Passenger List opens with a carefully structured ripple of breaking news bulletins: a mysterious catastrophe, an unconvincing official explanation, the repetitive stupidity that surrounds disaster. A plane has disappeared, no wreckage has been found. A woman whose brother was on board begins to search for the truth. The authorities say it was a bird strike: a flock of geese was shredded in the engines and 200 passengers crumpled on impact with the Atlantic ocean. Of course, the authorities’ story doesn’t make sense. So we follow our hero, Caitlin, a lone citizen searching indefatigably for answers in a shadow world of half-truth and paranoia.
It seems that we never tire of this subject matter. Something was planned, lives were lost, and now that plan is being hidden by people in power. Passenger List is about conspiracy, paranoia, the difficulty of distinguishing truth from fantasy. If this is a relatively modern form of story, it’s also one that confirms a profound human preference — for hidden intelligence and a designing hand over and above random contingency. It’s been almost three decades since Mulder met Scully in a Washington DC basement, but the Truth is still out there.
As any X-Files fan knows, the problem with conspiracy plots is that the audience eventually demands pay-off, an ultimate explanation that is at once surprising and satisfying. All too often, what we’re given instead is a series of partial answers that, over time, begin to contradict each other and reveal that the writers have been swinging wildly from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, without much regard for the architectonics of the overall series. (See also: Lost.) Go too far with your explanation and the listener can no longer suspend disbelief; go too small and they’ll feel short-changed.
The first season of Passenger List ended with a classic bait and switch, seeming to suggest that Caitlin’s quest for answers was just a soothing self-delusion, a form of sublimated grief for her dead brother. At the last moment, though, it was confirmed that something shadowy really was going on. The second season, which is more intelligent and artful than the first, takes us further down the conspiratorial rabbit hole. Passenger List is part of a subgenre I call digital paranoia. Like the original paranoia films (The Parallax View, All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor), digital paranoia has its roots in journalism rather than fiction. Onward they come again, the recurring characters of a post-Snowden world: a hacker activist seeking shelter in a London embassy, eastern European traffickers, Isis converts, the deluded bottom feeders of racist subreddits — a familiar cast now joined by a scientific researcher who may have been carrying a deadly virus. (This last twist is a contemporary touch that already feels slightly shop-worn: a new stock figure for the conspiracy thrillers to come.)
Yet just as the narcosis of cliché starts taking hold, Passenger List will surprise you with something inventive or daring that changes your mind. The writers and sound engineers begin to play with the conventions of podcasting: we realize, for instance, that what we’re hearing isn’t always a god’s ear-view radio play, but is anchored to a specific piece of hardware: an answering machine, a recording device, a pair of headphones. At one point, just as Caitlin is thinking of giving up, she runs out of a taxi. The listener stays put in the cab, and when the driver shouts after her that she’s left her phone behind, we hear a man knocking on the window and asking questions about her. She’s being followed. It’s a rather brilliant bit of formal play, a way of anchoring the listener to the place where Caitlin — like anyone — really is susceptible to being spied on: her smartphone.
From that moment on the listener has a sense of themselves as embedded within the world of the story. Simultaneously, I got the sense that I wasn’t listening to a by-the-numbers paranoia thriller, but something rather more carefully and creatively built, something smarter than your average podcast. This meant that at other moments — when the actors stumbled, or the script faltered — I stuck with Passenger List the way you might with a well-shot movie where the boom can be seen to dip into view from time to time. Sometimes I wondered whether a weakness might not be deliberate. Does this former spy sound unconvinced of his own words because he’s a hammy actor? Or is he on it too, someone who’s meant to sound unconvincing because they’re not telling the truth? My suspicions lean mostly towards the former. But in the light cast by the show’s brighter moments, it was possible to squint at contingent disappointments and see, a little blurrily, the patterns and designs of art.