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Plague Episode

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"With 13 Louds packed into 1200 square feet, when someone gets sick, it spreads like the plague."
Violet: Wasn't there a masked ball in Paris when cholera broke out? Half the guests were dead before they left the ballroom.
Robert: Thank you, Mama. That's cheered us up no end.
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It's one thing for a single character in a series to spend an episode in bed with an illness. It's easy to smile at their red nose and whiny demands for soup. However, in a certain time and place, a sick episode can be quite different. Because of poor sanitation and limited medical advancement, or simple unfamiliarity with the strange new world being explored, it's much easier for illness to spread—and for at least one beloved or at least well-liked character, it may prove permanently crippling or even lethal.

This trope most frequently appears in historical or sci-fi settings. In a Period Piece or Costume Drama, The Plague in question will be known by an old-fashioned name that has since been replaced with a more clinical term. The disease is identifiable by an unusually red complexion or an Incurable Cough of Death, followed by a high fever, extreme fatigue, and nightmarish delirium. It will be a disease that has either been completely eradicated in modern times or is easily preventable through vaccines and proper hygiene. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a resurgence of some of these story beats to more contemporary series, and they can be downplayed or Played for Laughs in comedic and kid-friendly series. In sci-fi or fantasy settings, the plague may manifest itself with more unusual symptoms, at times a different way in each patient. A few characters may have more up-to-date knowledge of the nature of the disease, but they'll probably need to explain it to other characters who don't.

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Once identified, the patients' symptoms worsen steadily until the end of the episode, by which point the plague has abated and everyone is on the mend. The disease is typically already known to at least a few cast members, but they know little about how to avoid it. Because the disease spreads so rapidly, there will be very few people available to care properly for those who fall ill. Expect characters who are well to spend a lot of time tending to characters who are sick, contracting the illness in the process and then spreading it further. Never expect handwashing. Multiple named characters will contract it, and their symptoms can become very severe, but Plot Armor will usually be enough to spare the more central characters. You will most likely hear a doctor remark that a patient will live "if they last the night."

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The Plague Episode is a good time for a Love Epiphany or Love Confession, since two characters may be running out of time to clinch their romance. It's also a good time for Last Words that alter a surviving character's destiny. An antagonist struck with the plague may become The Atoner in what may or may not be their final moments.

A subtrope of Sick Episode. Compare Episode of the Dead, in which the plague in question has zombifying effects. If subverted, see Mistaken for Disease.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • In one episode of Kimba the White Lion, an epidemic strikes the jungle, which causes all the animals to come down with an illness called the "Stony Mountain Speckled Fever". The epidemic is cured by an old mountain goat named "Old Pop Wooly".

    Asian Animation 
  • Noonbory and the Super 7:
    • "Singeritis" has an outbreak of the titular illness (like a cold that makes you sing everything) hit Toobalooba. It starts with Coldygury, then quickly spreads to Lukybory, Wangury, and Cozybory.
    • In "Tooba-Achooba", all of the Super Sensors sans Noonbory are hit with the titular illness (like a cold that takes away your superpowers). They have to rely on common sense to solve their problems.

    Comic Books 
  • The first issue of Aggretsuko (Oni) was about a "Carrier Virus" spreading at Retsuko's company due to everybody coming in to work sick, and Retsuko and her friends trying to avoid the infected coworkers.
  • Futurama: In the comic "A Cure for the Common Clod", Fry gets a virus from an alien woman. It just manifests as cold-like symptoms in him, but when he sneezes on Leela, Hermes, and Amy, it makes them regress to a primal state. Then he falls into the aqueduct, infecting the majority of the New New Yorkers.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog (Archie Comics): Issue 33 story "Let's Get Small" saw Sonic return home from a mission only to find his friends all terribly ill. Rotor, who was just barely functional, explains that, tired of only eating chili-dogs, the rest of the FF had sent out for food from a hip new burger joint. This turned out to be a trap set by Robotnik who had tainted the food with a nano-virus called The French Frirus. As Rotor loses consciousness, Sonic is forced to shrink down and go on a "Fantastic Voyage" Plot to save his friends by helping their Auntie Boties fight off the virus.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog (IDW): More like a plague arc, but the "Metal Virus Saga" is essentially this for the series. Eggman makes a nanotech virus that can be spread through the touch of others, turning them into Zombots, and unleashes it onto Sonic's world. Many of the cast get infected through the arc, including Sonic who has to keep running to keep the virus in check while he and those not infected try to find a way to counter the problem.

