As Mad Men’s unbreakable Peggy Olson, Elisabeth Moss became iconic. When the series ended, she did a string of inventive indie films, then returned triumphantly to television with the challenging crime drama Top of the Lake. Season two of that series is premiering as part of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival this week. Meanwhile, The Handmaid’s Tale is tearing it up on Hulu, spurring think pieces and extremely stressed out water-cooler conversations. And amid all this critical praise and fan fervor, Moss has revealed her next ambitious TV endeavor.
Variety reports Moss has signed on to headline and executive produce an upcoming BBC series called Fever, which will center on the infamous Typhoid Mary, who sparked a string of Typhoid fever outbreaks over the span of 30 years.
Born Mary Mallon in 1869 Northern Ireland, she immigrated to the U.S. at 15, and supported herself working as a cook around New York City. But she had a strange stretch of employment. It seemed everywhere she worked, people got sick with typhoid fever. So she’d pick up, and switch to a new cooking gig in a new posh home. She left outbreaks in her wake, and was eventually found out, imprisoned and quarantined. Still, Mary showed no symptoms of the disease, and so refused to believe she was to blame. When released from quarantine the first time, she promised to be better about washing her hands. But she wasn’t, more infections followed as did a second quarantine, effectively a prison term that lasted 23 years until her death at age 69, from pneumonia.
How does one spin such a bleak story into riveting television? Well, Moss is adapting her show from the Mary Beth Keane novel Fever, which paints Mary as a scrappy survivor who clawed her way into the kitchens of New York’s elite, and achieved an independence rare for a woman of the time. Essentially the novel takes a compassionate view of the notorious Typhoid Mary, trying to understand the woman demonized by the press and the male doctors who couldn’t convince her she was truly ill. According the book’s back cover, “In the imagination of Mary Beth Keane, Mary Mallon becomes a fiercely compelling, dramatic, vexing, sympathetic, uncompromising, and unforgettable heroine.”
It’s a daring move to bring this challenging take on Typhoid Mary to television. But the Queen of Peak TV wouldn’t have it any other way.