Memory loss spy thrillers and the allegorical antics of mutants have gotten lots of play in pop culture, but combining them—like in Starz’s new sci-fi series The Rook—sounds a bit messy on the surface. Too many warring genre vocabularies talking at the same time makes for an unintelligible conversation. However, it’s possible to thread the needle. Or, at least make it an enjoyable jumble. Showrunners Lisa Zwerling and Karyn Usher fill their adaptation of Daniel O’Malley’s novel with style and a few gripping performances, which are more than enough to jog our memories about why we like these stories in the first place.
The Rook is about the Checquy, a British secret service that fends off unnatural threats with some unnatural powers of their own. Somewhere between the R.I.P.D., the Men in Black, and the Kingsman, the members are designated by chess-themed code names. There’s a queen (Joely Richardson), a king (Adrian Lester), and yes, some rooks. There’s even an American out-of-towner (Olivia Munn) to make it an international force. Some share a consciousness. Some are super-strong, but not Superman-level unstoppable. Others have more vague and flexible powers, like control over the local atmosphere. And one of them wiped Myfanwy Thomas’ memory.
We meet Myfanwy (Emma Greenwell) as an amnesiac who apparently belongs to the agency and has half a dozen dead bodies on her hands. Gaunt, stressed, and in a body she doesn’t recognize, Myfanwy (pronounced like “Tiffany,” the show helpfully explains) is a relatable Jason Bourne. She doesn’t have full control over her lightning-like ability and seems to have had a drunken tryst with her four co-workers that share a single consciousness. If that’s not enough to get you on board, this show and its sense of fun simply aren’t for you.
After making a red/blue pill choice straight out of The Matrix, Myfanwy needs to figure out who she is, who did this to her, and who really killed all those people. After four episodes, the mystery—like all fun mysteries—has only gotten more complicated. Betrayals, steamy affairs and questionable allegiances are all checked off the list by writers Al Blyth and Sam Holcroft. The pair wrote all but one of the four episodes screened for critics (the other script was by Francesca Gardiner) while Kari Skogland, China Moo-Young, and Sunu Gonera handled directorial duties. Thankfully, the latter squad use every stylistic trick in the book to keep the series of silly clues that start off Myfanwy’s journey interesting.
The directors inject each of their episodes with evocative camera angles and disorienting cuts that help visually adjust us to the perspective of a character with no idea where or who she is. The camera placements and shot lengths are often so varied that when things finally sit still for a hushed conversation, it’s easy to feel spoiled by all the action. The color schemes help with this too, like when the calm light yellow hues of home overtake the hectic neons of an escape. Even the non-diegetic score shoulders some of the burden, cutting out at jagged times to undercut surprising reveals. The non-visual aspects of the show aren’t quite as strong, but even some of the corny dialogue is beaten back by the show’s ample self-effacing humor. That doesn’t always make the ham palatable or the sometimes repetitive script tighter, but it does make these moments of boredom or eye-rolling few and far between.
Most of these moments come when introducing the world itself. This genre-filled corner of The Rook, where meta-human trafficking is a major criminal enterprise, goes down easiest when we’re thrown into the superhuman deep end. These powers look cool, often amplified with stylized camera choices or practical effects, like when Munn pushes a lock through a door. And that four-person hivemind I mentioned earlier? Not only are they a fascinating character, they get a cool “getting ready” scene with synchronized choreography. When the show has an opportunity to be inventive, it takes it.
Aside from its flashy directors, the glue holding the literal super-spy series together is Greenwell. Her gripping portrayal shifts between videos of her past (as a competent agent fearing for her life, leaving behind instructions for her future self) and the realities of the present (as a fish out of water she’s a bundle of stress, fear, and desperation). Her growing confidence and agency is as fun to watch as any of the effect work. Without her performance or the show’s dedication to her perspective, which features plenty of close-ups focused on her eyes and body language, it’d be easy to get lost in the plot’s periphery. Instead, the visual tension pushes us through and our lack of understanding often comes off as a feature rather than a bug.
But it’s still a spy show. Some of the plotting is going to be a mess and some of the schemes are going to be convoluted—and not in a fun way. There are a lot of moving parts and vagueness can be substituted for breadcrumbs when it’s easier to avoid sprinkling them. Some of the series’ themes walk a tightrope that can sometimes wobble in a way that makes your nose wrinkle. Identity is a tough topic to thoroughly address in the midst of your genre-bending amnesia tale. When dealing with the exploitation and subsequent revolt of special people—who get out on top not by denying their sometimes-dangerous differences, but by accepting and controlling them—you have a small margin for error. But that’s ok; I’m glad it’s swinging for those fences. The Rook’s memory-loss thriller is ambitious, beautiful, and full of great performances, which makes its problems easy to forget.
The Rook premieres Sunday, June 30th on Starz.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller:https://twitter.com/jacoboller.