    Fanfic 

    Literature 
  • Animorphs: In "The Sickness," Ax gets an Andalite illness and the human kids come down with it themselves one by one. They don't get the appendicitis-expy gland infection that Ax does, but they get bad flu-like symptoms. Eventually Cassie is the only one left to complete the book's mission. Fortunately she manages with help from a teacher who's part of the Yeerk Peace Movement.
  • Aubrey-Maturin: In HMS Surprise, a lack of wind near the equator halts the ship in place for a length of time, cutting off the company's access to fresh food. This causes several crew members to develop scurvy, which proves fatal for one officer. Thankfully the wind returns and they make it to Brazil, where Maturin brings aboard several boatloads of fruit and vegetables.
  • Dragonriders of Pern: Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern centers around this exact trope, with many Pernese citizens succumbing to a disease the likes of which they've never experienced on the planet. The short side volume Nerilka's Story, which is set within the same time frame, showcases how two noble households have been particularly affected by the disease.
  • Labyrinths of Echo: The novella "The Return of Ugurbado" takes place during a magical epidemic released upon Echo by the title antagonist. While the main characters, being powerful mages, are not physically affected by the illness, many of their loved ones are, including the protagonist Max's girlfriend Tekkhi who succumbs to the plague and dies at the end of the novella.
  • Little House on the Prairie:
    • Over one chapter in the novel of the same name, the entire Ingalls family comes down with "fever 'n' ague" (malaria). They all survive.
    • Discussed in the later installment By the Shores of Silver Lake: At the beginning of the book, Ma and all of Laura's sisters are recovering from scarlet fever, which has blinded Mary.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire: "The bloody flux" (dysentery), known in Meereen as "the pale mare," appears several times throughout the series. It reaches its climax in A Dance with Dragons, spreading throughout Slaver's Bay and killing Yezzan zo Qaggaz.
  • Warrior Cats: The Clans sometimes have to contend with epidemics of greencough, which has a fairly high mortality rate as the cats' medicine can only do so much. It's only in the epidemic during the third arc that they get the idea to quarantine the infected cats someplace else.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The 100: In "I Am Become Death", Murphy returns to the camp having been infected by a virus that causes everybody to be fatigued and throw up blood. As they are clashing with the local Grounder tribe, Clarke suspects it is biological warfare.
  • Babylon 5: In the episode "Confessions and Lamenations", an airborne plague called the Drafta strikes both the Markab and the pak'ma'ra, rendering the former virtually extinct while impacting the latter to a far lesser extent.
  • Blake's 7: In "Killer", an alien virus wipes out a federation base. In "Children of Auron", the Federation unleash a deadly plague on Auron, killing almost the entire population.
  • Deepwater Black: In the live-action adaptation, one episode sees the Pandora virus that wiped out Earth's population spreading to the crew of the ship—all except for Lise, who has enough antibodies to remain well and develop an antidote for the others.
  • Downton Abbey: Spanish flu strikes the house, sickening Cora and Mr Carson and killing Lavinia.
  • John Adams: In "Independence," Abigail hires a doctor to administer a primitive version of a smallpox vaccine (which contains the live virus) to her five children during the 1774 outbreak. While most of them get only a mild case, eldest daughter Nabby is bedridden for weeks, filling Abigail with guilt.
  • M*A*S*H: In "The Yalu Brick Road," the entire unit except Hot Lips, Major Winchester, and Father Mulcahy are stricken with food poisoning from a batch of bad turkeys Klinger ordered for Thanksgiving, leaving the three of them running things. Hot Lips takes command, forcing Winchester to do menial tasks like laundry and dishes (whereas Mulcahy is just happy to be needed).
    • In the third season episode "Carry On Hawkeye", all of the doctors (except Hawkeye) are sick in bed with the flu, and so are some of the nurses, which results in Father Mulcahy and even Radar pressed into service in the operation room. Also, things start to thaw somewhat between Hawkeye and Margaret, who have to run the camp.
