Review: Utopia Episode 5

Back when The X Files was a going concern but in the process of winding down, I used to joke about my ideal final episode. It would open with Mulder, standing at the front of a classroom, next to a blackboard. His first words be ‘So, we start here…’ and he’d begin explaining the entire background to the series. As he did so, the camera would pull back and back and back and we’d see the blackboard was incredibly long. By the end of the episode, he’d have filled it, would turn to camera and say ‘Any questions?’

As it turns out that’s actually kind of what we got. It’s also essentially what we got in the penultimate episode of Utopia.

I have complained, entertainingly at times I’m pretty sure, about the colossal under use of Stephen Rea and James Fox in this show, Relegated to the world’s most gothic office, somewhere deep in the Ministry of Sinister, these two fine actors have had little to do all series other than look aristocratic and bored whilst making Dugdale cry. Last week, with Alice taking matters into her own hands, Rea’s character, Letts (And has he been named at ANY POINT in the series aside from the cast list? Because I’ve been listening and I could have sworn he hasn’t been) was in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up in the custody of our ‘heroes’.

This week opens with, and is dominated by, him telling them everything. And instead of the truth setting them free, it destroys every single one of the main characters.

Becky is given rock solid proof that the disease that killed her father, and might well be active in her, was designed. By Letts in fact, who is openly fascinated by both Becky and how she’s still alive. It’s Rea’s finest moment in the entire series, only one of two points where Letts appears to come to life. Becky is the result of one of his experiments and he’s amazed and weirdly humbled to be in her presence. He also, it transpires later, is directly financing Donaldson, who is, in turn, revealed as Becky’s handler. Donaldson is fun the moment he arrives, all 1980s playboy swagger in an outdated sports car and driving jacket but the threat is very real from both men; they both have Becky’s life in their hands and neither of them gives a shit about it. Interestingly, Letts comes closest to an emotional response when he admits that he would feel bad, but Becky’s father and her own suffering are just one of the thousands of crimes he’s committed. A man with generations of blood on his hands, and nothing left to lose, Letts tells them everything not just to unburden himself but because he knows it’ll break them. With Becky, it succeeds almost instantly, and Alexandra Roach’s bereft, shellshocked performance this episode is the highlight of her uniformly strong performance throughout the series. Utopia has been regularly criticised, and justifiably, for two things; its relentlessly po-faced approach to its subject matter and the lumpen acting of the cast. Roach is the exception to that rule, starting strong and only getting better as the series has progressed.

Similarly, Adheel Akhtar is finally, after four weeks, given something to do this episode.  Wilson has finally woken up, as we saw last week, and realized that every single thing he and his father imagined was going on in the world isn’t just true, it isn’t enough. Wilson is through the looking glass, the place he’s always wanted to be and to his tremendous surprise, finds himself agreeing with Letts.  Wilson has been draped in the apocalypse his whole life and when the man directly responsible for the murder of his father explains what’s already happening he finds peace. The truth shall set you free, and if you’re a conspiracy theorist, the truth will set you free from it all, including any regard for your own personal safety. Wilson is completely adrift now, completely alone and his suicide attempt at the end of the episode only proves that. He’s won, because they’ve won. He was right all along and all it took was his life, his eye and the life of his father.

Ian for his part, didn’t seem as cut to the quick and I’ve got a couple of theories about that, both of them structural. Ian has been the problem character, or rather the quiet problem character, throughout. Becky has her reasons for being there, as does Wilson, and Grant and certainly Jessica. Ian was simply a member of the forum and his emotional stakes have never got higher than ‘A bit in love with Becky and misses his brother a bit.’ This, far more than Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s performance, has meant Ian’s seemed a little flat, to flat out dull, throughout the series. There are two reasons for this that I can see; firstly that he’s meant to be the viewpoint character for the audience and by definition has to be a little bland and secondly, that he’s Mr Rabbit.

