Kevin Crowley admits it is a struggle to express things in layman’s terms due to primarily working in scientific environments where shorthand technical terms are the norm, but he was more than happy to help the writers of USA Network’s Covert Affairs. Covert Affairs is a one-hour spy drama television series with writers Chris Ord and Matt Corman at the helm. They set out to create the “World Leader Pretend” episode; depicting a Chinese scientist who specialized in energy and the 3 Gorges Dam Project. He defected from his homeland only to be assassinated by ingesting radiation poison in the United States while under the watchful eye of CIA operative, Annie Walker (played by Piper Perabo)—the show’s main character. Does the plot sound familiar? It should. The real-life demise of Russian spy, Alexander Litvinenko, inspired the writers. Committed to telling stories “rooted in reality,” Ord and Corman reached out to The Science & Entertainment Exchange, which connected them to Kevin Crowley, Sr., Board Director for Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board at the National Academy of Sciences. The board studies radiation health effects, nuclear security and terrorism, and radioactive waste management. Recognizing that scientific acumen was not their strength, the television writers needed to learn the basics of radiation and radiation poisoning in order to do the story justice.
“Certain things needed to happen to forward our seasonal character arcs but in the same respect we were very open at that point and we were even more open to something like Polonium-210,” according to the writers. Together they explored other radioactive isotopes of the periodic table, like Cesium, and tried to learn as much as possible in terms of what type of radiation poisoning would service their story. Of paramount concern was choosing a lethal method of radiation poison that would make sense and actually occur in the world. It was reported that Litvinenko’s fatal Polonium-210 dose was ingested by drinking a cup of tea in London. How could Ord and Corman mirror that experience with the defecting Chinese scientist?
The solution was the Chinese defecting scientist ingested his dose via a bowl of soup while attending a Chinese Cultural Affairs’ sponsored event with Annie Walker in the script’s teaser. Crowley’s scientific knowledge of Polonium-210 created an organic story structure for the writers in terms of timeframe and laying out story beats. He said that Polonium-210 “occurs naturally but in very small quantities. It can also be made in a reactor. It is a highly radioactive material that decays by emitting alpha particles. Ingestion of even small quantities can be lethal. Death would occur over a period of a few days to a couple of weeks depending on the amount and route of intake.” This knowledge sharpened the narrative for the writers and it blew their minds that the amount of poison could be as little as the head of a pencil’s eraser. Essentially the story progresses: the defecting Chinese scientist falls ill shortly after ingesting the soup, he has inconclusive blood work and then the radioactivity is detected by a discriminator. He eventually dies within a reasonable time period from massive cellular damage leading to internal bleeding and then ultimately his organs shutdown.
Crowley’s raw scientific information granted the writers intimate insight to how the story of radiation poisoning would play out for humans in real life. It is at that dramatic intersection that we as an audience can relate emotionally and writers feel they do their best work. Scientists and writers have more in common than people tend to think. Both engage in the creative process through problem solving whether by empirical science investigations or the formation of stories.