Medical Thriller 'Dr Death' Delivers Another Dose of True-Crime Nightmare Fuel in Its Compelling Second Season

Another sinister surgeon fuels this anthology series' Édgar Ramirez- and Mandy Moore-starring return — plus romantic scams, too.
Sarah Ward
Published on December 20, 2023

Late in the second season of Dr Death, the concept of trust in healthcare fuels a rousing speech. In a plea for a hospital to make the right choice about the titular practitioner, the importance of doctors doing their utmost to earn, deserve and uphold the faith that patients put in them — and that the entire medical industry is based on — is stressed like it's the most important aspect of being in the healing business. It is, of course. That anyone with an ailment or illness can have confidence that they're being given the best advice and treatment, and that whether they live or die matters to the doc caring for them, is the most fundamental tenet of medicine. It's also why this anthology series keeps proving shiver-inducing nightmare fuel, initially in its debut season in 2021 and now in its eight-episode follow-up.

Streaming via Stan in Australia and TVNZ+ in New Zealand from Friday, December 22, season two of Dr Death again explores the actions of a surgeon who threatens to shatter humanity's shared belief in doctors. The first time around, Texas neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch was sparking terror. Now, the series tells of Paolo Macchiarini. Where Duntsch specialised in operating on spinal and neck injuries, often with heartbreakingly grim results, Macchiarini was dubbed 'Miracle Man' for his pioneering research into synthetic organs and regenerative medicine. In 2008, he was among the team that undertook the world's first-ever windpipe transplant aided by using the patient's own stem cells — a procedure that he hailed as a ground-breaking step forward, then kept building upon.

Even without knowing the specifics of Macchiarini's life and career when sitting down to binge Dr Death's second season — which is compellingly bingeable in a can't-look-away fashion — it's obvious that everything that the Swiss surgeon claims can't be true. If it was, he wouldn't have been the subject of the third season of the Wondery podcast that originated the Dr Death moniker, or of this TV adaptation. Hospital horrors are one strand of true-crime's trusty go-tos. Another: romantic scandals. So, when the audio network that's also behind Dirty John learned of Macchiarini, it must've felt like it had hit the jackpot. With devastating results that are chilling to watch, his patients did when he offered them hope, too.

With Édgar Ramírez (Florida Man) as Macchiarini and Mandy Moore (This Is Us) as investigative journalist Benita Alexander, two unnerving stories sit inside Dr Death's return. One examines the doctor who promises survival to people with tracheal injuries or cancer, or who were born without the tube connecting the larynx to the lungs, via new experimental surgery. Later, he'll also pledge a fresh lease on life to folks who aren't facing death, turning the operation into an elective procedure. The other narrative focuses on a woman who falls for a con man. Macchiarini is the key figure in both, with his charm helping put his patients at ease and get Alexander to see him as more than just a subject. Their paths cross when she's looking for feel-good news content, choosing producing a special about his efforts with two-year-old Hannah Warren (first-timer Naomi Rothing), a candidate for a biosynthetic windpipe.

Although every episode of Dr Death season two jumps between countries and years — across the 2010s, Macchiarini worked in Sweden, the US and Russia — creator and writer Ashley Michel Hoban (The Girl From Plainville) pushes the rom-con to the fore to begin with, leaving much of the quest to expose medical malpractice to later instalments. Accordingly, early chapters spend more time with Alexander in New York as she dives into her gushing Macchiarini report while coping with an ex-husband (Jason Alan Carvell, Godfather of Harlem) facing terminal cancer and supporting her pre-teen daughter Lizzi (Celestina Harris, Yuletide the Knot). When the bulk of the attention shifts to the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm after casualties start mounting, doctors Ana Lasbrey (Ashley Madekwe, The Strays), Anders Svensson (Gustaf Hammarsten, Parliament) and Nathan Gamelli (Luke Kirby, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel) relentlessly pursue their mission to stop Macchiarini from inflicting harm.

The flitting-about structure isn't this season's strongest choice, but it's done with a purpose: putting viewers unacquainted with Macchiarini firmly in Alexander's shoes. From the outset, Dr Death's audience sees the transplantees who don't make it, the cavalier attitude in the operating theatre, Gamelli's skepticism from the moment the Karolinska Institute commences fawning over its star arrival and the concerning results of Svensson's trials in rats for Macchiarini. With Ramírez all enigmatic charm in the show's initial half, however, they also spy why Alexander flouted journalistic ethics to have an affair with and then plan to marry the surgeon (and fell for claims that the Pope would officiate their lavish wedding). Across both his professional and personal spheres, Dr Death demonstrates how Macchiarini trades so ruthlessly and manipulatively in hope as well, with patients and Alexander alike seeing the doc as their solution for a better future.

Ramírez is convincingly smooth as Macchiarini at his most charismatic and glossily shot, while always exuding an air of insincerity like everything that he's saying is too good to be true (again, it is) if you question it. He's also hauntingly petrifying whenever he's challenged, and in the utter lack of regard he has for anyone under his knife's welfare despite claims to the contrary. Moore ensures that Alexander isn't seen as dewy-eyed or simply easily duped out of grief; that she's astute and capable makes Macchiarini's scam all the more distressing. Combining compassion, anger and exasperation, Kirby gives Dr Death's best season two performance, though, especially in a traumatic episode about Yesim Cetir (Alisha Erozer, in her first TV role) and the 191 surgeries that sprang from being in Macchiarini's care — which visibly and emotionally charts the impact on the patient, plus the toll on the doctor trying to keep her alive. (Yes, that number is correct.)

While Dr Death fleshes out the characters surrounding its latest titular figure, it isn't without its gaps. Still layered within is the infuriating lust for fame, prestige and money, including over safety, that drives not only Macchiarini but also the institutions that court, celebrate and protect him. The media's role in boosting his status is given less scrutiny, even though this story screams for it. He isn't just a true-crime favourite now — 2023 has brought two new on-screen accounts about Macchiarini, following Netflix documentary Bad Surgeon: Love Under the Knife, which released in November — but was fêted by Alexander's report and others. Although Dr Death depicts interviews, spots headlines and seethes with fury generally, and can't be faulted for taking the human angle, the bleak reality that Macchiarini garnered so much trust because of his press-assisted reputation can't be shaken.

Check out the trailer for Dr Death season two below:

Season two of Dr Death streams via Stan in Australia and TVNZ+ in New Zealand from Friday, December 22.

Images: Scott McDermott/Peacock.

Published on December 20, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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