    • In the eighth season episode "Heal Thyself", Col. Potter, Winchester and several of the nurses are stricken with the mumps (this being before a vaccine was readily available), which leads them to bring in Capt. Steve Newsome, a surgeon from Tokyo. Unfortunately, while Newsome comes off as The Ace at first (he used to be a combat surgeon), the endless OR sessions wear him down, turning him into a broken ace.
  • The Muppet Show: In the Roger Miller episode, the cast is beset by a case of cluckitis, a disease that turns the infected into a chicken. The disease spreads rapidly until everyone but Miller (who had it already and is therefore immune) have become chickens.
  • Poldark: An outbreak of "the putrid throat" (diphtheria) comes to Cornwall, sickening Demelza and nearly everyone at Trenwith and killing baby Julia.
  • Reign: With the Black Plague sweeping through France, Francis and Lola are separated from everyone else after the castle goes into lockdown without them. Pascal, the child Kenna has been looking after, dies despite her efforts to protect him. Mary executes a nobleman for murder by tossing him in a dungeon full of plague-ridden bodies, but that causes his father to seek revenge against her.
  • Stargate Atlantis: One episode has the expedition contracting a virus local to the Pegasus galaxy. It doesn't debilitate them in the traditional sense (swathes of people sick in bed), it just causes memory loss. The only ones not affected are Teyla and Ronan, who are both native to Pegasus and therefore immune. It falls to them to gather the ingredients needed to manufacture a cure.
  • Appears in Season 6 of Stargate SG-1, when the cast investigates an Ancient woman found frozen but alive in Antarctica. Unbeknownst to them, she's carrying a disease that's extremely lethal to modern humans. Fortunately she has healing powers and is able to save the main characters, but in the process weakens herself enough for the disease to kill her.
    • Later extended across an entire story arc in the postscript seasons, when the Ori send a plague to afflict worlds that don't worship them. The plague spreads like wildfire through the galaxy, including Earth, before the main characters are able to devise a cure. They speculate that this plague may be related to the one above, since the Ancients and Ori were arch-enemies.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: In the episode "Babel", Quark accidentally triggers a biological weapon planted on the station by the Bajoran Resistance during the Occupation, which causes a neurodegenerative illness that initially manifests as aphasia. It starts from food replicated with the virus in it and rapidly spreads throughout the station after mutating to become airborne.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation:
    • In "The Naked Now", Geordi comes down with a strange disease that soon spreads to the rest of the cast via touch. It has different symptoms for every character: Yar and Dr. Crusher get horny, Geordi wishes he wasn't blind, Wesley becomes bossy and overconfident, and even Data gets afflicted and acts loopy and wants to play games.
    • In "Angel One", everyone except for Crusher (who was careful enough to avoid it), Tasha Yar, Riker, and Troi (who were down on a planet) comes down with a virus that makes them cough, sneeze, and behave lethargically. Crusher manages to cure it after finding out that it spreads via smell.
    • In "Genesis", the Enterprise is struck to a disease that makes them "devolve" into prehistoric monsters.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series:
    • In "The Naked Time", a disease spreads around the Enterprise that causes severe loss of inhibition.
    • In "Miri", the crew beams down to a planet where all of the adults are dead and soon begin contracting the disease that killed them, leading to a race against time to find a cure.
    • In "The Deadly Years", a disease that causes people to rapidly age affects the whole away party that beamed down to a planet, which given that this is Star Trek consists of the entire command staff. The disease is actually caused by radiation instead of a virus, so it does not affect anyone who didn't beam down.
    • In "Requiem for Methuselah", a disease sweeps the Enterprise, though it does not affect the main characters.
  • The Tudors: England grapples with an outbreak of "the sweating sickness" (likely a form of hantavirus), sickening Anne and killing Compton.
  • Vikings: An unidentified plague sweeps through Kattegat, sickening Siggy and Athelstan and killing Gyda and Thyri.

