Published on July 18th, 2014 | by JCDoyle0
Utopia Series 2 – Episode 1
This week Channel 4 returns us to the vehement and intriguing world of Utopia and treats us to an amazing double bill.
Two nights, two episodes and two hours of holding your hands up in front of your face to hide your eyes from the horrific scenes of dead pan violence. So, let’s jump straight into episode one which features the birth of Utopia.
Warning: What follows will contain some spoilers, possibly some bad language and some unexpected sympathies.
Still with us? Good, let’s get back to the 1970’s in a big fleece coat wearing, brown cord trouser way.
The episode opens in Rome in 1979 on an almost deserted cobbled square which plays host to the first scene where Phillip Carvel is showing his daughter, Jessica, a hand painted image. She is enamoured with it, captivated by its simple beauty, so much so that she fails to notice the sudden appearance of another man. Solemnly, he motions towards a distant rustic car and Carvel goes for a clandestine meeting shrouded in an ethereal green and yellow light. Inside the car, Milner (played by the amazing Rose Lesley, better known for her role as Ygritte in Game of Thrones) is far from impressed about a security leak naming Mr Rabbit (Remember those documents from the first series? They’ll be a fair amount of references to the future during this 70 minutes of television) and even less so about the fact that Carvel has hidden Janus. She wants the genetically created disease and she threatens Jessica’s well being before proving the seriousness of her threat by having her driver shot, quite violently. I don’t think that learning English would have helped save his life as the shooter appeared as if from nowhere, taking the driver and the audience by surprise.
This feels like it’s going to be a theme for the series: characters suddenly appearing followed by acts of violence. And this sets the scene for the episode. Nothing and no-one feels safe even though many of the character’s futures have already been the subject of the first series.
The narrative jumps back another five years and reveals the first meeting of Carvel and Milner. He is living in London, a genius who is shunned by everyone: his employers, contemporaries and even his European wife. She fears that he has experimented on their son, Pietre, after she took him to see a doctor who expressed concern over his health. Despite denying it, it transpires that he had indeed done something nasty to his child in an attempt to inhibit the natural violence inside every Human. Not surprisingly this had unfortunate side effects and his attempt to correct this, well, two wrongs don’t make a right. Without spoiling too much, be prepared to be on the edge of your seat, anticipating the worst every time a fluffy little rabbit is shown on screen. It’s obvious from the first ‘pet’ that it isn’t going to end well for little old Bugs.
Carvel meets Milner for the first time at a secret social event where he explains his beliefs regarding Humanity being the only disease that needs to be cured and then, after a table balancing, drop to the death moment, he admits he has a solution to the world’s population problem: Janus.
What follows is the development of the man made disease in a number of secret labs, hidden behind real world events involving the Government and politics at the highest level. There is also a more personal relationship that develops between Carvel and Milner; it’s not romantic, at least not in a traditional sense but there is a growing respect and need between the two of them. There is a strangely alluring chemistry between these two characters that at times makes you forget the horrible things that each of them has done. It’s not long before the romanticism of secret labs and dabbling in science falls away to revel the horror of Janus and Carvel is the first to break.
Scenes of note
First up, a seventies sleazy dinner party where the main characters partners are introduced to each other and ‘work’ is discussed in hushed tones. Everything about this scene is awkward and uncomfortable. It’s a rare comic scene in the episode and is reminiscent of Abigail’s Party in setting and style while mimicking it’s dark, kitchen sink humour.
The birth of Jessica Hyde: Oh Milner, you cold, cold woman.
Finally the Three Mile Island incident. Back in 1979, Milner gives Carvel a week to produce Janus or she will arrange the torture of Jessica. After admitting that Janus works but he made a change to it (IMPORTANT plot point!), he agrees to hand it over but obviously this is just an exercise in buying time. He heads to the Nuclear Power Plant at Three Mile Island to plan his escape but they are captured and one of the most uncomfortable scenes of the episode is played out. Just when things are at their bleakest Christos turns up to rescue the father/daughter team. The whole escape is hidden behind the disaster at the power plant but just before they leave, Carvel see’s Pietre, stood in one of the hall ways, arms outstretched. Carvel sheds a tear but turns and leaves with Jessica. The image of the young child stood alone in the centre of a nuclear meltdown is heart wrenching and the cold killer from the first series is cast in a new, sympathetic light.
The episode ends with Carvel in a mental institute, hard at work on The Utopia Manuscript, while Christos takes Jessica to teach her how to fire a gun.
Oh, and Milner has video footage of Carvel injecting the Janus virus into Jessica.
The opening episode is packed with story and cleverly written by Dennis Kelly to weave around ‘real world’ events. The performances are all excellent; in fact the quality of acting in this episode is of the highest standard: with lesser talent the believability in the situations would evaporate faster than proof of an MI5 cover up. Special mention needs to go to the two lead actors in this episode, Tom Burke and Rose Leslie, who create such twisting emotions for two people who have basically created a way to control Armageddon. At the start of the episode they are portrayed as forward thinkers and charming individuals but a mere 70 minutes later it’s difficult to find any love for either of them. Only Carvel escapes with a smidge of sympathy because he loses both his children and then his mind.
The visuals for this opening episode are as striking as the first series. A lot of design and effort has gone into re-creating the 1970’s and again it’s the subtleties that make all the difference, simply watch as the size and shape of the picture changes between 1979 and 1974: if you don’t pay attention you may miss it but it gives the whole episode a vintage feel, like watching old family home movies.
And what can I say about the music? Haunting, atmospheric, sublime. Nothing sets the mood more for a piece of television than a beautifully orchestrated audio track.
Yes, there is some excessive violence, and yes there are scenes that will chill you to the bone but above all else this first episode is a beautifully constructed work of art. There is very little like it on the television at the moment. Like the recent Fargo television series, it’s the visual impact of the show that makes it worth watching and the well structured narrative that will keep you tuning in week after week.
Now, take a break, have a coffee and then check back here for the excitement of episode two, where we catch up with a host of old friends.