Nat Geo’s The Hot Zone Tackles the Anthrax Attacks

In season two of Nat Geo's biohazard anthology, the FBI scrambles to find the mysterious culprit behind a series of anthrax attacks

In season two of Nat Geo’s biohazard anthology, the FBI scrambles to find the mysterious culprit behind a series of anthrax attacks

In the wake of September 11th, the United States faced another threat that often gets overshadowed by the larger national crisis: the anthrax attacks of 2001. In the weeks after the twin towers fell, letters containing anthrax spores were sent to various news agencies and senators across the country, resulting in one of the most complex investigations in U.S. history.

On the 20-year anniversary of those attacks, exec producers Kelly Souders and Brian Peterson, along with Ridley Scott’s production company Scott Free, now bring the terrifying hunt for this stealthy terrorist to the screen. “What makes this one an especially compelling story to tell is that this was a very public, horrific series of events that actually extended for seven years, in terms of the investigation,” says Scott Free exec producer David Zucker. “The time was an extraordinary one and one that still impacts us today in so many profound ways.”

Having tackled the behind-the-scenes drama of the 1989 Ebola outbreak on the first season of The Hot Zone, dramatizing the 2001 events that played out before the eyes of the world was a fascinating undertaking for the show’s creators. “It’s something that was familiar to us, but the result and the frankly shocking course of the investigation and personalities involved are greatly unknown to people,” says Zucker. “It was one of those unique opportunities to examine a period in history that had a profound effect both politically and socially, and how something like this came to pass, and, ultimately, what the resolution is—which I bet if you asked most people in this country, they have no awareness of.”

Facing off in season two are Hawaii Five-0‘s Daniel Dae Kim as the fictional Matthew Ryker, an FBI agent specializing in microbiology, and Scandal‘s Tony Goldwyn as Dr. Bruce Edwards Ivins, a real-life biodefence researcher whose behaviour makes him a suspect in the investigation. Ivins was named the sole culprit of the attacks by the Department of Justice and the FBI after his death by suicide in 2008, a fact that has been disputed by certain scientific experts and leaves the case a mystery still, to many.

To get a better sense of the controversial microbiologist, Goldwyn dug into all the research available to him. “I picked Kelly and Brian’s brains as much as I could and there was a very interesting biography that I discovered about Ivins, who is a very interesting and complicated guy, called Mirage Man,” says Goldwyn. “It was extremely helpful because it had lots of details about his life and his psyche and the investigation itself. [I also read] a number of other books about the investigation and really just tried to steep myself in it.”

Kim’s character is an amalgamation of the agents who investigated the case. When the Lost actor was cast in the role, the weight of the hero of this story being portrayed by an Asian-American did not elude the Korean-American actor. “The fact that we’re telling a story about 2001 with a lead investigator who looks like me is probably something that would not have happened in 2001,” he says. “I think it’s a sign of progress and it’s a testament to our producers and everyone associated with the show who are making decisions, that they thought an Asian-American face could represent the face of the FBI.”

Known for their work on superhero series Smallville, the goal of Souders and Peterson these days is to portray scientists as real-life heroes, at a time where accurate representation of their life-saving work is more important than ever. “What we’ve loved about both of these seasons of Hot Zone is that it’s filled with people who are trying to do the right thing to varying degrees of success and to varying challenges,” Souders explains. “You don’t have to really [portray] them in a heroic light, because that’s who they are. And when you get actors like Daniel, I mean, the work is just done for you.”

With two seasons now under their belts, the producers hope that Hot Zone is a franchise they are able to continue developing, as there unfortunately appears to be plenty of real-life material to draw from, not to mention a hunger for event series. “I think the emergence in the last years of anthological series, which were dormant for quite a number of decades, has been an extraordinarily positive one,” says Zucker. “There are stories like this that fit so firmly in this kind of format, where you can really tell the tale in the right number of hours, and the relationship with Nat Geo has been extraordinary. I would be sad not to continue that, especially since there’s so much more that we could dramatize.”

The Hot Zone: Anthrax airs Sunday at 6 p.m. & 7 p.m. (repeating at 9 p.m. & 10 p.m.) on National Geographic