Utopia hit the halfway mark last week, and it did so in a manner as definitive as it was risky. The opening sequence saw now solo assassin Arby return to Grant’s school and murder everyone there, adult and child alike. This is standard Network fare, as we’ve seen already; Arby and his now deceased partner are the men sent to tie the loose ends off, usually with fingers slick with blood. As a result of this, and perhaps also Utopia’s at times self-consciously edgy nature, Arby has been one of the least interesting parts of the plot; a methodical, monosyllabic terminator with a yellow bag filled with death.
Episode three is almost entirely designed to address that, and through it to address the principle problem of all conspiracy stories; conspiracies are as unlikely as they are untidy and, frequently, tedious. This is an odd conclusion for me to draw, given that I finished my adolescence with both The X Files and a healthy dose of parapsychology buzzing round my mind. I used to know this stuff inside and out, knew my way around the JFK conspiracy theories (One of the very few that still seems to hold water by the way ) and was able to talk with authority about Richard Hoagland’s work before it became painfully apparent he was a frothing lunatic. Now, post-2012, we find the conspiracy landscape hammered almost entirely flat, aside from the few desperate people convinced that maybe the latest rumoured date of alien disclosure will be real. There are still questions that need to be answered, still events which have the look of conspiracy to them but all the old titans have fallen and there was never anyone in them to begin with.
Which brings us back to Utopia, and Arby. Arby murders children in the first two minutes of this episode. It’s exactly as horrific as it sounds, even though the show takes great pains to use sound rather than images to tell us what’s happening. He does so with the same plodding, desultory gait we’ve seen for three episodes but, for the first time, he hesitates. Later, we see him sitting in a toilet, bereft, not just through grief but new experience, and the show cleverly mirrors this with Dugdale doing the exact same thing later. Arby, a man pared down so much he’s just a set of killing instincts and a trigger finger, has run headlong into his first emotion and its guilt. He has absolutely no idea what to do about it either, and it’s fascinating to see this man who is clearly a monster bouncing around his miserable, tiny flat waiting for the order to go and do more monstrous things. It’s even more fascinating to see him interact with two groups we’ve never seen him with before; the senior Network officers played by Stephen Rea and James Fox, and Jessica Hyde.
Fox and Rea have been, despite their impeccable credentials, the other weak links in the show to date. Both men are all but incapable of turning in bad work but when their characters are precisely ‘Old, sinister, clearly moneyed, wearing suits, distinctly evil’ wide, there’s only so much you can do. However this episode features a scene which tells us far more about their relationship, and the conspiracy, than anything so far. Fox hands Rea a telephone, tells him the decision is his and Rea, reluctantly, makes the call. We don’t know what the call is, but we can tell having to do it bothers him tremendously. There’s not division in the ranks, not yet, but at long last these two fantastic actors are being allowed to show something other than ‘Besuited Evil’ in their scenes together. This flash of humanity is mirrored neatly later on in a conversation with Arby. Again, the script implies so much with so little, as we find out that Arby was part of a ‘consignment from Bulgaria’ and that Carvel was responsible for ‘building him’. The fact Arby’s earliest memory is killing animals at a slaughterhouse tells us a lot about the way children are treated by the Network, and Maskell does a fantastic job of showing Arby’s confusion not only at the horrific things he’s doing but the echoes he’s starting to see of his own past.
The quietest revelation of the episode is saved for the closing scenes. Arby, Jessica and Grant all converge on the house where Grant left the manuscript and the moment where Arby and Jessica come face to face is fascinating on any number of levels. It’s akin to the first meeting between the T800 and T1000 in Terminator 2, the two locking in intellectual place as they try and work out how to deal with one of the only other people on the planet like them. It’s fascinating as well to see Arby completely fall apart as he comes face to face not only with the woman he’s walked across dozens of dead bodies to reach, but who, he suddenly realizes is exactly the same as him. Jessica is as much a weapon as Arby, as completely unable to interact with the world normally as he is and, crucially, is on the wrong side. Fighting Jessica, for Arby, is like fighting himself and that’s even before we get to the implication which fascinates me more than anything else in the series so far; that Arby and Jessica are related.
Let’s look at the evidence for a minute;
-Arby was a creation of Carvel
-Carvel was Jessica’s father, albeit under the name Mark Deyn.
-Arby has been trained from a very young age to be both proficient in and desensitised to, extreme violence.
-Jessica was taught how to hide and fight from a very young age. She had a mentor, where Arby didn’t, but he died when she was young.
-Arby is single-mindedly pursuing Jessica for access to the Utopia II manuscript.
-Jessica is single-mindedly pursuing the Utopia II manuscript because it will lead her to her father’s memory.
Both of them are emotionless outsiders with a talent for violence. Both of them are completely willing to use other people to get what they want and both of them, especially in this episode, come face to face with just what they are. Jessica’s scenes with Grant crackle with something that sits on the dividing line between hostility, tension and an amorphous instinct to connect with someone. Grant is the same as her, a child amputated from his life, and Jessica slides into the role of mentor so well both you, and she, seem unclear whether she’s doing it because Grant knows where the manuscript is or because she likes him. The closing confrontation certainly sees her apparently caring for Grant more than the manuscript, but there’s still the sense that she’s using him as a means to an end. Just like Arby she will work with, or on, people to get what she wants but where Arby uses physical destruction, Jessica opts for the psychological. Both are completely focussed on one thing and even have a similar, detached speech pattern. The idea that Carvel would do this, set his two biological children against each other like dogs in a pit, is more chilling than anything else we know so far. Whilst the show has yet to confirm it, the way the episode ends, with Arby letting Jessica live, shows the assassin is becoming even more uncertain of himself. After all, killing family is almost as bad as killing children.
There’s a lot more going on in this episode too, with Dugdale taking a disastrous trip to the flu site and being reminded, again, of how much trouble he’s in even as he gains a possible co-conspirator. Meanwhile, the rest of the initial group; Becky, Ian and Wilson get a little bit to do, including a charming conversation about how best to hack MI5’s computers. The fact Becky suggests they simply call is both a neat punch line to the joke and raises even more questions about her. Who does she work for? What does she know? Is Milner, the new arrival from MI5 and splendidly played by Geraldine James, her controller? The show continues to imply, heavily, Becky is steering the group towards a different agenda than Jessica, but it’s also being remarkably coy about which, if either, of them has the group’s best interests at heart.
But it all comes back to Arby this week, and that final moment. With even more blood on his hands he leaves Jessica Hyde, the woman he has murdered so many people to find, completely unharmed. His final line this episode, ‘Where is Jessica Hyde?’ is open to even more interpretation than anything else we see. It could simply be that he’s found his target and doesn’t know what to do with her, crippled by his newfound doubts. It could be that he’s challenging her to look at where she is, the ground she shares with him and whether that’s a place anyone should want to stand.
Or she could not be Jessica Hyde. Just another blank, emotionless assassin, Arby’s kin in profession if not in blood, which would certainly explain why he lets her live. And if that’s the case, then where IS Jessica? And why is this woman impersonating her? As episode three closes, Arby, the weakest link in the show, is suddenly central, well rounded and a metaphor for the show itself. What started out as polished and empty is becoming one of the most interesting, chilling pieces of TV drama in the last few years. And there are still three episode to go.