Think about it; Ian has been largely untouched by events, he’s got away with some ridiculous stuff (The ‘Ian! Stealth hobo! Nonsense was not the series’ finest hour) and he’s central to the group. Plus, let’s face it, there are basically no candidates for Mr Rabbit left. Assuming he’s in the cast and we’ve already seen him it’s literally Ian and James Fox now. To be fair, the script is jumping up and down and pointing at James Fox going ‘Look at his chest! LOOK AT HIS CHEST!’ he’s the right age, he’s clearly no one’s ‘assistant’ and it would make sense but…I sort of hope it isn’t true. It’s too obvious and this show has, at least, flirted with not being obvious.

Meanwhile, over at the Horrifically Traumatised By A Life In The Conspiracy Children’s table, Jessica and Arby spent the episode getting to know one another. Which, it being Jessica and Arby, meant trying to kill one another. Neil Maskell was, in the opening minutes of the show, one of the things that nearly turned me off it altogether but he’s grown into my favourite part of the series. Arby has the feral serenity of an animal knowing it doesn’t have long left to live, and his almost child like joy at getting to show Jessica his ‘local’ was only made better by the offhand way he completely outmanouvered her. Arby is very, very good at what he does, so much so that it’s instinctive and his combination of bovine calm and relentless drive forced emotions out of Jessica for the first time in the series. Suddenly, she looks a lot more like a frightened, broken young woman than the blank faced terminator of her first couple of episodes and as a result, the revelation that she and Arby are brother and sister is clear long before it’s said out loud.  What’s not said out loud, and beautifully inferred by what may be Arby’s final scene, is how self aware he is now. Arby may be a gun, but he’s a gun without a finger resting on the trigger. He’s free, and he wants his sister to be and that, buried deep beneath his decades of psychological conditioning, is pure, compassionate love. It’s also, for a man like Arby, like having his strings cut and I strongly suspect the image of him, sitting calmly in his old room as it burns around him, is the last we’ll see of him. Jessica, clearly, has something more still to do.

As do the Dugdales, who’s story takes a surprising turn this week. Mrs Dugdale, played with tremendous emotional honesty and strength by Ruth Gemmell, finds herself faced with a choice between the total collapse of her life and the chance to salvage something from the ruins of her husband’s idiocy. The decision she makes is a horrifying one, and yet, somehow completely admirable and it not only lifts Dugdale’s scenes immensely but finally gets him out of the ‘Stand up to the Minister/Panic/Cry’ trifecta he’s constantly defaulted back to. Dugdale isn’t strictly with the conspiracy but he’s also definitively not against them. Dugdale is a man who has dipped his toes in the waters of the big pond and decided he’d really rather like to go back to the small pond and forget everything he’s seen thank you. It’s a startlingly brave narrative choice for a character we’ve spent so much time with, simultaneously a betrayal and an ending and it’s one that, much as with Arby, could serve as the final time we see the character.

This entire episode was about making a good end of things, or being denied that opportunity. Everything Letts tells them, from the revelation of what Janus is to precisely what he’s done and why, frees the main characters from their prejudices and biases, their home bases and their core beliefs and casts them adrift on the same amoral, tranquil, flat sea Arby has spent his entire life in. Each knows they can’t last there long, each knows what’s coming for them and each reacts differently. Arby goes home, and helps his sister to do what he knows he can’t. Wilson is absolutely vindicated and as a result literally has no reason to live anymore. Becky, faced with Milner calmly planning to kill her critically ill son and herself, is confronted not only with her future but the most effective, and worst, way out. The Dugdales are confronted with the choice between rebuilding their lives or being torn apart by the Network and Ian? Ian doesn’t appear to be confronted by anything other than arrest. Only time will tell if that’s significant, but Janus is in play and the clock is ticking. So many characters are brought into land this episode, the finale looks set to  be a remarkably tidy hour of revelation, mass (possibly altruistic) death and the revelation of who Mr Rabbit really is.  After a week of tap dancing, the pace increased and the scale shrunk in exactly the way the story needed it to. Utopia opened with an hour that was very, very difficult to love and it’s closing on its own terms, but it’s never quite lost my attention. Bring on the finale.

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