Two men enter a closed comic book shop. It takes only a few minutes for everyone in the shop to be killed by a blunt instrument to the head, or by gas poisoning. One of them is a child. If the killers had been less meticulous assassins, they would’ve left behind a slip of paper that reads Utopia Manuscript.
This is the beginning of the first season’s first episode of Utopia, a British TV show that’s airing on Channel 4, and it’s largely brilliant.
Utopia has several qualities that I deeply appreciate in a show: great characters, beauty of storytelling, a willingness to be gory, but not tediously so, and respect for the intelligence of its viewers. It also has, in large part thanks to the music of Cristobal Tapia de Veer, a surrealist quality to it that’s heightened by the Technicolor presentation of every frame. It’s not often I agree with anything on Reddit, but as one commenter said, “you could probably go to a random frame in Utopia and print it out”.
If you have any intention of watching this show — and you should — read no further. Spoilers, sweetie.
Jessica Hyde — killer cheekbones, girlishly high voice, super-assassin, on the run, and possibly crazy — isn’t the most interesting on the show, but I do like the fact that she develops past her robotic-survivalist-assassin role fairly quickly. A common storytelling trope is the strong-but-vulnerable character, which I am beginning to loathe because it often seems as though the strength of the character is a carefully constructed shell around some much-vaunted weakness. None of that is present in Jessica (but of course, the show also has far more time to develop her character). Yes, she shows emotional weakness when she falls for Ian (we’ll get back to him later), but this doesn’t — or hasn’t yet — compromised her ability to be a badass. Right after we’re treated to her breaking down in front of her newest interrogator in Season 2, we get to see her a) hang him with pages torn out of a Bible, b) act brain-dead for hours in a ploy to get shipped offsite to a medical facility, c) escape from said medical facility.
So if Jessica isn’t the most interesting person of the show, who is?
His backstory is revealed in a rather cheaply conventional manner, now that I think about it: confrontation of his owner, the man who has him on a leash. The fact that he’s a broken man who wants to be unbroken, the fact that he and Jessica are siblings, the fact that he’s been asking after he because he wants to meet her, because he’s her fan, should’ve been a long-drawn out revelation, but isn’t. To me, Season 2 proposes an interesting theory regarding Arby’s immortal soul, which is that the man who tries to be good is by definition a better man. That Arby is the way he is, that he was created in part by a father who tried to experiment on him and then, out of fear and compassion, tried to fix him, is fascinating.
You see his desperation, in Season 2, to save the woman and child he’s grown attached to, the bonds he’s developed despite being told and believing himself that he has no ability to form such bonds. Arby is the man-child, the one struggling to grow up and grow past his own past.
It is a pity we don’t get to see Lee’s backstory — his careful, cheerful consideration of everything including torture.
It’s also a pity that Ian’s character isn’t more developed. Ian is meant to be the IT consultant who loathes boredom, a nice guy who picks up survival skills pretty quickly (see: scenes where Ian steals footage from a cable company and then escapes), yet can’t bring himself to perform acts of violence. But… he’s boring. His interactions with Becky are bewildering in that there’s little chemistry to them, and his sleeping with Jessica is equally strange, all because I can’t see what either woman sees in him. I’m not sure if David Kelly wrote in the romance to keep his audience interested, or because he genuinely believes it should exist, but here’s one of the few areas where he simply doesn’t do a decent job of it.
Wilson Wilson is probably my favorite character arc development after Arby’s. Wilson is believably — and rather adorably — written as the resident conspiracy theory nut, but after he’s tortured and manages to free himself with the so-far-only-theoretical tricks he’s taught himself, he begins to become someone else. He goes over to the dark side disappointingly quickly, but even then his character transformation takes time, which is one of the things I love the most about his arc. Murder by murder, he sullies his own soul. And then there’s one of my favorite sequences of scenes: three different people tell Wilson “this isn’t you”, and in every case, he makes it clear that he’s changed. He is no longer Wilson. In the season finale, he is, in fact, Mr. Rabbit.
Change is, to me, a big theme of Utopia. Not just the characters changing, but the idea of who the bad guy really is. It’s revealed surprisingly early on, in the middle of the first season, what the Network really wants: survival of the Earth by sterilization of the human race. Its proponents are cold-blooded murderers — there’s one memorable scene where Milner and Leah calmly discuss how many husbands will be conveniently leaving their money to the cause after, equally conveniently, dying. But when Letz begins to explain the gravity of the situation on Earth, you can’t help but wonder how you’d answer his basic question: “do you expect us all just to get along?”
No credible, actually terrifying villain spends his time plotting chaos and destruction simply for the boom. The truly villainous villains, as in the case of Utopia, are dedicated to their cause, willing to sacrifice quite literally anything. I still don’t know who the hell “Jack”, Milner’s supposed son who’s suffering from Deels, actually was — except that he was a carefully constructed pawn, bedridden or not.
The Network, you might rightly say, is attempting to play God, to bring down a plague upon the human race that cures it of its own hubris. But — and here’s the beauty of the argument — isn’t that what we said when we meddled with genomes? Created GMO foods so our population stands a smaller chance of starving to death? Split the atom, created multiple colliders, built the Bomb? We’ve been accused of playing God all those times.
How bad is sterilization of the human population, then? Are we opposed to it because it’s a base violation of our more primal urge, as a living thing, the propagation of the species? Or are we horrified because it’s non-consensual?
Utopia is certainly dramatic in the sense that it tackles heavy, global problems this way. The combination of surreality, framing, music, the attention to detail, and an overarching plot of this size make it seem even more so, possibly even melodramatic.
But if one thing makes this show eerily believable, it’s the calm rhetoric of the Network. It’s the sheer opposite of the evil maniac laughter of the run-of-the-mill villain — matter-of-fact, unshakeable in its belief.
As a matter of fact that’s probably what I love most about this show. Blood and guts there may be, but their presence is almost prosaic. Violence, Utopia seems to be saying, is a necessary, known evil.
And that’s what makes this show so horrifying.