Utopia seasons 1 & 2 (Channel 4, 2013-2014)
Five strangers see their lives changed forever when they come across the manuscript of Utopia, an obscure graphic novel that an unscrupulous secret organization, the Network, wants so bad.
I said that Akira was convoluted and action-packed and this is it to the nth power. As one of the characters puts it, there are no sides here, just people who help you and people who don’t. The characters are wonderfully developed and given opinions, interests, motivations and personal ethics, which results in a whirlwind of interactions, chases, treasons, numerous deaths and things that are not quite what they seem. I have to insist, the characters are one of the strongest points of the series. They are very well rounded, and thoroughly developed, constantly changing and being changed by the plot. There’s also quite some gallows humour and an intense flavour of conspiracy. Conspiracy is in fact the one thing that keeps the plot going.
Everyone in the cast is great but the special mention goes to Neil Maskell, who plays Arby. His acting is so amazing that he makes the character creepy, hilarious and endearing, nearly coming out of the screen. Also it’s worth noting that the actors that play the same character at different ages look remarkably like each other. Another thing I really liked is the portrayal of children. They are not there to be funny, sappy, adorable, or to say catchphrases, and that’s something I was really thankful for. They are characters on their own right and contribute to driving the plot, sometimes by making mistakes and getting in trouble, and sometimes by being incredibly awesome. Also, the baddies are not reduced to mentally unhealthy and therefore evil, they are characterised very carefully and damn, you can even relate to their goals. At least I did, of course not to their methods but their goal is incredibly relevant in the present day and will surely make you think.
So go on and watch this, you won’t regret it. And never forget the importance of this question: ‘Where is Jessica Hyde?’
And now for the spoilery part of the review!
Let’s go from beginning to end.
I loved that Grant was a kid, and a bratty, neglected one at that, it set everything up for a very interesting character. I found it hilarious when he refused to meet at a house because the guy ‘might be a rapist’. The torture scene on S01E01 was definitely hard to watch but at the same time really got me into the series because I could tell that the writers were going to go into risky places and say uncomfortable things. I find it amusing how every torturer in this series uses extreme politeness as a form of psychological torture (except for Arby, who just can’t be bothered). I also thought it was a very clever way to portray how resourceful Wilson is when he says he can give them Jessica Hyde’s address and when that doesn’t work he tells them she’s dead, having figured it must be some sort of trick question. When the door opens at the end of the chapter and the woman says she’s Jessica Hyde– I think that must be the most exciting thing I have seen in a long time! Much better than we were expecting in those few seconds before the door opens (hint: we thought it was Arby).
What about the reveal of what Janus does? I had sort of a similar reaction to Wilson’s, like: ‘oh… but I thought these were the bad guys and wanted to do random evil things just for the lulz…’ Of course then things like Children of men and The handmaid’s tale came to me and obviously it’s not such a good idea, but at the same time, if nothing is done about it the situation is not going to be much better. In this line I really liked the conversation between Terrence and the woman with the kid at the beginning of S02E06. I’m not having kids because I don’t feel like it anyway, but it is an act of selfishness, having more than one at least. I’d say having one is still the smallest evil since if population grows older and older we’re screwed anyway, two I find acceptable (replace the parents, keep population stable, even though there’s already too many of us) but more than two? Totally on your side, Terrence, those people are looking at the environmental problem the wrong way.
The reveal of the true identity of Mr. Rabbit and the nature of the manuscript? When they said: ‘there were X people and Y were men’ I instantly thought it was going to be a woman, for no particular reason, actually, just because it would be cool, and it was. When they revealed that Janus was in Jessica and not in the manuscript at first I thought they had just pulled that out of their ass and felt it didn’t make a lot of sense except as a twist ending, but thinking about it closely it does work. In fact the answer is right under your nose because Arby/Pietre keeps asking where Jessica is to people who are related with the manuscript, not where the manuscript is. Both the Network and the writers use the manuscript as a macguffin (is it? I could actually write a whole thing analysing if it qualifies as macguffin or not) to trick both the characters and the audience into thinking the manuscript is important– when it’s only important to Jessica, because it’s a memento of her father. The thing is Jessica is hardly ever in the house and hardly ever lowers her guard, and that unchains all the events in series one. But you never notice because you’re all the time distracted with the manuscript, and whether it says who Mr. Rabbit is, and whether the formula for Janus is there or not.
S02E01 actually tells you nothing new, but it’s handy for organising all the info you already had. Well, apparently they reference several real-life important events and relate them to the Network but I was quite insensitive to those because I’m an uncultured swine.
In this season it turns out that Philip Carvel was alive because everyone was too busy fighting over the manuscript and Janus to actually check on the sanitarium where they dumped him. It was a nice surprise because when it was hinted we were watching and trying to remember if anyone had actually said that Carvel was dead and came to the same conclusion: everyone just assumed he was. The scene with Marius the translator was comedy gold: ‘Okay, this Romani is Romanian, but you’re still racist!’ Also Lee pops out of nowhere with a paralysed arm and has some hilarious scenes with Wilson as well, and Pietre gets a degree in awesome to add to his diploma in funny creepiness.
But the great achievement of the season is Wilson. From the moment he learns what Janus does he knows he somewhat relates to the Network. He doesn’t feel ready, but under the tutoring of Milner he ends up rolling head-first down the slippery slope. He sees it this way: it’s either condemning billions to starvation and poverty in the future, or killing and terrorising a few thousand now. Add a few dozens of innocent by-standers and people who knew too much and they still don’t stick out of the bundle too much. He decides to pay this price, but obviously, Janus+vaccine+Russian flu is preposterous so he helps abort that plan, although in the aftermath he can’t live with having killed those people for nothing at all. Janus must live on to pay for the deaths of all those people and make it worthwhile. And this is when the Mr. Rabbit persona eats him whole. Milner used this reasoning to justify her actions and Wilson will as well. As a general note, the body count in this series is so high that you end up being totally insensitive to murders and yell at the screen: ‘No! He knows too much to be walking around! *Headshot* Oh, that’s better’. I think the same thing happens to Wilson, he stops looking at it in a humane way and can only look at it with pragmatic eyes. All in all I think he’s one of the cleverest, roundest villains in recent television and I give my thumbs-up to that. To think that in the first episode he was a wacky conspiranoid that lived with his dad…
Another very interesting idea is in Becky’s arc and its reflection on euthanasia. It’s not very common to see in mass media such a bold defence of the right to die with dignity, or whatever you want to call it. I’m only saying it’s your life and if you want to kill yourself for whatever reason you’re perfectly entitled to it. Becky’s met with reluctance from Ian, which is natural, since this is a situation quite hard to swallow, and with disdain from Jessica. Good thing she was not really sick in the end and that she thought she could do without a stomach protector.