hot Zone: Anthrax,” notes that Ebola was a contagion story, so it was about “keeping panic in” and therefore “very claustrophobic.” Now, the second season is “blown out.”

“We go to Florida, we go to D.C., we go to New York, we cut out a piece in the Southwest. So, what was very different was actually addressing the panic and addressing what happens when disaster strikes in the media, when disaster strikes on Capitol Hill, when disaster strikes in a retirement community in Florida,” he explains.

This new story centers on a team of FBI agents led by Matthew Ryker (Daniel Dae Kim) who are trying to get to the bottom of the anthrax cases in the United States in 2001. But it begins in 1979 Russia when anthrax was released from a Soviet military research facility, killing more than 60 people, only for the government to attempt a cover-up, blaming tainted meat. Autopsies proved the real cause of death, which allowed many scientists to learn that this weapon was out in the world.

“When you’re dealing with something like anthrax, [it’s] is not such a daily occurrence that the average person is going to go, ‘Oh I know if you inhale it, this can happen, you could die.’ So we needed something to tell people right up front that the stakes of this are extremely high,” co-showrunner Kelly Souders says.

“Using the Cold War biological arms race, we thought really helped inform Ryker and the conclusions he comes to and the conclusions that the greater government comes to as far as decisions that are made later in the series,” Peterson adds.

Ryker is not based on any real FBI agent in particular but instead was created to represent someone who has a “personal stake” in the case, Souders says. Peterson adds that it was important to fictionalize the lead agent because they needed to present a character who would follow the investigation all the way through, and in reality many people came and went.

Ryker has a background in microbiology, which uniquely positions him to quickly and correctly identify the agent when the first victim falls ill.

“National Geographic really wanted to focus on the science [and] being a scientist in the FBI was something that we just thought was really cool,” says Peterson. “I don’t know how often you really get to see that. And what a great underdog, given a lot of the FBI that you see on TV, that is just not the archetype usually.”

He also has important perspective being one of few people of color working in the bureau. The lack of diversity and inclusion in that workplace was something Souders says they wanted to “embrace and not rewrite.”

Similarly, it was important for Peterson and Souders to depict Bruce Ivins as he was, rather than fictionalize or create a brand-new character to act as the man who became the suspected perpetrator of these attacks.

Ivins died by suicide in July 2008, well after he had become a person of interest in the anthrax investigation. Many news reports at the time of his death speculated that he would have been charged with the mailings that resulted in multiple deaths, though a few years later reports emerged that evidence may have been circumstantial. The FBI files on the case are so heavily redacted that Peterson and Souders relied on many of Ivins’ own files, including documentation of what he said he told the FBI, as pieces of research for the show. This coupled with “stacks of books” and “many articles” allowed the production team to put together “a 100-page, single-spaced” research document for the project.

“Not one book covered everything, so we literally wrote a book for the most part, just to use internally,” says Souders. “With Bruce, we tried to approach it not with an opinion of our own. We have the FBI’s opinion, and we stay really close [to that].”

In diving deeply into the FBI’s experience during this time, Peterson and Souders had to depict field work, such as sending agents out to postal facilities and hospitals, as well as struggling with time- and resource-sapping issues such as hoaxes and the way the media covered the cases. The latter, Peterson notes, is treated collectively as one character in order to explain to audience members who may not have personal memories of the time what the mindset was for the public and why.

“There were hundreds of thousands of hoaxes. It’s something that it’s hard to get your head around — that at a time when the country was under crisis somebody thought it was a good idea to send a letter pretending to be anthrax or whatever direct in the mail. It’s just so disturbing that it was happening at this massive, massive level. This case, when it first appeared, was a needle in the haystack,” Peterson says.

Adds Souders: “We were a much more innocent country at that time. And I think nobody really thought that anybody would ever actually unleash that, but through history it’s been unleashed, sometimes multiple times.”