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.