    Video Games 
  • Fire Emblem Heroes: The Forging Bonds event "The Fire Within", featuring the arrivals Midori, Lilith, Rinkah, and Forrest, has the newcomers arrive shortly after an ailment gets a hold on the Order of Heroes. Forrest and Lilith succumb to the illness, and as soon as the last ingredient is gathered, Midori falls ill, leaving Rinkah to make the medicine with instructions Midori wrote down in advance. It turns out to be a foodborne illness from a bad potato batch, to which Rinkah has grown resistant due to her cooking habits.
  • Mass Effect 2: Mordin's recruitment mission has him fighting a plauge in the Wretched Hive of Omega. It turns out it's a synthetic disease, that humans, krogan, and vorcha are the only ones immune to. Mordin's got a cure, but it's up to Commander Shepard to get it distributed to the district.

    Web Animation 
  • Homestar Runner: During the short "Sick Day." Strong Bad has caught some sort of virulent disease, rendering him unable to answer his weekly email (ironically a message asking how he and his friends manage to stay so healthy). The sickness has also spread to Homestar Runner, Strong Mad (who is under quarantine in his room), the Cheat, and even the Paper.
    Strong Bad: Oh no, not you too! ...Can I blow my nose on you?

    Web Original 
  • Crappy Pictures: One article is about how the blogger and her family all got sick with the flu. First, the two boys come down with a stomachache (the first one) and a runny nose (the second one), which escalates to lethargy and puking. Then, their mother got the same flu. Then, when they were all better, her husband and the boy's father gets the flu.

