Utopia 1.06 - ReviewA tv review article by: Kelvin Green, Paul Brian McCoy
Paul Brian McCoy: Better late than never, the illustrious Kelvin Green and I are finally back to take a look at the Series One finale of Dennis Kelly's Utopia, wherein many questions are answered, many characters get what's coming to them, and many shots of fire are lingered on artistically. While there are actual answers to questions, there were also quite a few threads left dangling for a potential Series Two.
Kelvin Green: Quite so. I haven't heard anything yet about a second series, but I would not be surprised. That said, if there was no series two, this episode would still work as a finale. Albeit a grim one.
Given the positive buzz Utopia has received, 4 must be looking at a second series, but then again, the same could be said of The Fades.
Paul: Hopefully Channel 4 will have more success than the BBC in figuring out how to spread funding around. It seems like most of the Channel 4 shows that are quality and only run 1 series are ended by choice rather than by decree.
Kelvin: What did you think of the ending? A week or so later, and I'm not sure if I'm satisfied by it.
Paul: I thought that it worked, given what had been set up before, but the hiding place of Janus was a bit obvious. Of course, that was only set up at the start of this episode, so as with the comforting rock last episode, it felt a little last-minute.
Kelvin: My thoughts exactly.
Paul: And was it just me, or was the bit in the "Previously On" intro, with Letts (Stephen Rea) saying the UK was the test subject for the vaccine, not actually in the last episode?
Kelvin: I thought that seemed a bit out of place too. I thought I'd just missed that line in the previous episode. That's an uncharacteristic slip.
Paul: Well, Lopez and Yip aren't the most thoroughly thought out of directors, as we've seen. It probably wasn't a pretty enough shot, so it was cut. Then whoever cuts the intros realized that key bit of info had been dropped.
Kelvin: Janus' hiding place was a bit obvious, as you say. Given the nice bait-and-switch they pulled with the identity of Mr. Rabbit, it's a shame that the other big mystery was so transparent.
Paul: I was actually surprised by the whole Mr. Rabbit mystery, which is a very satisfying feeling. So I was able to give it some leeway on Carville's "greatest achievement" secret.
Kelvin: Yes, there were a couple of good surprises in the episode. Mr. Rabbit was one, as was Michael's Russian friend Anya (Anna Madeley).
Paul: Funnily enough, in my notes for this episode I was going to start complaining about her bad Russian accent. I'd not said anything before, but this week her role was larger so I thought some comment was warranted.
Then, lo and behold!
Kelvin: Both surprises were obvious in hindsight, I think, but that's a hallmark of a good mystery, I suppose.
Paul: Yeah, I can't criticize the way this entire show was structured. I think given another pass, Kelly would introduce the rock and the greatest achievement bits earlier. Well, maybe not the greatest achievement, as there's just no way to make that subtle enough not to catch.
Kelvin: No, especially if you're a fan of The Goonies.
Paul: Another little thing I noticed (which I probably wouldn't have if I weren't obsessively watching and rewatching this thing) was the Milner (Geraldine James) reveal, where the camera focuses in with the stained glass behind her looking like devil horns, also didn't actually happen in the previous episode.
Kelvin: Oh, that's interesting. It did occur to me that almost every time Milner turns up, she's killing someone. In hindsight, someone with that liberal an attitude to murder is not going to turn out to be a nice person.
Minor spoiler there, people.
Paul: And it sheds some light on that horrible Hell Room last episode. Maybe that was a symbolic choice rather than just an artistic choice.
Kelvin: Yes indeed, although the series does leave us with the question of whether that was Milner's son.
Paul: I'd guess it wasn't, but that's more implied than anything else - as was Letts' declaration that the UK was the test subject.
Kelvin: I think it would work if the bed-ridden person were Milner's son, and everything she said was true. It would make her more interesting and sympathetic.
Paul: It would be a great choice, I agree, but given the revelations of this episode, I'm not sure they'd go there. Although it would be interesting to find out that she was Jessica (Fiona O'Shaughnessy) and Arby's mom.
Kelvin: Oh yes, that would be interesting. If perhaps a revelation too far.
Paul: I don't think there's any indication of that being the case, but it would make me happy. Especially if the only family in the show with both parents represented is the most nightmarish family imaginable.
Kelvin: Ha! Yes. I'd love to the series bible for this one. So much was left unrevealed and obscure.
Paul: There's definitely a lot to continue to build on for a second season. They just need to lock Marc Munden into a full six-episode contract.
Paul: So after the slow-motion burning of the vaccine, we seemed to be heading to a conclusion that would tie everything up (of course, we don't actually get that), with Ian and Becky heading up to Scotland with Grant (Oliver Woollford) in tow, and Alice (Emilia Jones) moving in with Michael (Paul Higgins) and Jen (Ruth Gemmell). We don't see what becomes of the Dugdales once they get home, but we do watch as Becky ditches the boys and heads off somewhere on her own.
Do you think that fit she had was real, or a way to throw them off-guard and slip away?
Kelvin: Good question. It's difficult to tell. Becky's been so well-written and acted that it could go either way.
Paul: On a second viewing, I think it was faked. But that's mainly because she was so good at lying to them all along that even as the season comes to a close, nobody knows that she was meeting up with Donaldson (Simon McBurney).
I could be reading it completely wrong, but I still don't trust Becky entirely.
Kelvin: Yes, she has experience in deceit. It could well have been faked. We never really found out much about her, and what little we did may not have been reliable. If the final episode teaches us anything it's that one shouldn't believe everything one's told.
