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The Doctor Is Sin

Édgar Ramírez and Mandy Moore headline a new season of murderous medical anthology Dr. Death

There were few people that Italian thoracic surgeon Paolo Macchiarini (Édgar Ramírez) couldn’t charm. Once considered a pioneer for his innovative surgeries, supposedly giving terminal patients one last chance at life, Macchiarini later became synonymous with research fraud. The second season of anthology series Dr. Death takes a look at how the charismatic surgeon convinced so many of his abilities, and how investigative journalist Benita Alexander (Mandy Moore) fell in love with her interview subject, only to learn how broad Macchiarini’s web of lies actually was.


To series creator Patrick Macmanus and showrunner Ashley Michel Hoban, this story of deception shares its DNA with the first season, which tackled American neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch (Joshua Jackson), who was convicted of permanently mutilating his patients. “It was important for Patrick to have every season feel a little bit different while still having that spine,” says Hoban. “[This season] we get to take what we think of as an American medical system problem and put it in the last place we would expect to find this kind of systemic failure, which is Sweden — the place where they give out the Nobel Prize for Medicine. It goes to show, anytime that you’re turning medical care into a for-profit business, you’re opening yourself up to having your priorities somewhere other than patient care and advocacy.”

As with the first, this season is both a character study and a study of the failures of institutions that allow these practices. “Season one feels like a blunt force instrument, and season two feels like an actual scalpel,” says Macmanus. “Christopher Duntsch was a classic sociopathic narcissist, and he didn’t know that he was doing anything wrong, but I think everyone around him did, and that was the horror of the story. Paolo Macchiarini is a far more complex character than Duntsch was, simply because of the ethical and moral lens through which he was approaching his surgery.”


Played by Ramírez, Paolo is portrayed as someone you desperately want to put your faith in. “Édgar came into the character from a really specific place of, ‘Nobody is the bad guy of their own story,’” says Hoban. “[As if] people around him don’t quite understand the lengths that you have to go to move medicine forward. And that makes him an interesting, complicated character. I think Édgar did a really good job of showing all sides of that. At the end, I don’t know if everyone will see it this way, but I think we get glimpses of maybe some regret, maybe some second-guessing — something. We get that pause from him.”

Macchiarini is surrounded by colleagues that, like Alexander, eventually catch on to his ethical breaches. “We get to watch doctors fall under Paolo’s spell and be excited by this medicine that is groundbreaking and helping people that have no other choice,” says Hoban. “They then have the awareness to step back, realize the lines they’re crossing, and make the very difficult choice to try to hold him accountable — which means standing up to an institution that has an incredible financial and influential backing.”


Macchiarini’s colleagues at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm are played by Ashley Madekwe (Revenge), Luke Kirby (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) and Gustaf Hammarsten (Old). “Wanting to believe in this fantastical idea that he could have these magical cures, they’re complicit,” says Madekwe. “They propped him up. They needed him. He was a great draw for people.” Kirby, however, believes that Macchiarini was not motivated by murder, but perhaps misguided altruism. “It’s that human flaw of thinking there’s a way that we could just resolve all of these conflicts by doing something really simple,” he reflects. “As soon as we hook into that possibility and it starts to generate profit and enthusiasm, it unleashes something potentially very dangerous. We can all get fooled into hoping that Santa’s just going to show up and we can enjoy the fruits of that. And it doesn’t work.” But it was also the unique circumstances that allowed the Italian doctor to thrive. “He was in this field of compassionate care. He was performing surgeries on people that had mortal diseases. He was their last hope,” says Hammarsten. “Regulations in that area are very grey and difficult. We have to alter regulations so this can’t happen again. And I’m not sure it’s easy to do.”

How the story ends is already part of history, but to the writers Macchiarini’s destiny is more about getting sucked into the compelling journey like those around him. “It was important for us to introduce Paolo through Benita’s point of view, because she is coming at it skeptically, as we all should,” says Hoban. “To have somebody as smart and savvy as Benita, who researched him and did her backgrounds on him, to have her also be — I don’t even want to say ‘fooled,’ because then that puts it on her. He had this web of reality that was not reality, and it was almost impossible to get out of.”

Dr. Death airs Sunday, January 14, on Showcase

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