While everyone turning to Netflix seems to be watching Outbreak and Gwyneth Paltrow is on every other laptop, I’ve found myself craving depictions of pandemics that are a little more old school. Less protective gear, more protective incense. Fewer calls for medicine and more calls for preemptive jumping jacks. From The Tudors to Little House on the Prairie, television’s period dramas have all had their outbreak episodes, which should seem a little more distant from our current situation than near-future pandemic sagas—if only because of the outfits. Here are a few to check out.
Life on the prairie was rough; over the course of its nine seasons, Half Pint and company weathered outbreaks of anthrax, mountain fever, and smallpox. But it’s Season 1's “Plague” that turns the show into an episode of House, M.D. Poor Doc Baker must discover how people in all corners of the town (after they’ve shut down the school and church and told everyone to stay in their homes because they understood the importance of social distancing) are still coming down with typhus. Spoiler: it’s always the rats.
Everything about Reign must be ratcheted up to 11, and an outbreak of the plague is no exception. Mary, not quite yet the queen of France, has to decide how to avoid getting sick herself (she goes with protective smoke), how to quarantine those at court who do get sick (there are no streaming services or snacks involved), and how to deal with the guilt over locking out her husband in the plague-ridden streets when he insists on braving the germs to see his illegitimate son born. And she does it all in the fanciest of all prom gowns.
When an outbreak of sweating sickness hits London, King Henry has no chill (possibly because the illness is what killed his big brother, leaving him king). He works in rapid succession through very suspect drinks to ward off the plague, to preemptive jumping jacks (the sick sweat can’t find you if you’re covered in healthy sweat!), to complete isolation from everyone, getting his meals left at his door by a super jumpy servant.
While ending up on a ship with a typhoid fever outbreak is pretty unlucky, few things seem as lucky as bumping into a ship on the wide ocean that happens to be carrying a doctor from the future. Claire doesn’t have any medicine from the 20th century to help the men battle their illness, but she does know enough about germ theory and hand washing to slow it down. Unfortunately, she has to battle rampant sexism while she tries to save everyone’s lives, but she’s nothing if not a multitasker.
This is probably the most educational of the bunch. Queen Victoria gets a little nervous about an outbreak of cholera, as her court physicians tell her the illness is in the air. Luckily, John Snow (you know this history lesson takes at least 10 minutes longer in the post-Games of Thrones world), father of germ theory and medical detective, is out to discover it’s actually in the water. If you’re at all squeamish, this episode won’t bother you one bit. Though telltale symptoms of cholera include explosive diarrhea and vomiting, as this is a very proper PBS period drama, those suffering from the disease just clutch their stomachs, very properly, in clean white beds.
It’s hard to classify this episode as a real plague narrative as viewers see a total of five people get sick, but that’s kind of the nature of this show about an English sea town that contains approximately three families and a dozen miners. One family unit in the extended titular Poldarks (I know, I know, really there’s only one titular Poldark, but for the sake of summary) is stricken with “the putrid throat” (diphtheria, a 21st-century name I was very happy to find in the episode description so I didn’t need to google “putrid throat”), along with all their (unseen) servants, and so a neighboring Poldark has to take care of all of them. Cut to everyone being very surprised when the kindly caregiver also comes down with said illness (then cut to seas spray, to remind you it’s all happening in a small seaside town).
Molly Horan is an adjunct professor at NYU and SVA who is responsible for more of the view count on the “Homeward Bound-End Scene” YouTube video than she’d like to admit.