Utopia 1.02 ReviewA tv review article by: Kelvin Green, Paul Brian McCoy
Paul Brian McCoy: Episode 2 of Dennis Kelly's adventurous new series for Channel 4, Utopia, aired last Tuesday and we got quite a few answers to some of the burning questions from Episode 1. The question now is, are we to believe the answers we've been given?
Kelvin Green: So, you were quite unambiguous about your love of the first episode of Utopia. Did the second episode live up to that for you?
Paul: It did, mostly. There were a few times during my viewing that I felt the visuals weren't as intensely crafted as they had been in the first episode - like Director Marc Munden's concentration this week was on getting the story moving - but on a second viewing that feeling fell away.
Instead of the constant claustrophobia of the first episode, this week paid more attention to long shots and open spaces as a form of contrast, I think.
Kelvin: Yes, there were lots of long, wide shots throughout the episode, with the actors off in the distance. I would assume that it was an attempt to reinforce the idea that the characters were alone.
Paul: I'd agree with that. Alone and their world has just opened up in startling ways.
They're small players in that immense visual field.
Kelvin: Yes, exactly! They're alone, and they don't really know where they're going.
There was another visual trick that stood out for me, but I'm not sure whether it was a thing, or if I was just reading too much into it.
Paul: What was that?
Kelvin: Well, this is the Jessica Hyde (Fiona O'Shaughnessy) episode. It was more or less all about her and her part in the story. What I noticed was that aside from a couple of occasions, the camera didn't really focus on her.
I thought that was interesting.
Paul: Do you mean a shifting between a hard and soft focus?
Kelvin: No, "focus" is perhaps the wrong word. It was the way that the camera didn't want to show her face. Like when she's telling Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and Becky (Alexandra Roach) her story; a more conventional programme would have had the camera point at her face through this.
Instead, it was shot from behind her head, so we didn't see her face, only Becky and Ian's reactions.
Paul: Ah, interesting. I hadn't noticed that, but you may be right. The most startling moment with her for me was the full-on close-up, though, as she murdered The Tramp (Alan Williams). (Ahem. Spoiler Alert!)
And the bizarre expression on her face as she did it.
Kelvin: Yes. I can think of two sequences during which we saw her face. The first was right at the start when she's introducing herself to the gang, except she's addressing the viewer.
The other was, as you say, her murder of The Tramp.
Paul: Now that I think on it, though, you're right, the visual narrative did seem to focus more on the reactions to her than on her generally. Of course, there were quite the info-dumps this week, so it makes sense.
Kelvin: Perhaps it's a way of showing how she's off the grid, that the camera can't really keep her in shot.
Paul: Or maybe she's not entirely to be trusted.
Kelvin: That much is true, I'm sure. She reminds me a lot of Arby (Neil Maskell).
Paul: I was just about to say that!
Paul: That murderous disassociation.
Kelvin: Yes, that sense that they're not really part of the human world; that they don't really connect with other people.
Although at least in Jessica's case, we can sort of understand why. If what she says about her past is true.
Paul: That's a big if. I'm going to just assume she's telling the truth for the most part and see how it plays out.
Speaking of the similarities between Jessica and Arby, did you notice the same audio cue of the creaking leather?
As she was wrapping the cord around her hands, getting ready to kill the Tramp?
It matches up with Arby's jacket creaking as he shifts around and gets ready to hurt or kill someone.
Kelvin: I did not. That's interesting. It suggests that we are supposed to connect them.
Paul: Yeah, I think there's something going on there and we'll find out about some relationship eventually.
Kelvin: There was a sense that they were dumping this backstory in an attempt to get it out of the way and get on with things.
Almost casual in a way.
Paul: Which, in a six part series, isn't a bad idea. Especially given the shifts in allegiances we've got developing in our group of heroes alongside the development of Michael's situation with the Department of Health.
Narratively speaking, it was like laying out a long establishing shot and then allowing the characters to move around in the space.
Kelvin: Yes, that's a good way to think of it.
I have to say, I wasn't grabbed by the Department of Health stuff this week.
Paul: I liked the way Michael (Paul Higgins) reacted to it all. He was trying to do the right thing in what was clearly a scary situation. He was trying to be heroic and failing miserably. Only to be made a hero by the baddies.
Kelvin: That was effective, but I did feel as if they relied a bit too much on the shock tactic of letting Michael know they were onto him with their subtle hints.
