Daniel O’Malley’s amnesiac, paranoiac, chess-themed super-powered-human novel got lots of good buzz when it was published in 2012. Tadiana reviewed it here. STARZ has taken the story and given it a polished adaptation that reminds me a bit of both the film production of The Children of Men, and STARZ’s own too-soon-cancelled SF/alternate world/spy drama Counterpart. And, yes, there’s a little bit of Total Recall in there. Here are my thoughts on the first two episodes.
Myfwanwy Thomas wakens in the rain on London’s Millennium Bridge, surrounded by corpses. She doesn’t know her own name, but once she runs and gets to a safe place, she finds a letter in her pocket – written to her from herself. The letter tells her her name – which “rhymes with Tiffany,” that her memory has been taken, and that she is in danger. And that’s just the start.
After my initial shock that a name I’ve always heard pronounced “Mih-fan-we,” now rhymed a famous jeweler, I settled right in. Part of the ease of that transition was the writing; much of it, in the early parts of Episode One, stemmed directly from the riveting performance by Emily Greenwell as Myfanwy, who, in the first episode alone, is believably honest, cagey, vulnerable and strong.
Following the clues her earlier self has left, Myfanwy discovers that she is something called an EVA – someone with Extreme Variant Ability. She works for an agency called Checquy, that recruits, trains and allegedly protects EVAs, since they are the subject of trafficking. In fact, someone may have been preparing to traffic Myfanwy that night on the bridge. Pre-amnesia Myfanwy knew the attack on her memory was coming, and left information for herself, in a way that grows increasingly less organized and more like a quirky trail of breadcrumbs.
Pre-amnesia Myfwanwy gives her post-amnesia self two choices; resume her old life and uncover who did this to her, or assume a new identity and a new life. One of the immediately refreshing things about Episode One is that New Myfanwy decides to take both options. Sadly, she is attacked at the bank before she can open the second safe deposit box and get the “new life” documents. She staves off that attack, demonstrating for us and her the power she possesses.
While Myfanwy watches video she left for herself and mulls over whether to return to her office, we meet two other EVAs; Conrad Grantchester (Adrian Lester), who can change the characteristics of the very air you are breathing, and Monica Reed (Olivia Nunn), a brash American EVA who has come on her own to investigate the nature of the dead bodies on the bridge. We also meet Myfanwy’s boss at Checquy, Linda Farrier (Joely Richardson), whose agency designation is the King. Conrad is the Queen, and he is undermining Farrier just as fast as he can dig. EVA operatives are called Rooks; Myfanwy is a Rook, even though it seems (at first) that she has a safe and mundane job in Accounting. In Episode One, the most arresting character was that of Gestalt, an EVA who exists as a collective consciousness in four bodies. (Gestalt is played by Jon Fletcher, Catherine Steadman and Rohan Rafferty.) When Myfanwy braves the office, trying to bluff her way through her complete amnesia, two of Gestalt grab her, wanting to have a private conversation. During a drunken evening, Myfanwy and one of them hooked up – they want to be sure that word doesn’t get out since fraternizing is not acceptable. Everyone agrees that it can’t happen again. In Episode Two, it becomes clear that while Gestalt is a “hive mind,” they aren’t of one mind on this decision.
With nice economy, Episode One sets up plenty of outside risks for Checquy, not just Myfanwy. A small but persistent group of protestors seems to think that the agency sequesters children. Linda is not yet aware of how deeply Conrad has eroded away her support, while Conrad himself is using his power to put a man to sleep so he can have sex with the man’s wife – and the wife is the Home Secretary. Monica discovers that the identity of one of the dead people on the bridge is not only an American operative, but someone she cared deeply for. Linda, who is aware of Myfanwy’s amnesia (which means either pre-Amnesia M told her… or Linda caused it herself), wants Myfanwy to trust her… but we the viewers can’t quite, yet.
Episode Two shows us the activation of Myfanwy’s power when she was a teenager, which certainly lends some support to the theory of the protestors. We see Gestalt using their powers, and we have some charming moments of wit and humor. Monica, for instance, a brash, snarky American, is absolutely no match for Ingrid, Myfanwy’s brilliant administrative assistant. Late in the episode, Myfanwy goes to a bar. When the bartender says, “What’s your poison?” she lays a large denomination bill on the table and says, “I have no idea.” The next scene shows her sipping a vodka martini, with a whiskey drink, a tequila shot and a Tiki drink all lined up in front of her. On the more serious end, Conrad confronts a man who may be a trafficker. He demonstrates his power, his ruthlessness, and most of all his anger. Linda reaches out to Myfanwy, becoming more opaque in the process.
Two or more aspects of Gestalt often speak in unison. This creates a wonderful eeriness, and the show uses it to good effect on a couple of levels. When Monica helps them search a trafficker’s “safe house,” she asks them if they’ve if they’ve ever wondered whether it could be them (she means dead,) “with people commenting on your dirty dishes?” Two of Gestalt reply, “I have two dishwashers.” It’s a perfectly delivered comeback, but it also shows us that Gestalt are well aware of their place in the world as EVA; they expect little privacy.
The show is well cast and beautifully produced, pausing to take little moments that are set up to be artistic. There’s a shot with Conrad and his informant (the trafficker) under a bridge; a scene of Gestalt walking down a spiral flight of stairs, accompanied by a moody original score. There is a risk that these moments make a show seem too slow; that’s not the case here, at least not so far. Those moody moments give the viewer a chance to reflect on what’s just happened, and try to make connections.
I have no idea what’s going to happen. I know that I want to trust Linda, but I can’t quite. I think, logically, the most likely person to have messed with Myfanwy’s memory would be Conrad, but Linda is also a possibility, and there is also a possibility that pre-amnesia M did this to herself for some reason. Monica’s situation has become more complicated by the event that ended Episode Two. I am eager to see what comes next!