Somewhere along the line during the making of The Rook, a decision seems to have been made regarding tone. The book the new Starz series is based on, a 2012 supernatural spy thriller by Daniel O’Malley, is characterized by its humor, and by its weirdness (errant plot points include a cannibalistic cube of human flesh, sentient mold, and a man who sweats tear gas), a kind of Lovecraftian Jason Bourne story with a female lead. In the opening pages, a woman—her name is Myfanwy, it turns out, although that’s not the worst thing she learns—wakes up in London surrounded by dead bodies with no idea how she got there, only to discover that she’s a superpowered operative for a shadowy British-government organization, the Checquy. (Yes, the Checquy.) The chain of command at her job is structured around chess pieces; Myfanwy is a rook, meaning she has to return to her job battling dark forces while trying to recover from her state of amnesia.
The amount of preposterousness in the story virtually demands a winking kind of tone, or at least a degree of ironic detachment. Starz’s The Rook, though, is strangely joyless, taking its grab bag of mood-board inspo elements and throwing in some Homeland along with X-Men, The X-Files, Harry Potter, and everything else flavoring its conceptual stew. Myfanwy (played by Emma Greenwell) isn’t only battling memory loss and an unknown co-worker trying to kill her; she’s also prone to anxiety, binge drinking, and self-harm. And she seems to be sleeping with everyone, not least the four individual (mentally conjoined) members of a superpowered hive mind known as Gestalt. Moments of humor peek through in the writing, but the overarching mood is one of angsty, fretful suspense.
The early episodes, at least, have enough intrigue to make them work. Myfanwy’s introduction is ripped from the Robert Ludlum playbook: She comes to in the pouring rain, with a bloodied face, surrounded by corpses in the middle of the most prominent pedestrian bridge in central London, and she immediately starts running. In her pocket she finds a letter she apparently wrote for herself, one in a series of paper-chase missives that helps Myfanwy piece together who she is and why she can’t remember anything. Along the way are safety-deposit boxes stuffed with passports and foreign currency, stylish apartments with secret doors, and nefarious organizations hunting her down. Myfanwy soon learns that she works for a clandestine agency staffed by and for the rare portion of the population with special powers known as EVAs (extra-variant abilities). Her own particular powers are unclear, but she appears to be able to radiate electricity from her fingertips when under extreme stress.
Inside her apartment, past-Myfanwy has assembled a handy how-to guide for amnesiac-Myfanwy on how the Checquy works. At the top of her organization is a King, Linda Farrier (played by Joely Richardson), followed by a Bishop, Conrad Grantchester (Adrian Lester), and a handful of other chess pieces with descending status. As a Rook, Myfanwy mostly does desk duty, which makes it easier for her to go through the motions while still piecing together who she is and what’s happened to her. Someone on her team, she knows from one of past-Myfanwy’s letters, has betrayed her, while she’s also in danger from the Russian answer to the Checquy, a mob-run organization called the Lugat that kidnaps and traffics people with EVAs.
Before it debuted, The Rook was originally led by the Twilight author Stephenie Meyer, although she left when the series was still in production, handing showrunner duties to Lisa Zwerling and Karyn Usher. So it’s hard to know who to blame for the show’s abiding seriousness, and its many stylistic irritants (buzzing fluorescent lights, a thumping score, a substantial number of shots in which Myfanwy grimaces, frowns, or contorts her face into some other manifestation of roiling internal conflict). The underlying story is a humdinger involving double agents, enhanced spies, conspiracy theorists, and the potentially exploitative training of children as deadly weapons for the state. It’s hard to make that boring, and yet The Rook tries, investing much more heavily in Myfanwy’s glum psychological conflict than in its knotty, suspenseful setup in a world where mutant agents walk among us.
Even so, the spycraft scenes tend to thrill, partly thanks to Olivia Munn as Monica Reed, an American counterpart to the Checquy members who gets most of the good lines and all of the energy (she pairs especially well with Ruth Madeley playing Myfanwy’s assistant, Ingrid). Isolated from the Checquy’s internal operations, Monica pursues her own leads after her former lover is killed while infiltrating a Lugat operation to traffic EVAs. The resulting “auction,” organized on a jankily coded website and held at a luxurious Christie’s-esque establishment under the guise of a modern-art sale, is one of the few moments where The Rook allows itself a light touch. But as Grantchester (who exudes noxious and debilitating gases from his pores at will), and Farrier (whose abilities remain murky in the first four episodes), both Lester and Richardson root their performances in dour self-seriousness. The four peroxide-blond siblings who make up the Gestalt (Catherine Steadman, Ronan Raftery, and Jon Fletcher, portraying twins) play things similarly straight, which is a shame, because the dynamics of four interconnected individuals having an illicit fling with one amnesiac agent truly boggle the mind.
As Myfanwy, Greenwell gets the hardest task, having to balance her character’s predominant panic and confusion with her more capable facade at work. The more she finds out about herself, the more anxious she becomes, meaning that Myfanwy often teeters on the edge of the line between nervy professional and nonfunctioning wreck, all bug eyes and frantic physicality. The narrative device of the messages from herself also starts to wear thin, if only because past-Myfanwy seems to have predicted every action her future self might take, and every eventuality, while still having no useful insight whatsoever into who might be trying to hurt her. It’s easier to forgive plot holes and convenient narrative trickery in a series that’s aware of its own absurdities, and is willing to entertain. The Rook has plenty to recommend it, but it often gets caught in the space between a pulpy genre thriller and a stony-faced espionage serial, too dark and constantly fighting its most promising abilities.
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Sophie Gilbert is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers culture.