Paul: It was kind of funny, though, how everybody seems to know that he's gotten a Russian prostitute pregnant. He's so completely powerless it's frightening.
Kelvin: Yes, I suppose his strand of the story is the part that maintains the claustrophobia.
Paul: And gives us our only real look at the authorities (or their public faces, anyway) in The Network. All very serious men in suits behind big desks.
Kelvin: Yes, I'm not sure how I feel about them being so obvious about it.
Paul: Do you mean to the viewers or just to Michael?
Kelvin: Both, I think.
They may as well wear badges saying "I'm part of a secret conspiracy".
Paul: True, but they're not concerned with remaining concealed with Michael. Which is part of what makes it so effective to me. He's so beneath their contempt that they don't even hide in front of him.
Kelvin: That is true.
Paul: But he's a useful tool that they can use, and they seem to have further plans for him. I'm very curious to see where his story plays out in relation to the other storyline.
Kelvin: Me too. I think it's inevitable that Michael is going to snap and exact revenge on the conspiracy. The worm that turns.
Although this is an odd series, so perhaps they'll avoid that.
Paul: They've done a good job of avoiding too many clichés so far. And when they do get close to one, they twist it around a bit.
Speaking of which (sort of), Grant is the shit!
Or maybe the bomb?
Kelvin: Yes, his story was interesting this week. He's this odd mix of thug-in-training and sweet lonely boy.
Paul: And a bit of a twat. He's my hero so far. He's definitely my favorite character of the lot.
When they first mentioned The Tramp, I thought for sure I might have predicted John O'Bedlam showing up. I'm glad I was wrong, though.
I did cringe a bit when Grant gave Utopia #2 to his new friend. "No, Grant, that's as good as killing her!"
Paul: Yeah, that's got me worried.
Hopefully he's well off the grid himself at this point. She probably won't die until they arrive to pick up the manuscript.
Kelvin: Episode four or thereabouts.
Paul: I loved the way he just hugged Becky when they met. It was a great little moment, but then he gets right back into character once he's introduced to Wilson (Adeel Akhtar).
Kelvin: Yes, and then Becky goes and does... something.
Paul: Yes. Something.
I guess that's why we didn't see her get arrested last week.
Kelvin: I suspected it may have been something like that. Although we don't know who she was talking to.
Paul: So she's clearly working for or with someone. But it's not The Network, since Arby already knows the manuscript exists and she tells whoever it is she phones that the manuscript is real.
Kelvin: A third party.
Paul: What was it Jessica said? There are no sides, just people who help you and people you don't? Something like that.
Kelvin: That's it, yes.
Paul: I like that a lot too. Any time the storytellers can break up that easy traditional dualism is a plus.
Kelvin: Yes, and I'd count Jessica's clear untrustworthiness in that. We still don't know why she's helping the gang, for example.
Paul: Agreed. That snaky way of asking Ian if he had the manuscript was off-putting for sure. She's definitely working to oppose the Network, but hopefully our heroes are going to be able to find their own path.
Kelvin: Yes, she seems to be opposing the Network because they weren't nice to her, and may not care about whatever else they're up to.
Paul: You're right. Jessica seems to be more interested in staying alive and away from the Network than in overtly working against them. Or so it seems at this point.
We don't really know why she wants the manuscript either.
Kelvin: Or why she hates Becky. Or why she seems to like Ian so much. Beyond the obvious, but she doesn't seem the type to be attracted to other human beings.
Paul: I think it's about power and control. She may also know more about Becky than we do at this point.
Kelvin: That is true. The revelation that Becky's up to something does make Jessica look a bit less harsh, and of Becky was very quick to tie up that suburban family.
Paul: That was another thing that I really enjoyed about the way the character dynamics played out this week. It starts by separating Ian and Becky, giving Ian the privileged position of working with Jessica and shunting Becky off to the side.
Then we discover that Becky is quick to act when things go south and has her own agenda, but Ian has immediate misgivings after seeing Jessica in action.
Kelvin: Yes, they're not content to leave the characters in rigid roles.
Paul: It's a great way of keeping everything fluid as we get to know these people. It's believable and helps create that sense of verisimilitude at the heart of the strangeness. Just like the characters, we don't know what's going on and every time new information is revealed it forces us to shift our positions in relation to it.
