(Photo: Netflix)

“You’re losing control, Frank. Are you forgetting the premium placed on control?”—-Dr. Harold Abramson, Wormwood

While the discussion of whether Wormwood is technically a film or a miniseries might seem tedious and irrelevant, an episode like “The Forbidden Threshold” genuinely provokes questions about the work’s categorization.

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Wormwood was conceived for Netflix as a six-part miniseries and was supposedly edited with the intention of chapter breaks. At the same time, it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September before its Netflix debut, and Morris prepared a special theatrical cut of Wormwood that is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles. Though Morris’ docudrama hasn’t provoked the same fervent debate about categorization like Twin Peaks: The Return has, there are good arguments that exist on both sides of the divide, even as hardline distinctions continue to collapse in our ever-fragmented media landscape.

In the interest of full disclosure, I believe that Wormwood is best consumed all at once, whether that occurs in a theater or a long binge at home. I think it’s important to be fully immersed in Frank Olson’s story to best appreciate the various connections Morris makes as well as the emotional potency of Eric’s lifelong quest for truth. With that said, I’m reviewing Wormwood as a miniseries, so it’s necessary for me treat each chapter as both a stand-alone entity and a part of a larger tapestry.

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“The Forbidden Threshold” introduces two key elements into the Wormwood story: The United States’ use of germ warfare in the Korean War, previously foreshadowed by Morris, and the theory that Dr. Robert Lashbrook was aware that Frank was going to be assassinated in the hotel room. While those parts are important to the series as a whole, the chapter itself is a step down from the previous two installments. The dramatizations in “The Forbidden Threshold” aren’t particularly compelling (with the notably comical exception of Frank haphazardly dancing to Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog”), and Eric’s tale about visiting key figures in his father’s death in 1984 doesn’t exactly tell us anything new beyond the fact that there was a cover-up. In short, there’s a fair bit of wheel spinning going on in this chapter.

There are a couple interesting bits in “The Forbidden Threshold,” such as the prominence of McCarthy’s address on the radio while Mal drives Olson and Ruwet back from New York. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convinced of espionage in 1951, and after being denied clemency, were executed just five months before Olson’s death. In the address, McCarthy slams his critics by claiming they’re turning a blind eye to the Communist threat. Olson, however, believes that the real threat exists right at home in the higher echelons of the government. In fact, the real threat might be sitting next to him in the car.

Though the Colby documents paint the portrait of Frank Olson as a depressive security risk catalyzed by his exposure to LSD, Wormwood constructs a different picture entirely. Morris and Eric argue that Frank was a man so disturbed by his involvement in the creation of biological weapons that he was unable and unwilling to maintain his position as a CIA employee. He was convinced the United States was resorting to germ warfare in Korea and couldn’t handle the fact that he was complicit in such atrocities. As a result, he began to lose control of his own mental state. Eric believes the government murdered his father to keep him quiet in case he decides to let slip any top-secret information about his work at Fort Detrick.

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However, the United States has consistently denied that they used biological weapons in Korea, and the American POWs who publicly confessed to their existence recanted as soon as they returned to the United States, saying their statements were obtained under duress. Was the biological weapon narrative yet another fiction amidst a totality of them, or is it another truth that has been buried by the intelligence community?

“The Forbidden Threshold” also provides more evidence of an assassination cover-up, the most compelling of which is Ruwet’s decision to stay back in Frederick, Maryland rather than return to New York with Lashbrook and Olson. Eric contends that Ruwet had to have plausible deniability considering his proximity to Olson’s family. He can easily say that he had no idea what happened to Frank because he wasn’t in the room. On the other hand, Dr. Lashbrook was the liaison between Fort Detrick and the CIA and likely had the same sensitive information as Frank did, and knew the dangers of any kind of leak. Was he Frank’s support staff, his bodyguard, or merely a transporter to his doom?

Christian Camargo imbues the appropriate amount of suspicion into his performance as Lashbrook. He doesn’t make him obviously villainous, but rather a practical, reserved man who has seen quite a bit and knows the lay of the land. He reported Frank’s brief disappearance to the security office even though it ended up being a false alarm. Though he admits he jumped the gun, he’s also keenly aware of the danger Frank poses. If Frank truly knew certain information about biological weapons, and if he truly was distraught at his potential involvement in illegal warfare, then who knows what he could say to the wrong person at the wrong time? As he sits in the bathroom awaiting a loud crash, it’s possible he was thinking what Eric later surmised: Frank’s death doesn’t create a problem. Instead, it solves one.

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Stray observations

  • I love the unpacking of the words “fall” and “jump” that run through Wormwood. Those two words take on very different meanings in the context of a hotel room. As Eric says, “You’re in a room. You can’t jump. You have to dive.”
  • “Biological weapons are ideally suited for deniable operations. The disease just starts spreading and nobody knows exactly where it came from.”
  • The shot of Abramson’s fish swimming upside down in the tank while under the influence of LSD absolutely killed me.

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