Paul: I also think that playing the scene as a trick allows the character to leave in a way that marks her less as a victim and more in control of her own fate. So she comes off stronger, if more untrustworthy.
Kelvin: Yes, that's a good point. At the same time, it doesn't diminish the way she grew as she developed genuine feelings for other members of the gang, most notable Ian and Grant. Whatever her reasons for dumping them, at least part of it was to spare them.
Paul: That's true. I hadn't thought of it that way. How did Wilson's (Adeel Akhtar) betrayal play for you?
Kelvin: I'm a little torn on it. It made sense, as it had already been established that Wilson was wavering, but I think they took a bit too long in having him go back and forth.
Paul: I know what you mean there. I think it worked with his character, though. He was still intrigued by the mystery of it all, even if he felt he needed to switch sides.
Kelvin: Yes, that's a good way to look at it.
Paul: That moment where he's ready to email the Assistant (James Fox), but doesn't when they find a reference to Letan is a good example of that.
Kelvin: Yes, I think you're right. That seemed to be their intention, that even though he'd made his choice, he was still a conspiracy nut at heart and wanted to follow it through.
I'm not sure they pulled it off, but that does seem to be what they were going for.
Paul: I did like the fact that he was stabbed and left for dead for real this time. That was funny in a dark and twisted way. Although I fully expect him to be back if there's a second season.
Kelvin: Yes, he was too good a character to lose.
Paul: I'm also anticipating the return of Arby and the enigmatic "Where is Jessica Hyde?" question if they do another go around.
Kelvin: Yes. This time, Arby's trying to rescue her!
Paul: And gathering up Ian, Grant, and Becky to help him do it.
Kelvin: Arby's exit from the series last time was so low-key for such a prominent character that I can't believe that was his death scene. Utopia is unconventional, but not that unconventional, surely?
Paul: I was half-expecting him to show up on the roof at the end to rescue Jessica. It felt like something vital was missing without him. Replacing him with a high-tech internet enabled van is just not the same.
Kelvin: Yes indeed. Such a good character and such a strong performance from Neil Maskell. The last episode was weaker in his absence.
Paul: The van's appearance did raise an interesting issue about just who the people fighting against the Network are and how does Jessica interact with them. At least, I'm assuming the van came from an unseen ally.
I can't imagine that sort of thing is maintained "off the grid" somehow. It raised more questions than it answered for me, and also smelt vaguely as another plot shortcut.
Kelvin: Yes, it was a bit mysterious. I assumed she got it from Arby somehow, although that doesn't make much sense now that I think about it.
It seems that as we're discussing it, this finale is being revealed as being a bit choppy.
Paul: It was, at that. I think a combination of directorial shortcomings and Kelly's need to cram everything into the six-episode structure led to some poor decisions for the final chapter. A seventh episode would have allowed it to breathe just that last little bit it needed to work properly.
Kelvin: Yes, you could be right there. It did seem as if they wanted to cram all the twists into the final episode, and I'm not sure that was for the best.
Paul: The majority of the twists worked, don't get me wrong, but some breathing room would have been nice. Other than that, I thought it was a pretty successful season finale. It did everything it needed to, plus threw some new surprises our way.
I especially liked that the Network didn't want the manuscript because it contained Mr. Rabbit's identity, but that it had the molecular structure of Janus hidden in the artwork.
Kelvin: Yes, that was a nice bit.
Paul: It was a nice surprise, along the lines of the gang thinking Janus was about racial purity, but that was too easy an answer.
Kelvin: I was reminded of that issue of Promethea that only makes sense if you cut it up and arrange it as a collage. Not reminded so much that I can remember the specific issue, though.
Paul: I don't remember much of Promethea anymore. I'm pretty sure I read it all, but I never sat down and read batches of issues together, so it was all disjointed in my head. Especially when it started crossing over with Tom Strong or whatever was going on there. Someday.
Kelvin: I only have vague memories of it now, but the gimmicks stand out, like the collector-baiting cut-up-your-Alan-Moore-comic issue.
Paul: So what have we forgotten about with the Utopia finale? Anything?
I thought it was clever that Anya pulled the rug out from under Michael's reality only to be killed by having the rug literally pulled out from under her. That was clever.
Kelvin: Ha! Yes! I hadn't noticed that.
I liked seeing some proper hero moments, like Grant's escape from The Network, or Michael's turn against his secret masters. Of course, both instances were violent and horrible, but there was something triumphant about them nonetheless.
Paul: That can describe pretty much every significant event in this series.
Kelvin: That's part of why I like it so much, even with a slightly wonky final episode. From the start it's been just a little bit odd, a little bit wrong. But all the time, so compelling and even charming.
Paul: And that's a perfect description of the series as a whole.
Kelvin: I do wish that the second half of the series had been stronger, but that's only in comparison to that amazing first half; it's still been better than almost everything else on television.
Paul: It's so good, in fact, that I'm considering nabbing a multi-region Blu-ray player with my birthday cash so I can buy the Blu-ray release.
Kelvin: Oh it will look fantastic in high definition.
Paul: I'm extremely poor though, so I may not follow through on that impulse.
I think after this discussion, I'm going to have to go with a four star rating for the finale. As you say, if stumbled a bit, but was still better than most everything else out there.
Kelvin: I'd agree. Endings are difficult to pull off well, and Utopia was so good that they had an even more difficult task here. I don't think they quite managed it, but even so it was a very good hour of television. Four stars for me too.
Paul: And because I don't think we've done so yet, we should all be singing the praises of cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland and composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer for helping to provide the unifying threads that held together the first and second halves of the season.
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 available 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 recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s, coming in April. Paul 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.