In my initial review of Fox’s The Passage, I was cautiously optimistic for the Ridley Scott-produced series based on the Justin Cronin novels—and for the most part, it delivered, mixing ticking-clock tension, intriguing characters, and vampire horror. Last night’s two-part finale, though, was a bit of a bust.
I will level most of the blame at the second hour of the finale. The first hour, “Stay in the Light,” could’ve been wrangled into a satisfying end point. The second, “Last Lesson,” was a flash-forward episode that felt like an obvious ploy to set up a second season (as of this writing, The Passage has yet to be renewed), as well as a last-ditch effort to incorporate more of the sweeping scale of Cronin’s book trilogy. It ended the season with a resounding “meh.”
“Last Lesson” wouldn’t have been quite so frustrating if The Passage hadn’t otherwise been such a fun ride. It was apocalyptic cheese, but it was enjoyable cheese, elevated by the occasional self-referential wink, some clever editing, and strong performances—particularly from Saniyya Sidney as Amy, an orphan plucked from foster care by a shadowy government program working to transform a mysterious medical discovery into a powerful cure-all antidote.
Sidney is totally believable as Amy — tough but not bratty, smart but not a know-it-all, brave but also vulnerable, and probably possessed of more common sense than all of The Passage’s adult characters combined. She’s also one of very few unselfish characters on a show where most of the drama can be traced directly back to a handful of self-serving decisions.
Amy’s the heart of the show, but The Passage spent time exploring its other characters, too—a necessary element in a story with so many moving parts. These include doctors at Project NOAH, a Department of Defence-funded program headquartered at an isolated old hotel, that starts off trying to cure diseases but ends up creating vampires with psychic powers. Oops.
Somehow they decide that the only hope for developing their miracle cure is infecting a kid (rather than death row inmates smuggled out of prison, which was their previous tactic) — and hoping she pulls through the vampire thing and emerges with super-healing powers. Most everyone feel shitty about it, especially the otherwise kindly Dr. Sykes (Caroline Chikezie), but they all agree it’s worth being morally terrible in service of the greater good.
Sykes’ colleague, Dr. Lear (Henry Ian Cusick), has personal reasons for wanting the experiment to succeed. It was his idea to venture into the Bolivian jungle, intent on finding a way to reverse his wife’s early-onset Alzheimer’s. After his best friend and fellow scientist, Dr. Fanning (Jamie McShane), gets bitten on the trip, Lear sneaks him back into the country and watches him transform into Project NOAH’s patient-zero “viral,” armed with violent super strength as well as the ability to mind-control both humans and his fellow vampires.
The Passage made sure most of its major characters — all of whom are shown to be dealing with different levels of loss, guilt, and grief — had backstories; it spent almost as much time digging into everyone’s past as it did charting the show’s present-day events. Most everyone got a flashback of some kind, either leading up to or showing the early days of their involvement with Project NOAH. And all the mind-control interludes — variously framed as nightmares, waking dreams, and full-on hallucinations that blend right into reality—helped make The Passage, a show in which many of the most compelling figures are imprisoned in glass-walled cages, more dynamic than you might expect.
Of course, as we predicted in our earlier review, any show that begins with a cell block full of pissed-off vampires has got to end with a spectacular escape. It all comes to a head in “Stay in the Light,” as Fanning and company—who’ve been turning the screws for weeks—use their supernatural juju to make a janitor unlock their cages, and also to trick a government muckety-muck (who foolishly suggests that the Department of Defence might be able to control, and therefore weaponize, Project NOAH’s vampires) into sabotaging the facility’s security systems.
Meanwhile, Amy—who’s been dosed with Fanning’s blood as part of Project NOAH’s antidote scramble, and can run really fast and read minds as a result—is teetering on the brink of succumbing to her vampire urges. Fanning creeps into her thoughts, urging her to give in; he’s intent on using her powers to elevate the hive-mind of his “family.” Amy manages to hold onto her humanity, but Project NOAH does an amazingly terrible job at preventing Fanning and most of his fellow monsters from escaping. While Amy and her sworn protector, FBI agent Brad Wolgast (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), flee from the chaos with Brad’s wife Lila (Emmanuelle Chriqui) and the magic-bullet antidote (at last!) in tow, the bloodsuckers’ merry jamboree begins.
