Every conspiracy theory, and every conspiracy show, has a Slump. Sometimes it’s the moment where you realize that the person explaining the theory to you is actually advocating, seriously, that reptilian aliens make up the world’s governments and that these aliens are regularly enhancing human soldiers for combat on alien worlds reached via stargates. It’s the moment where, intellectually, you start backing slowly away, checking for exits and making sure you don’t make any sudden moves. To its credit, Utopia has never had this, even during the first episode’s interminable torture sequences.
The second kind of Slump is more insidious. The good news is it tends to involve much less incoherent babbling and terrible Photoshop, but the bad news is that it tends to make for boring drama. The X Files, much as I love it, hit this point when Scully passed out at the exact moment the huge UFO with the sign on the bottom saying:
DEAR DANA, SORRY ABOUT THE GENETIC MODIFICATION OF YOUR BABY. IT’LL BE COOL. HONEST.
Flew overhead. It’s the moment where the logical, sensible, and sometimes illogical and stupid responses of the characters run off the edge of the film strip and the writers have to tap dance in place for a while until they can lay more stuff in place. It’s also a fault commonly found in free form roleplaying games and sandbox computer games. Regardless of medium, when the characters Yosemite Sam over the edge of the story, you’ve got to get back on course in the seconds they’re still running otherwise the entire thing falls over.
Which brings us to Utopia episode four and the sound of frantic tap dancing.
The episode is the most overtly stylized since the first one, and whilst the pilot nearly buckled beneath the weight of both the premise and the apparent discomfort at dealing with the internet and comics as storytelling media , the fourth episode almost buckles under the weight of everything it needs to do. This is the widest point of the story and it’s the first one which starts immediately after the last episode ends. Opening with the slow motion to normal shot of Alice screaming in terror as they drive away, and closing with the tracking shot of the man Alice has just killed, it’s a very clear circle and the structure is actually pretty clever.
Which is the problem.
My Dad has a line that applies here; ‘If you’re sitting there admiring the lighting, the story isn’t being told properly.’ I spent a lot of this episode marvelling at how it was clearly structured around the idea of family and its disintegration and how cleverly the themes were being explored and at no point throughout the entire episode did I take my eyes off the lighting. It’s a transparent magic trick, you can never not see the bunny, even though they’re acting like you can’t.
Part of the reason for this is Alice. Emilia Jones is handed a thankless task in this episode, required to be brittle, grief stricken and essentially insane. She’s incredibly uncomfortable to watch, and not just because of what she’s seen happen but how she’s coping with it. It’s a brave choice, certainly, but what starts out as a poignant refusal to accept how her life has utterly changed gets very irritating very fast. Instead of being the emotional core of the episode she’s the pinwheeling catastrophe that’s rolling along next to the hapless leads, and no one but Grant wants to look her in the eye. To be fair, it does really interesting things to Grant’s character, as he’s moved up and out of victim into the carer role Jessica adopted for him last week and, frankly, does a much better job of it than she did. However, Alice’s plot remains the second weakest element of the episode. Even at the end, when everyone thinks handing the recently traumatised child a shotgun is a good idea, Alice feels less like a character and more like a mechanic. The sound of tap dancing echoes very loudly through her scenes for me. Whilst bookending the episode with her horribly traumatised, then bloodily indoctrinated into the world of the conspiracy was very clever, it was also completely redundant. This is all these characters have done, for three episodes, and having the same thing happen to a little girl didn’t illuminate enough new sides to their characters to excuse the repetition.
Repetition was very much the watchword for the central group this week, with Grant doing what Jessica did last week and Becky and Ian having exactly the same basic scene together Becky and Ian have had together for a month. That sounds worse than it’s meant, and I know a lot of critics have a real problem with their plot, but Becky’s ongoing outside connections make it very interesting to watch her work. She has an agenda, and Ian is a rabbit caught in headlights, and seeing her work him is deliciously ambiguous. Becky’s done nothing overtly evil and may still be as much of a ‘good guy’ as this series gets, but her scenes with Ian, and Wilson, crackle with tension. Alexandra Roach plays her as simultaneously completely invested and completely guarded, showing you the constant emotional algebra she’s doing to try and keep whatever’s really going on with her from the other characters. I’m still hopeful Becky’s not a villain but something much more interesting, and this episode’s scenes with her, even the bloody date, held my attention.
