A woman (Emma Greenwell) wakes up in a pouring rain near London’s Millennium Bridge, surrounded by dead bodies wearing latex gloves. Her memory is gone; she doesn’t know how she got there or what happened to the dead around her. Her clothes are dirty and bloodied, and it’s clear she’s been in a fight.
Across the bridge, beneath shelter, the woman reaches into her pocket and finds a note that reads “Dear You, if you’re reading these words but don’t remember writing them, then I’m afraid I’ve failed. You’ve survived several immediate threats but you are still in danger. Right now, find a safe place, alone, where no one can ask you questions. Avoid the cameras, they can see you everywhere.”
Walking down a graffiti-drenched alley, the woman is menaced by two men on motorcycles. She picks up her pace, running from the alley and narrowly avoiding a passing police car. There’s no way of knowing where it is safe to show her face. The woman ducks into a seedy hotel and asks for a room for the night. When asked for her name, she blanks. She doesn’t know her name.
After barricading her door and dressing her wounds, the woman finds a second note in her jacket. The writer of the note explains that she knows she’s going to be attacked, but not by whom. She also knows she will survive, but doesn’t know how. And she knows that her memory will be wiped. The note was written by this woman, to herself, before her memory got wiped. Her name was Myfanwy Alice Thomas. Myfanwy rhymes with ‘Tiffany.’ She works for The Checquy, a branch of British intelligence staffed by and focusing on EVAs—which stands for Extreme Variant Abilities, people who have superhuman powers.
The Rook’s pilot episode is awash in paranoia and unease. The 2012 source novel by Daniel O’Malley has the same plot, but is lighter in tone, occasionally goofy and heavy on the fantasy elements. None of that is to be found in the show. This is much more of a neo-noir conspiracy thriller with a supernatural undercurrent than it is a fantasy spy thriller. It is initially disheartening to discover that some of the wackier flavor of the novel’s world is ejected for the series, but the alternative is a moody and intriguing thriller highlighting the discomfort of living in a world where privacy is a thing of the past and government oversight is a pervading specter.
This adaptation of The Rook effectively transplants the plot of the novel into a modern, grounded setting and amplifies the tension and paranoia. The cinematography works wonders for this without being overly showy—the exterior nighttime photography glows with purples, blues and greens. In the daylight, CC cameras factor prominently in shots and Myfanwy’s paranoia is palpable. Interiors are uncomfortably sterile and bright. The photography of London contributes to the uneasiness. It feels claustrophobic and labyrinthine, and while there are pickup shots of the city skyline, down on the street things rarely feel familiar or comfortable.
Violated privacy is a core theme of The Rook. Myfanwy wakes up with no memory, and simply has to trust that she wrote herself letters to guide her through her memory loss. Myfanwy, as well as the show itself, don’t ever question whether she was actually the original writer—an intriguing angle but perhaps too big of a bite for a miniseries. However, there is the constant looming sense that Myfanwy knows less about herself than anyone else knows about her.
One of the members of The Checquy is The Gestalt, one consciousness that occupies four different bodies (Ronan Raftery, Catherine Steadman, Jon Fletcher, and another Jon Fletcher). “Speak to one, you’ve spoken to all.” This was one of the most interesting characters in the book, and translates well here. Not only is it ceaselessly unsettling to grasp that four different people are actually the same person and often speak lines in unison, it contributes to the theme of violated privacy—if such privacy existed in the first place. Who is it safe to talk to? Who else knows what you’ve told to one person? Each physical entity of The Gestalt operates independently—in one of the best moments of the show, each entity purchases a different flavor of coffee then trades with another. This is done to appear more normal, but just comes across as weird.
The show quickly draws parallels to modern governmental oversight: the Checquy not only operates with some semblance of secrecy, it also has the ability to manipulate headlines and flex its political muscles to drive administrative decisions. The pervading presence of cameras littered around London mean that nothing goes unseen. In nearly every episode, surveillance footage is used by familiar and unfamiliar faces. Ferrier (Joely Richardson), head of the Checquy, is shown to have unfettered access to every camera in the city, and somehow enjoys almost omnipotent knowledge of the whereabouts of everyone else.
With an exception or two, the show does well at introducing a steady drip feed of characters to trust, and others to doubt, followed later by a reason for those trusts to reverse. It does feel like it’s overplaying its hand just a bit with Grantchester (Adrian Lester), who is shown in the trailers and opening credits as a dark, stoic, oppressive force not to be trusted. It doesn’t help that his power is to manipulate atmospheric pressure and cause people to pass out or suffocate to death. But then you have the motherly Ferrier, who is angled as the only person Myfanwy should trust. In the back half of the series she reveals herself as not only one of the most dangerous EVAs in existence with powerful, debilitating sound waves, but someone who has had a hand in the trafficking of EVAs for some time. Ferrier’s forced removal as King of the Checquy sets up her motivation for revenge, and the reveal of her abilities is probably the best moment in the series.