Show, you could have ended there, with everyone hurrying away from the setting that centered so much of the season, and some somber Amy voice-over about “this is the way the world ends” echoing back to her similar musing in the very first episode. Yes, America’s vampire population is obviously about to explode, but now there’s a cure, thanks to Dr. Sykes, who heroically gave her life to make sure Brad was able to carry it to safety. That would have been a predictable ending, but it also would have been open-ended enough to allow what came before to sink in—as well as lay the groundwork for what might come after in a potential second season.
A more satisfying ending would also have gone a long way toward forgiving some of The Passage’s more egregious plot holes. I tried not to let them get to me, but…why didn’t Project NOAH just execute all the vampires other than Fanning (who somehow rigged it so if he dies, Amy also dies) once things started to go sideways? Why did they keep experimenting on death row inmates when the first human trials failed so miserably? If they had billions in funding, why didn’t they have better security measures in place? Why were some of the inmates’ backstories so badly written — especially poor real-estate guy Carter (McKinley Belcher III), who was somehow OK with being sentenced to death because his girlfriend committed suicide? Why didn’t Lila just upload all the information she’d gathered on Project NOAH to the internet, rather than entrusting it all to one TV reporter who gets killed before the story airs? How come vampire Shauna Babcock (Brianne Howey) gets to pick a human — in the form of Project NOAH’s suggestible security chief Clark Richards (Vincent Piazza) — to be her immortal bodyguard/food supplier, but apparently nobody else does?
The holes only deepen, however, in the show’s finale—the most troubling being the fact that Brad, Lila, and Amy HAVE THE CURE TO THE VIRUS and yet are hanging out in rural Oregon, “30 days later,” living off the land like suspiciously good-looking hermits. While Amy struggles to mask her growing hunger (a development that could have used a lot more attention, considering how we’ve been with her every step of the way so far), Brad gives her a crash course in wilderness survival.
Well aware that the rest of the country is suffering massive casualties and/or being turned into vampires, Lila decides she needs to travel to the CDC since she was bitten and cured by the serum back at NOAH, and might have magic blood. Then Brad gets chomped on, even though he’s been a totally kick-arse soldier dude the entire series, and Amy suddenly goes full vamp and drains their well-armed (but otherwise, seemingly decent and kind) neighbours, who are ready to take Brad out.
Then, after Amy “cures” Brad with her own magic blood (that part was unclear to me; this interview with show boss Liz Heldens explains it, though), she strides out into the wilderness, as alone at the end of the story as she was at the beginning, but now much more deadly with a bow and arrow. What happens to Brad, the guy who’s been caring for her this entire time? Does Amy’s blood make him an immortal non-vampire like Clark Richards? Who knows?
We may never know, because while all this is going on, the rest of the world makes the reasonable decision to nuke the vampire-infested U.S. off the map, and suddenly we leap to the post-apocalyptic year 2116.
Presumably, the human characters (aside from, potentially, Clark, Brad, Lila, and guilty ol’ Dr. Lear, who all either got the serum or life-saving doses of vamp blood) are long since dead, but Amy’s barely aged. She’s become a pint-sized warrior who still has to fight off vampires even though she is, lest we forget, also a vampire, and one with elevated powers to boot. Cronin fans will recognise the Colony, a key location from the books, at the very end of the episode, but it’s not explained much within the context of the show. It’s more of a “Wait, what just happened?” scene that feels tacked-on, rather than a moment that propels the story forward in a meaningful way.
After nine well-paced episodes that are mostly contained in a pressure-cooker environment, “Last Lesson” feels rushed and unfocused. A drastic shift in tone and setting is reasonable enough for a show set before and after doomsday, but The Passage handles it in such a clumsy way that it’s hard to really care what happens next—that much-hyped showdown between Amy and Fanning, perhaps?—or really, if it happens at all.