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The Slow, Creeping Horror of The Salisbury Poisonings

AMC’s newest British import, the four-part drama The Salisbury Poisonings, is a dystopia with a bucolic English setting, and the disconnect between the two is where the show’s slow creep of horror begins. On an ordinary street, a man and a woman quietly convulse on a park bench. Later, workers in ghostly white hazmat suits swab hastily abandoned cups of tea for signs of contamination. Swans, one police officer reports, are “behaving strangely.”

I watched The Salisbury Poisonings, which is based on the real-life 2018 alleged assassination attempt against Sergei Skripal, expecting a dark tale of geopolitical subterfuge: chemical weapons, diplomatic scheming, two curiously humdrum would-be assassins whose excuse for traveling from Moscow to Salisbury was that they wanted to see its Early Gothic cathedral. (In truth, according to the British government, they were GRU agents sent to poison Skripal, a Russian military officer turned MI6 source, using the nerve agent Novichok, which they sprayed on the knob of his front door. The Kremlin denies responsibility to this day.)

But the series is something else instead. Directed by Saul Dibb (Suite Française, Dublin Murders), it’s a tense, unsettling probe of contagion paranoia, a work that segues smoothly in tone between sober re-creation and body horror. And it functions strikingly well as a pandemic allegory, even though it aired in Britain in June, only a few months into lockdown.

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Part of this is structural: Rather than focusing the series on the biggest players in the drama, the writers, Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn, orient it instead around the ordinary people whose lives were upended by a chemical-weapons attack on British soil. Tracy Daszkiewicz (played by Anne-Marie Duff) is a local public-health official more accustomed to investigating food-poisoning outbreaks than the usage of extraordinarily lethal, military-grade organophosphates. Nick Bailey (Rafe Spall) is a Salisbury police officer accidentally exposed to Novichok while investigating Skripal’s home. Dawn Sturgess (MyAnna Buring) is a mother of three whose boyfriend, Charlie, accidentally poisons her when he gives her a perfume bottle filled with nerve agent that the would-be assassins had casually discarded in a trash can. By sidelining the international intrigue and giving attention to the civil servants and bystanders who absorbed the aftershocks of the attack, The Salisbury Poisonings puts the anxiety of the incident front and center.

Public official on street
James Pardon / Dancing Ledge / BBC ONE / AMC

The first episode begins with actors playing Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, as they shake and foam at the mouth in front of a store in the center of Salisbury. Toward its end, viewers see a ghastly triptych: an appalled Tracy googling nerve agents in the middle of the night, a feverish Nick vomiting at home, and a carefree Dawn dancing at a house party, sweaty and ecstatic after drinking too much cheap vodka. The scene, to me, felt as apt an accounting of the early months of the pandemic as any I’d seen on television, with each character representing a different kind of COVID-19 mindset. Tracy represents the doomscrollers, consuming every detail she can to the point of a panic attack. Nick is an essential worker whose life is at risk because of the simple fact that his job is actually useful. Dawn is business as usual, blithely unaware that a deadly toxin is spreading through her hometown.

By the second episode, dread has suffused the show to such an extent that when Tracy’s colleague coughs in a meeting, she flinches and swivels around 180 degrees to investigate the source. Watching Nick casually embrace his wife and children after first being exposed is an exercise in anxiety. Once he’s been hospitalized, a scene in which his wife flings herself on him as he screams at her to stay away is devastating—a reminder of how alienating his sickness is and how even the comfort of touch has been weaponized. As the episodes play out, Tracy becomes more and more haunted, lines etched into her face; she sleeps in her office in gray pajamas. When she learns that Dawn has been poisoned, several months after the initial attack, she breaks down crying. “What did we miss?” she asks her boss. “What the fuck did we miss?”

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Between scenes, Dibb splices in grainy clips of masked officials sealing off the city center and soldiers requisitioning people’s homes. The B-roll starts to feel like a work of postapocalyptic horror, or like news footage from an unspecified catastrophe. The harder Tracy works to contain a threat she can barely comprehend, the more she’s challenged: by residents furious that their street has been cordoned off as a potential hazard, by local officials terrified about the economic ramifications, and by camera-ready government advisers from London who worry about the diplomatic fallout. Tracy is compelling because she’s the only character fixated on public health.

The tension is drawn out until the very end, with the show emphasizing again and again the insidiousness of a threat that endangers the places where people most instinctively feel safe. Nick’s wife (Annabel Scholey), collecting the family cat from a home that she now knows is toxic, has to listen to police officers bang on the door over and over while telling her to hurry up, that she’s not safe. Furious at the pressure, she recklessly touches objects, and even drinks a glass of wine. Toward the end of the final episode, Tracy obsessively scrubs her home, a decontamination that’s as emotional as it is literal, and a loaded scene to watch after almost a year of living with an invisible blight.