By the midpoint, the season feels like it’s asking more questions than it’s answering, but in the second half of the season, the interviews from the cast start to make more sense and small supporting characters and details come back around to tie into a piece of the plot. Everything starts to become connected to something else. There are peaks and valleys to the intrigue of the show, and at its height, The Rook really feels like it’s got a lot to say about how vulnerable the age of technology has made society. The supernatural abilities are just window dressing to a larger social commentary on how profoundly naked surveillance has made us, and the stranglehold that those in power have on the media. Each character tries to and does possess more knowledge than everyone else, becoming a chess game of sorts on its own. The opening credits are a rush of imagery: a trippy kaleidoscopic camera drops through layers of buildings, repeating images, surveillance cameras and blurry bodies.
By the end of the season, the entire thing falls apart. After so much narrative buildup, thematic intrigue and character setup, it simply dissolves into nothing. In the last three episodes, it experiences an acute identity crisis: the anxious themes of surveillance and paranoia over political oversight are elbowed out of the way in favor of a left-field redemption arc for Myfanwy, her tragic past, and her romantic arc with The Gestalt. All three feel profoundly unwelcome and unearned given what is sacrificed for them to be explored.
Weirdly, the writing and performances of The Gestalt outshine almost everything else, and it’s very easy to empathize with them and their confusion and upset when Myfanwy, with no memory, rebuffs them the morning following a tryst. With her memory having been wiped that very night, she no longer has any emotional connection to The Gestalt, which deals them a crushing emotional blow. But it doesn’t connect well to the rest of the themes of the show, and the final three episodes are very heavy with the characters exploring how they feel towards each other.
Eight episodes just don’t feel like enough to fill the narrative and thematic real estate The Rook wants to explore. The first half of the season lacks the character work of the latter half, and the latter half is disinterested in the themes of surveillance and political espionage the early and middle portions embroil themselves in. In the final two episodes, the plot breaks into a full sprint to fill everything in before the end: at a young age, Myfanwy was taken by The Checquy, who suppressed her emotions in order to control her powers. Her sister made a deal with Ferrier to get her memory wiped, redeeming her from the organization and eliminating her liability. Ferrier is revealed to be a loving mother figure who is devastated to see Myfanwy leave but understanding of what is best for her.
This is problematic, because the ending of “Chapter 6” turned the tables and established Ferrier as a true force of power as she incapacitates an entire public park with her powerful sound waves. The show finally has an actual antagonist in this moment, but just one episode later Ferrier tearfully begins to put into motion a plan to release Myfanwy from the Checquy. Likewise, early in the season Grantchester murders and tortures several people with his power of manipulating the atmosphere, but by the end of the season is a toothless diplomat with too light of a touch. He never had any sinister machinations, he just realized something was off about Myfanwy and wanted to figure it out.
The actual villain of the series is Lorik (Michael McElhatton), head of a crime syndicate called The Lugat. As an integral player in Myfanwy’s exodus from London (a somewhat slimy man who can be trusted with enough of a payday) his reveal as the mastermind of Myfanwy’s attempted abduction—and later actual abduction in the finale—lands with a thud. After perhaps five minutes of screentime in the finale, Myfanwy suddenly has full control of her powers and kills him.
None of this feels earned: the reveal of the villain isn’t a culmination of clues and plot threads, and Myfanwy suddenly understanding and controlling her powers is a sharp left turn from not only her experience in the rest of the season, but the entire motivation of the Checquy to keep her emotions in check to prevent her powers from firing off.
Stephanie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, was one of the first producers to start the book’s journey to the small screen, but left during production due to “creative differences.” That’s a blanket term in the industry that could mean almost literally anything. But the DNA of her storytelling style is there in the moments that find The Gestalt and Myfanwy making eyes at each other in a way that strongly evokes Edward and Bella.These moments feel like an entirely different show. They’re well-acted, and Emma Greenwell has solid chemistry with all three of the actors portraying The Gestalt.
But they also feel like they’re part of a different show, jerking the focus away from the moody themes of modern paranoia. It’s possible that Meyer’s touch contributed to the disjointed feel of the series, as well as the deus ex machina of Myfanwy suddenly understanding her powers: Meyer’s writing often puts more stock into character emotions and relationships and relies on plot conveniences to drive the other elements of the story. Had she remained on the show, it might have had a more coherent sense of identity.
The Rook is an engrossing slow burn in its early episodes, teeming with style and tension. It has a lot to say about how everything we hold secret could be laid bare with a keystroke or camera. But for a show about surveillance and identity, it’s ironic that it ends up muddled and shapeless, completely unsure of what it wants to be.