(Image: Netflix)

“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” —John 8:32, King James Bible

“You are never gonna know what happened in that room.” —Eric Olson, Wormwood

Eric Olson has all the hallmark traits of a phenomenal interview subject. He’s talkative and articulate, but he’s also self-aware, self-reflective, and most importantly, hypercritical of established narratives. Unfortunately, it’s those same qualities that also make him somewhat of a tragic figure, someone who will never get past the trauma at the center of his life. But Wormwood implicitly asks the question: What’s the point of “getting past” trauma if you don’t even know what really happened? How willing are you to accept a foundation of lies just to alleviate your own suffering?

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“Chapter 2: A Terrible Mistake” largely focuses on the release of the Colby documents to the Olson family. William Colby, director of the CIA, provided the Olson family with a file filled with documents that ostensibly explained the details of Frank’s death. The Colby documents push what the Olson family attorney David Kairys describes as the “experiment suicide story,” that Frank was the unfortunate victim of a CIA experiment gone horribly wrong. In 1975, a year when America’s trust in their government was at an all-time low, the Colby documents signaled that the CIA was reckoning with their own past. They were coming forward with the truth after decades of lies.

Of course, the Colby documents are not what they seem. Both Eric and Kairys explicitly state in Wormwood that the file they were given was completely incoherent—just a smattering of randomly assembled statements and memos that tell a story, albeit one with no summary, analysis, or conclusion whatsoever. David Rudovsky, the Olson family’s other attorney, explains to Morris that the Colby documents stand as the best evidence of a CIA cover-up. They were the United States government’s attempt to misdirect the Olson family from the real atrocity that took place. It’s much easier to say “Frank couldn’t handle LSD and then jumped out of a window” than the truth.

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Despite their questionable nature, the Colby documents figure heavily into Wormwood not just because they tell the “official” story of Frank’s death, but also because they’re the basis for the dramatizations in the series. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Morris claims that his choice to dramatize the documents “has to be some act of perversity” because no one knows if any of it is true. While Morris’ point is not devoid of merit, the documents make up the fiction that has come to define Eric’s life. It might be curious to dramatize, and simultaneously embellish, the government’s lies, but they are also the same lies that Morris, Eric, and others must routinely interrogate and question. It’s only fitting that the audience does so, too.

Plus, the dramatizations themselves are, for the most part, exceptionally well done. I mentioned yesterday that Ellen Kuras and Igor Martinovic provide those scenes with Rockwellian sheen that contrast with their hallucinatory, nefarious tone. Today, however, it’s only right to cite the work done by actors Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Parker, who play Frank and Alice Olson respectively. The parallel story in “A Terrible Mistake” covers Frank’s post-LSD depression and how it eventually leads him on a trip to New York to see a psychiatrist. Sarsgaard excels at playing a hollow depressive, someone who has seemingly seen another side of himself and doesn’t quite know how to handle it. Parker, on the other hand, wonderfully projects legitimate concern behind a calm façade, while also sharing the same bone-deep confusion as Sarsgaard. They make a compelling duo, even though they’re not on screen for very long.

We’re also introduced to Dr. Harold Abramson (played by Bob Balaban), an allergist and a CIA employee who contributed to the MKUltra project. Vin Ruwet (Scott Shepherd) and Dr. Lashbrook (Christian Camargo) take Olson to Abramson’s office in New York where he runs a series of tests that only further confuse and irritate Olson. At the end of their visit, Abramson provides him with a whiskey bottle “to take the edge off.” Later that night, just before Ruwet and Lashbrook are going to take Olson to see Rogers and Hammerstein’s Me And Juliet, Ruwet pushes Olson to drink some of the whiskey. Morris suggests that the bottle has been dosed with LSD.

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Morris doesn’t avoid editorializing in these dramatizations about Olson’s possible mental state in the days leading up to his death. When Olson watches the musical, he sees a flash of the two leads in gas masks. Soon Morris floods the frame with footage of biochemical experiments, his family at Thanksgiving with an empty chair at the head of the table, and a hypothetical scene where the cops capture Olson outside the theater. Olson, a biological warfare scientist, has seen many things during his time at Fort Detrick. Did the LSD push Olson to confront repressed memories of his work for the government? Did his unconscious mind associate musicals with death? Like wormwood’s effect on the waters in Revelation, the drug has rendered everything Frank sees as bitter.

Again, the Colby documents could be almost entirely false, but it’s crucial to recognize that Eric has taken up that bitterness in his own life. The other major part of “A Terrible Mistake” covers Eric’s own personal life and how he “can’t imagine” a resolution for himself, especially since his own family suffered even more in the immediate aftermath of his father’s death. A few years after the Olson family accepted the government settlement, Eric’s sister Lisa and her husband planned to invest their portion in a lumber mill in the Adirondacks. They chartered a small plane to upstate New York to view the property, but the plane went down in a snowstorm, killing a pregnant Lisa, her husband, and their small child. From Eric’s perspective, the government was indirectly responsible for their deaths as well.

Morris also examines Eric’s own interest in “the collage method,” which he terms as a form of therapy that examines the psyche through connections between overlapping symbols. Wormwood formally adopts this method as a way of conveying Eric’s own mental state. Morris collages images and shots together to create patterns and designs that suggest long-term disorientation and sorrow. As professor of philosophy Richard Boothby says, “When a child is confronted by an adult who is wearing a mask, the child can actually enjoy it like a game. But when the mask is removed to reveal yet another mask, the reaction is panic.” Eric’s panic is the locus for Wormwood and its primary formal drive. He’s never gonna know what happened in that room, but dammit, he’s gonna try.

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Stray observations

  • If you want more information on the collage method, you can check out the website for the Frank Olson Project. Eric goes into great detail about the technique.
  • If you’re wondering about that dome Olson was wearing in Abramson’s office, it’s a part of the Ganzfield experiment. Sarsgaard’s confusion and irritation in these scenes are quite funny.
  • “The mystery of his father’s death was the thing that got him making collages. The tragedy is the mystery of his father’s death has prevented him from successfully bringing that psychological work to some realization.”

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