Kelvin: Yes, and none of it seems out of character or artificial, at least not yet. Which, given how weird everything else is, is a nice bit of stability.
Paul: Right! All the shifting is natural and inside the field of play of believable behavior for what's already been established for them.
My only disappointment this week was that Wilson wasn't as well-written as he was in the first episode. He had his moments, but his wounds have forced him into a more passive, comic-relief role.
Hopefully that won't last.
Kelvin: Me too. He started to come back into things towards the end of the episode, so I imagine it's temporary. His blindness must be symbolic, so I expect him to play a larger role as things go on.
Paul: Hmmm. Are we forgetting to mention anything?
Kelvin: Mr. Rabbit.
Paul: Ah! The mysterious Mr. Rabbit. The shadowy figure behind the shadowy Network.
Kelvin: Yes, and a direct tie back to the man in the rabbit suit in the first episode.
Paul: The devil keeps appearing.
Kelvin: Indeed. I hope we're not heading for a strained Alice in Wonderland reference in here somewhere. I think Utopia is better than that, but I worry.
Paul: Those are so hard to avoid. They practically write themselves into works.
Kelvin: Exactly. I hope Utopia will be made of sterner stuff.
Paul: I found myself thinking more of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series than Alice in Wonderland.
I've got a soft spot for secret government organizations that keep operating in secrecy while the rest of the world goes on.
Kelvin: Yes, it is a bit reminiscent of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy isn't it? Even though it's nothing like it.
Paul: I won't be surprised to see a secret meeting of stern men in suits making important decisions somewhere along the line.
Kelvin: One of whom has a rabbit head.
Paul: That would be amazing.
Kelvin: One of the things I like most about Utopia is that Mr. Rabbit could be a man with a rabbit head, and it wouldn't seem out of place.
Kelvin: They could make it work.
Paul: It's hard to imagine anyone playing Stephen Rea's superior. Especially a guy with a rabbit head.
Kelvin: Anything can happen in Utopia!
Paul: It's going to have to be someone impressive. If we ever see him at all.
Kelvin: Ah yes, the old Green Goblin quandary.
I can't wait to see who or what the Rabbit is. I love how they keep layering extra mysteries on top of what's already going on. In an effective way too, not a making-it-up-as-we-go-along way.
Paul: Exactly! This is clearly very well planned out on every level, from plot to character, to the use of color and setting.
I think my favorite shot this week was Jessica walking away from the car as they burn it out. The way the explosion almost reaches her as she calmly walks away.
Kelvin: And the birds going nuts.
Paul: It's a bit cliché, but instead of the traditional approach of shooting it from the front as she narrowly escapes the fireball, Munden shoots it from the side in that long shot. It was just beautiful.
Kelvin: It was. The clichéd aspect just dissipated due to the way they shot it.
Paul: And it added to Jessica's otherworldly disassociation with the world around her. Like she can't be touched. Hell, she can barely be bothered.
Kelvin: Yes, and maybe the only thing that makes her feel alive at all is her secret war.
Paul: There was a strange look of bliss mixed with fear as she strangled the Tramp, wasn't there? I think that's what made that shot so unsettling to me. That and the efficiency of it all.
Kelvin: Yes there was. It wasn't quite orgasmic, but it was weird.
Paul: And on that note, what score do you give Episode 2?
Kelvin: It felt a little bit more flat, but maybe that's because the first episode was such a striking opening and I'm getting more used to the way the programme works.
Even so, I'd give it four out of five.
Paul: You took the words from my mouth (or fingertips or whatever).
I'd go with a very solid Four out of Five.
Utopia airs Tuesdays at 10:00 on Channel 4 in the UK.
Kelvin Green erupted fully formed from the grey shapeless mass of Ubbo Sathla in the dark days before humans walked the earth. He grew up on Judge Dredd, Transformers, Indiana Jones #12, The Avengers and Spider-Man, and thinks comics don't get much better than FLCL, Nextwave and Rocket Raccoon. Kelvin lives among garbage and seagulls and doesn't hate Marvel nearly as much as you all think he does.
Paul Brian McCoy is the writer of Mondo Marvel and a regular contributor to Shot for Shot at Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is on sale now for Kindle US, Kindle UK, and Nook. You can also purchase his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation at Amazon US and UK. He is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy and blogging occasionally at Infernal Desire Machines.