Dugdale was going back over old ground too, with his usual routine of failing to stand up to his boss and sitting in the loo crying combined with a surprising amount of new information and behaviour. His scenes with the splendid Simon McBurney as Donaldson really sung this week, firstly because McBurney has a fantastic line in pissy scientist, and secondly because Dugdale is stumbling towards direct action. He’s one of the most interesting bits of Utopia this week; a man who should be a hero and really wants to be, but has the small problem of being the pawn of a vast conspiracy and the careening train wreck of his home life to deal with. Even the fight with Donaldson, which initially played like either a very odd bum note or some desperately misguided comic relief leads to him threatening another person with serious harm and seeming quite able to do so. Dugdale’s come a long way from the first episode and he clearly doesn’t like being there one bit. It’ll be interesting to see what side he falls on in the show’s final hours.
Likewise Arby is well and truly off the reservation at this point, Neil Maskell playing the killers’ growing emancipation with something between relief and feral joy. The revelation that Arby is actually ‘R B’ for ‘Raisin Boy’, and that he’s been denied a name is chilling enough, but his decision to join Jessica in locating the manuscript is monumental. Not only is there now a third faction in the series, it’s one which is comprised solely of the most terrifying characters. If these two aren’t brother and sister I’ll be amazed, as even the brief glimpse we see of them together shows how similar the two performances are. These two are going to cause trouble, and lots of it, and I’m looking forward to the shakeup that’s going to cause.
Finally, we even get movement at the Ministry of Sinister, with Stephen Rea and James Fox. I know a lot of people have responded very favourably to them but for me, each one has plodded along with the merest hint of exposition and only recently, character with the long overdue feeling that Rea’s Letts may not be the power he’s presented as confirmed. When he’s dispatched to run an errand, it feels like he’s being sent to die, and it’ll be interesting to see how his fortunes change next week. Rea certainly has the dramatic prowess to make something work, and maybe now he’s finally out of the same set he’s been trapped on for four weeks, we can see that in action.
The episode visibly woke up in the closing ten minutes. After 3.75 episodes of running away, hiding in abandoned houses and irritating a woman who we all hope really IS an MI5 agent, the main characters took direct action. Chasing down the most likely candidate for who Mr Rabbit really is was never going to end where they hoped it would do, but it still made for a great set of scenes. It also provides neat closure for Wilson, a man becoming increasingly disillusioned with their aimless existence. There’s some neat synchronicity with opening the episode with Alice reacting to her mum’s death and closing it with Wilson finally realizing his dad has been killed, and the fakeout on which one of them is actually going to kill their captive is nicely played. Wilson is, in his way, as innocent as Alice, and the shattering of his world view is also the shattering of that innocence. Perhaps next week it’ll be Alice’s turn to look after him. Regardless, Adheel Akhtar has been the consistently least used member of this cast and it seems, finally, that he’s going to get his moment in the sun. Or, this being Utopia, the shadows, because our heroes now consist of a maimed conspiracy theorist, a feral conspiracy survivor, two traumatised children, a woman who may be dying and is definitely on the hook with someone and the world’s most innocent and, bless him, so far least interesting, IT support guy. This is not going to end well.
But it is, at least, in motion again. This was the Slump episode, the one where everyone had moved so far apart and got so fractious and still needed to be checked in with that it felt like taking attendance as much as telling a story. It’s mannered and overly constructed and there are still a couple of elements that just don’t work, but Utopia can’t ever be faulted for wimping out on tone or scope. The world is ending, the process has already begun and, finally, it looks like our heroes are about to get answers. I’m guessing they’re really not going to like what they’re found. After all, the tap dancing has faded, which means the writers have caught back up. And that means they’re all in trouble.