The first words of COBRA's opening episode are “Mayday, mayday” from the cockpit of a passenger plane in desperate trouble. Systems are failing, the fuel is on empty, and air traffic controllers work frantically with the crew to find a landing place. As we’ll see, it’s just the beginning.
We first meet Prime Minister Robert Sutherland (Robert Carlyle, Once Upon A Time, The Full Monty) at his daughter Ellie’s college graduation, a brief respite from his many concerns as leader of the country and the Conservative party. He is a decent, principled man, and not, as his Chief of Staff Anna Marshall (Victoria Hamilton, The Crown) puts it, a representative of “the nasty party.”
Robert has an imminent crisis on his hands, necessitating a return to London soon after the ceremony and the convening of a Cabinet Office Briefing in Room A (otherwise known as COBRA) for the next day. The universe is acting up, and it’s not playing cricket. There’s an extreme space weather warning, which could either “fuse a few kettles or send us back to the stone age.” It’s refreshing to see a government that takes science very seriously.
Reference is made to the Carrington event, a major electromagnetic storm that knocked out telegraph communications in 1859. Solar flares on the right side of the sun are expected to initially damage flight safety and satellites and will be followed by a geometric storm, the size and danger of which are not yet known. There’s evidence by the afternoon that the threat level has been raised to serious, and already planes cannot land in Paris. Robert decides not to ground all flights, a decision he comes to regret. Anna reports that so far all is well, there is no panic at the gas pumps or civil unrest. Although the threat level has been raised to serious, the Cabinet awaits satellite data which will indicate the direction of the storm, a crucial factor to the amount of damage that will result.
So while they’re waiting, let’s take a look at some storms of a different sort in the lives of the protagonists. The most impressive of the Cabinet is Fraser Walker, the Head of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (Richard Dormer, Game of Thrones), whose calm and intelligent demeanor mask unrest in his family life. His staff is amused by his absences from the office to walk his father’s dog while his father is in a care home. I suspect trouble lies ahead.
While Robert may represent a kinder breed of Conservative, not all members of his party are on board with him, including his Home Secretary Archie Glover-Morgan (a scenery-chewing David Haig, Killing Eve), an old school Tory. Archie is almost certainly behind a leak to the press on Robert’s immigration policy, for which Press Secretary Dominic Knight (Sam Krane) takes the rap. Archie loathes Anna, whom he describes as “Lady Macbeth,” despises Robert, and is incandescent with rage when he hears who she is planning to recruit as her new Press Secretary:
Archie: A word to the wise. As you know, Anna, I have the highest admiration for you.
Anna: Get on with it.
Archie: I don’t care how far you two [Anna and Robert] go back or how much you feel the party need a makeover. Put Francine Bridge in the policy unit even making coffee and I will give you a policy lesson on payback you will not forget in a hurry.
Anna: Thanks, Archie. And in similar spirit, take your hand off my arm and back off. I’m not some little volunteer you can get handy with on the battle bus.
Archie: You just crossed a line, Anna. When he goes, which will be sooner than you think, he will at least be able to do some lucrative after-dinner speaking. You, on the other hand, won’t be able to get yourself arrested.
Anna’s choice of a new staff member is Francine Bridge (Marsha Thomason), a former Labour MP, brilliant but burned out, and disillusioned with her own party. Robert has approved, if surprised by, her choice (she’s already arranged a meeting). This is a major step forward for a government that doesn't seem to be particularly interested in diversity.
She and Francine meet for drinks, and it’s more like a courtship than a job interview. Francine refuses the position, saying the only job she’d accept is Chief Advisor to the republic of Narnia, and the two wander along the Thames, sparring and obviously enjoying each other’s company. Accept the position, Anna tells her, and they’ll have “such larks!” (quoting Dickens’s Great Expectations). Anna confides in Francine about a troubling recent event.
When she was a war correspondent in Bosnia she became involved with Serb Edin Tosumbegovic (Alexandre Willaume). He had gone to look for his sister, and Anna had never heard from him again until he suddenly turned up in London at her house. And when she returns home that evening, there is a jar of her favorite Serbian preserve and a note from him on her doorstep.
Robert and his family are also facing a crisis that could destroy his career. After he left his daughter Ellie at college, she and her friends partied and took a drug that she described as “riding down a river on a swan.” Now her friend Georgia (Ruby Dixon) is in a coma. Robert tells his wife Rachel (Lucy Cohu, Ripper Street), he has no time to deal with their daughter—while he has a country to save, Rachel will save the family.
And we return to the doomed plane as it follows the M1 motorway, passing low over the car of Chief Constable Stuart Collier (Steven Cree, Outlaw King) before crashing into a bridge. Collier takes charge at the crash site, and in a suspenseful sequence rescues a baby that has been flung down the gangway of the plane. In a phone conversation soon after with Fraser, he reveals how shaken he is and concerned that both parents of the baby need urgent surgery. Despite the difficulty of ambulances getting to the site, the local hospital is already swamped.
After five hours of waiting for the satellite, information indicates that the electromagnetic storm is from the south, the very worst scenario. Spain and France are blacked out, and soon Britain will be too. The screen in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room flickers as the emergency generator kicks in. Robert leaves the briefing room for Buckingham Palace for permission to authorize an Act of Emergency.
Francine is home and having second thoughts about refusing the position with Anna. She watches as the lights of London blink out, and her turntable slows and the sound dies as power is lost.
So, thoughts! Do you think Francine and Anna will make a dream team? Do you think Archie will use the crisis to undermine Robert, or will he be able to put differences aside? Will Fraser keep his cool? Who do you want to see more of in following episodes? And what is Anna and Robert's history?