Traditionally, and I speak as someone who rode The X Files train all the way to the end, conspiracy shows tend to be ever shrinking rabbits pulled from ever more grandiose hats. You either constantly spin things out, to positively Scooby Dooian proportions, meander an info dump into tie in media (The X Files principle conspiracy remains largely explained on a hidden track on the movie soundtrack CD) or just lay your cards on the table and trust that your audience won’t be frightened away.
This is the choice Utopia was faced with at the end of an opening episode that did a pretty good job of convincing me the show would do nothing but piss me off. Marc Munden’s careful, measured directorial style was amazing, and several of the cast really stood out, but a cookie cutter conspiracy theorist, the sort of cold violence that doesn’t impress me whatever medium it’s in and a disturbing hint of the sniffy where comics are concerned, made me fairly certain that the series was going to happen at me rather than drag me in.
It would seem I’m wrong and I’m rather pleased about that. Episode 2 isn’t just a massive improvement, it’s an entire hour of television build around doing the thing that no TV show like this should do this early; explain things. Which, of course, opens up even more questions.
Fiona O’Shaugnessy has taken a little criticism for her portrayal of Jessica, but from where I’m standing, she’s already one of the most interesting members of the cast. A woman raised on the run, she delivers every line with what’s been misinterpreted as a flat, bored tone of voice, but it really doesn’t play like that. She’s essentially a soldier, a woman raised off the grid and in battle who has been trained, and learnt, how to survive. She’s also completely lacking the usual social framework people have and her refreshingly blunt approach is just that; blunt, not bored. She’s the Sarah Conner of the piece; a woman comfortable on the run and who openly admits she’ll do things some people don’t like in order to survive.
Her presence also sets up a fascinating dynamic for the main group, one that it was sorely lacking in the first episode. From the moment she shows up, she and Becky pick at one another over time with Ian in a way that flirts dangerously with verbal catfights at times. It’s a very dangerous line to walk, because tipping too far turns both of them into little more than a female stereotype fighting over a man, but the series actually goes somewhere much more interesting with it. Each one represents a different view of what they need to do to survive; Becky advocating finding out more about what’s going on and striking back and Jessica advocating escape and evasion because it’s all she knows how to. Ian, as the only other able bodied member of the group, is a power grab far more than he is a sexual pawn and that means what could have been Bechdel-failing dialogue becomes something which sounds like that, but which actually means something else. These two women aren’t fighting over Ian, they’re fighting over how to survive, passive vs aggressive rather than simply passive aggressive.
This constant battle of agendas neatly replaces the questions the first episode closed with over what was actually going on. Jessica’s first action, on finding the characters, is to explain exactly what’s happening and how much trouble they’re in; they’re being chased by a feral intelligence organization called the Network. Set up to counter a Russian chemical weapons group during the Cold War, the Network proceeded to inveigle itself into every element of the British establishment. Suddenly, we have context for the mannered, lumpy scenes with a bored looking Stephen Rea and James Fox from episode one. Add that to the revelation that Mark Dale, the writer of both Utopia volumes wasn’t just a Network scientist, he was one of its founders and Jessica’s father and suddenly the series takes on a very different tone. It also puts the Utopia graphic novels absolutely front and centre and does so in a manner that was largely missing from the first episode. These are books with meaning encoded into them, the complete history of the Network and, it’s suggested, its future plans. This is no longer a series holding its graphic novel macguffin at arm’s reach between two fingers, but rather one avidly poring over each page, desperate for answers.
For Jessica and Ian, those answers lead to the wife of the publisher of Utopia and another revelation. Not only has he been killed, but so has she, and replaced with a CIA agent. This is the first really smart move the series makes, taking the mannered, overly polite dialogue of the first episode and turning it on its head, using it as an indicator to Jessica that the woman isn’t who she says she is. Even the torture scene that follows, whilst echoing the clinical largesse of the first episode, is much more restrained and much more implied, which, in turn, suggests Jessica may not be as hard edged as she’s presenting herself. For a character who commits armed robbery within minutes of appearing on screen that’s quite an achievement and it makes her brutal murder of an informant later in the episode even more surprising. Her justification for it, that he could lead the Network to them, is plausible but like a lot of what she does, it feels like the part she’s letting you see, rather than the truth. Jessica has an agenda all her own, and this episode sets that agenda , what it is and how it conflicts with Becky’s, at the centre of the show.
Becky, for her part, spends most of the episode being rocked by their new way of life. Her clashes with Jessica not withstanding she’s forced to perpetuate Jessica’s efficient, kind, lie that Wilson’s father is fine, and hold the owners of the house they’re squatting in hostage when they arrive home. She’s reactive, and deliberately so, because two events at the end of the episode shift the power dynamic drastically in her favour. The first is the group uniting with Grant, whose first response is to hug Becky and finally relax a little. Utopia’s caught a lot of, in many cases deserved, criticism for some of the central performances but Oliver Woollford is fantastic, a completely believable, troubled, angry artistic kid. This episode cleverly, and quietly, manoeuvres Grant front and centre in the plot, not only as a means of shifting power towards Becky but because he has both the manuscript’s location and the copy he drew. Grant, like Jessica, holds answers, and I suspect the next episode will focus on the questions that rise from them.
The pivotal moment in the episode comes slightly later though, when Becky excuses herself and makes a phone call that appears to betray the entire group. In an instant, everything you’ve seen up to that point is shown in a new light; Jessica’s reluctance to trust her, her reluctance to trust Jessica, her struggle for control of Ian and care for Wilson. Becky is either an agent for the Network, a woman forced to work with them or something much more complex and in one tiny scene, Utopia takes its most interesting character and makes her even more central to its success.
Elsewhere, Dugdale continues his descent into hell. This is the one point where the episode stumbles, as we’ve seen the revelation of the Russian flu outbreak coming since the vaccine was first mentioned. It’s not helped by the fact that we’re told Dugdale is about to be a hero, then the outbreak hits, then Female Civil Servant In Charge Of Explaining The Plot tells him he’s a hero just in case we missed it the first time. In episode one, Dugdale’s plot was one of the saving graces, here it’s dull and predictable with only the almost playful efficiency with which the Network kill his one contact and takes his girlfriend out of the equation really hitting home. It’ll be interesting to see where this plot goes, and why Dugdale was chosen at all, but for now, it’s not doing much more than marking time.
That aside, Utopia episode two held my attention in a way the first episode failed to do. The revelations about the plot are impressive, and the image of a feral Circus, with Stephen Rea as a Caligulan Smiley sitting at its center is a fascinating, and horrifying, one. However, there’s a sneaking suspicion that this is merely the first set of answers we get. What the Network are doing and why will I suspect be next, along with what Jessica’s true agenda is and how it interacts with Becky’s. I’m also taking bets on Jessica’s father being far more alive than we’ve been led to believe and things to skew hard left into full on contemporary apocalypse sometime around episode four. Regardless, the series hasn’t just found its feet, its playing with the conventions of its genre in a manner which is genuinely clever, instead of just trying to be. We’ve got the rabbit out of the hat, but now the question seems to be why is the magician there at all?