    Web Video 

    Western Animation 
  • Danny Phantom: In "Doctor's Disorders", the entire student body of Casper High is infected by ghost mosquitoes, giving them a strange disease that makes them develop ghost powers.
  • In the Dennis And Gnasher episode "Couldn't Catch a Cold", Dennis goes to school, only to find everybody either absent or being sent home due to catching a certain type of cold called the "Beanotown Cold". Then, when he gets home, his dad also has it. He wants to catch it so he can skip school, but unfortunately, when he does catch it, he ends up missing a day at the beach.
  • Futurama: The episode "Cold Warriors" has Fry infect the Planet Express crew with the common cold, which had previously been eradicated but had remained dormant in Fry since he was frozen. Since future immune systems are much less capable of fighting it off, it spreads rapidly across New New York. President Nixon and Wernstrom plan to throw New New York into the sun to prevent further infection, so the crew has to scramble to find the original virus and create a vaccine.
  • Harry and His Bucket Full of Dinosaurs: In an episode of the animated adaptation titled "Achoo!", Harry catches a cold, but goes to Dinoworld to play with his dinosaurs anyway. Unfortunately, his dinosaurs (except for Steggy) all catch it, but it manifests itself in strange ways: Taury gets itchy purple spots, Patsy's neck gets longer, Sid inflates like a balloon and levitates, Trike gets a horn ache, and Pterence gets a high fever. He puts them all to bed and eventually feeds them soup, which cures them, but not him.
  • Justice League: "Fury" featured the renegade Amazon Aresia creating a plague that would wipe out the entire male half of the human population, if not the whole planet. Wonder Woman was quite disheartened with the revelation that Aresia was simply following through on the Amazons' misandrist philosophies.
  • Kim Possible: "Sick Day" is a low-key version of this. Kim catches her twin brothers' cold and goes off on a mission to protect a machine Drakken wants. She unintentionally give the cold to Shego, who gives it to Ron, and later Drakken and Killigan also catch it. The machine is accidentally broken in the ensuing scuffles, but Kim and Ron are finally able to return it to the scientists. They inquire as to its purpose and learn that the machine was meant to cure the common cold.
    Ron: ...I hate irony.
  • The Loud House: The episode "One Flu Out of the Loud House" parodies the Zombie Apocalypse genre with a flu outbreak in the Loud family. It begins with Lori getting sick, but due to the big size of the family, it quickly spreads to the other sisters (and their parents, and their pets!), who become sickly and listless. Lincoln tries to avoid his family, while Leni wants to help them at risk to herself. The episode ends with everybody in the family getting sick and Clyde taking care of them.
  • In the Meg and Mog episode "Mog's Sneeze", Mog catches a cold, which soon spreads to Owl, and Meg's witch friends catch it too. When Meg starts sneezing (but it's unclear if she has it) she makes a potion which cures everyone, but gives them helium-like voices.
  • My Friends Tigger & Pooh: Downplayed for "Darby, Solo Sleuth". It's just a cold, but it still leaves the characters bedridden and unable to participate. Darby is sent to retrieve lemons to make a soup to cure Roo, Tigger, Pooh, Rabbit, Beaver, and Eeyore, who have colds.
  • Numberjacks: In the episode "The Dreaded Lurgi", Four and Six contract the eponymous disease, which makes them sluggish and dim. They get sent to bed, and Three gets sent on a mission, but then she gets the Lurgi herself. Fortunately, everyone gets better of their own accord.
  • PAW Patrol: In "Pups Save a Sniffle", Chase gets a cold, which spreads to all the other pups as the episode goes on. Then Ryder sneezes at the end, implying that he's next to get it.
  • The Powerpuff Girls: "Gesundfight" is about the Amoeba Boys catching a flu-like illness that mutates with their biology into a supervirus and quickly spreads throughout Townsville, even infecting the Powerpuff Girls themselves.
  • Rick and Morty: "Rick Potion No.9" starts off with Morty asking Rick for a love potion to woo his crush, Jessica, which Rick half halfheartedly whips up for him. The thing is however, when Morty uses it, it was during a flu season, so the potion properties mix with the flu Jessica had and goes airborne, causing everyone it infects to desire Morty. While comical, things take a dark turn when Morty tries to have Rick to fix the problem and his solutions end up destroying the human race of their world (save their family) and ultimately forcing the pair to abandon it for alternate world where their versions there managed to succeed where they failed but end up dying shortly after.
  • The Simpsons: The episode "Marge In Chains" begins with Homer (and numerous other Springfielders) buying an orange juicer from Osaka after seeing an infomercial; but an employee working at the factory has the flu, giving it to everyone in Springfield who ordered a juicer, who subsequently end up spreading it to most of the rest of the town's population.
  • Star Trek: The Animated Series: The Enterprise crew visits a planet whose population was nearly wiped out from a plague that caused people's skin to change colour among other symptoms. Then, the crew start getting sick and changing colour. McCoy then finds out that it's actually a known disease he knows how to cure; the colour-changing was just side effects of an aurora.
  • The Transformers: In the episode "Cosmic Rust", the Decepticons' return trip from an ancient Autobot city with a recorded warning saying to leave and never return to Cybertron gets Megatron impaled by a small asteroid that infects him with the titular disease, the same one the recording was trying to warm him about as it wiped out the city's population. Megatron has the Decepticons kidnap Perceptor to find a cure in exchange for ending the war, so Perceptor gives him some of a solution called corrostop he made to stop deterioration that he plans to use on all the world's monuments. Megatron double-crosses Perceptor once he has been cured by infecting him with Cosmic Rust and setting up a trap that requires the Autobots to get up close in order to save him. With the Autobots all infected and a vital ingredient to create more corrostop gone, the Autobots have to go to the Statue of Liberty, the only monument that got sprayed with the supply they had, to gather some corrostop and replicate it with their matter duplicator. Naturally, Megatron attempts to destroy Lady Liberty to prevent this solution.
  • Viva Piñata: In "Sick Day", almost everyone on Piñata Island comes down with a cold that makes them shoot candy out of their noses. This makes them unfit to be sent to parties, which inspires Fergy to catch it. However, he is unable to catch a cold despite acting as a nurse for dozens of sick piñatas while doing everything he can to get sick from them and is stuck carrying out his patients' endless requests.
  • Craig of the Creek has "The Last Kid of the Creek", where Kit ends up Working Through the Cold instead of closing down the Trading Tree while she's sick, and ends up spreading her illness to all the other kids of the creek through the food she trades. Craig is the only kid who doesn't take any food, and thinks that he has been cursed when he finds himself to be the only kid at the creek the next day.


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