Paul Brian McCoy: As Episode 2.02 of Dennis Kelly‘s Utopia ended, the band had gotten back together, with a couple of new members, as Ian, Becky, and Grant were joined by Donaldson and crazy Anton, with Arby — I mean Pietre — taking on the Jessica Hyde role. And Jessica had gone through a lot of trouble to procure a spring from a pen which is put to efficient use this week.
So let’s jump in! How about some first impressions?
Kelvin Green: They really packed in the plot twists in this episode, didn’t they? Wow!
Paul: So many it took two writers to do it!
Kelvin: The plot shifted back and forth and all around but never once felt as though it was getting lost. Well, maybe once.
Paul: Yes, this was a pretty thoroughly well-constructed episode that eliminated all of my doubts from last week.
Kelvin: I agree. There was a lot of good work and some excellent performances in this episode. It was almost perfect. A welcome return to form.
Paul: Indeed. I just wonder who this John Donnelly is who co-wrote? He’s only got one other credit on IMDB for a UK TV movie called Henry, and has a new series listed called Glue that hasn’t aired yet.
Kelvin: There’s a John Donnelly who has done a lot of theatre writing, so perhaps that’s him. If not, this episode was excellent work from a novice writer!
Paul: Maybe that’s him. Looks like Glue‘s Channel 4 page doesn’t mention him, so IMDB must be off. Regardless, if his participation leads to more episodes this good, I say bring him on.
Kelvin: Indeed. What stood out for you this week?
Paul: So much! But right off the bat, probably the most important line of dialogue in the whole series dropped this week, when Pietre (Neil Maskell) told Ian, “There are no sides. Just people who help you and people who don’t.”
I think that’s going to define this second season. That and the lesson, “Don’t talk about sensitive things to people in bars. It will get them killed.”
Kelvin: Yes, it seemed to be the theme of the episode. Everything is so unpredictable!
Paul: And yet, we got a couple of predictions right this time around: Anton (Ian McDiarmid) being revealed as Carvel, for one.
Kelvin: True, although that one was obvious, wasn’t it?
Paul: It really was.
Kelvin: That said, if I hadn’t watched the prequel it may have been more of a surprise.
Kelvin: What was the other one we got right?
Paul: Well, it was more of us positing interpretations that were reinforced this time around. V-Day being used to kickstart a countdown and move the plot forward; the cloudy sky representing a psychological escape; Geoff (Alistair Petrie) — and maybe Milner (Geraldine James) — leaning toward rebellion.
But those were mostly just natural progressions given what we’ve seen so far. Which is another real strength of this episode.
Kelvin: Well, at least it shows we’ve been paying attention!
Paul: We’ve been writing the equivalents of Russian novels for reviews! We’d better have been paying attention!
Kelvin: Fair point! Milner’s thread was one of the highlights for me this week.
It was fascinating seeing the mastermind of the whole thing losing control as her emotions got the better of her.
Paul: And we’re seeing this new character, Leah (Sylvestra Le Touzel), move into that power void. I wasn’t expecting that.
Kelvin: Yes, giving Milner an ally who could also be an adversary. It’s quite conceivable that we could see Milner switch sides (like everyone else did this episode!) in the face of Leah’s more pure dedication to the cause. And that’s exciting.
Anything could happen.
Paul: Or maybe not even switch sides, but, as Pietre put it, just help out when needed, rather than not.
Kelvin: Yes indeed. What does she value more? The plan or having Carvel back? Milner doesn’t seem to know herself. Wavering motivations in the chief villain? How often do we see that?
Paul: The way they’ve shed all their main villains already makes it even more impressive. Are we going to end up with just Leah and Lee (Paul Ready)? With Wilson (Adeel Akhtar) tagging along awkwardly?
Kelvin: And the likes of Geoff and Michael (Paul Higgins) hovering about, not sure of where they are.
Paul: Oh, how could I forget Michael? And poor Bridget (Juliet Cowan).
Kelvin: Oh yes. I think that whole sequence was the highlight for me.
Paul: That’s actually all my notes say about her: “Poor Bridget.”
Kelvin: Ha! I’ve got “Joss Whedon.”
Paul: That just triggered a thought. Most of the main plot movements this week are all reactions to either revelations or situations. Whether it’s Wilson reacting to Lee’s prodding, Jessica’s (Fiona O’Shaughnessy) reacting to the potential brain surgery, or Michael reacting to Bridget’s discoveries.
The main characters are being bounced around by the plot rather than actively engaging with the Utopia world at this point. For the most part.
Kelvin: Or Ian’s reaction to Donaldson’s revelation.
(more on that in a bit)
Paul: The only characters with clear goals seem to be Pietre, Leah, and maybe Lee. Even Milner has been restricted to reacting first to Jessica’s catatonia and then her escape.
Kelvin: That’s a good point. Part of me thinks that’s deliberate; it seems to be in Milner’s case at least, her loss of direction as she loses her last link to Carvel.
Paul: Although, I guess Jessica’s being proactive too, just using passivity as a launching point.
Paul: Did you see the expressions crossing her face as she considered having to use the medical waste bin to escape?
Kelvin: I did! It was interesting seeing her thought process illustrated in that way. We don’t often see that outside of comedies.
Paul: She’s always had that “alien insect” aspect about her performance, but this week she seems to have actually been pushed over the edge. Even the music cues started working in the creepy whispers that we got when Carvel was losing his mind in 2.01.
(Which also came back as Michael sat in his car watching Bridget get murdered/disappeared/whatever)
Kelvin: And that creepy scene in the park. She’s sitting there covered in human offal as children play nearby.
Paul: YES! Looking at them lovingly, then obsessively pawing at Ian’s (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) picture on the phone! I think Jessica wants to start a family.
A disturbing, probably stolen-and-held-hostage family.
Kelvin: She is our hero, ladies and gentlemen!
Paul: And my god, she just looked completely insane in that final shot at Michael’s house!
Kelvin: Oh yes, with her 90’s makeover.
Paul: The way the knife just dangled from her hand creeped me out almost as much as the blonde hair.
Kelvin: Yes, like she doesn’t care that it’s a deadly weapon. She’s barely aware of it at all.
Paul: She’s like a broken doll.
Kelvin: Which makes sense, given her origins.
What a great character. And great work from Fiona O’Shaughnessy.
Paul: Indeed. And Neil Maskell is just as impressive.
Kelvin: He is. I would watch those two forever.
Paul: Every little movement or expression is full of intent. The look of happiness on his face when he made the gang breakfast was priceless. You almost forget he murdered a bunch of kids last series.
Kelvin: Yes, they’re both so easily forgiven. When Ian was kicking off about Arby I just wanted him to shut up, although part of that is because Ian’s starting to annoy me.
Paul: Yeah, Ian seems to be kind of drifting without much to do.
Kelvin: I suspect that the writers aren’t sure what to do with him.
Paul: The relationship between him and Becky (Alexandra Roach) really helped define him last time around. Without that, he’s just kind of lost. And the only person he thinks he can rely on and turn to is Milner!
Kelvin: I thought his big contribution to the episode was clumsy and artificial. Something that needed to happen to keep the plot going, but without any sort of character logic to it.
“Oh, Ian’s not doing anything, let’s have him tell Milner.”
Paul: I thought that too at first, but that phone call comes immediately after he’s agreed with Becky about keeping Carvel a secret and then Donaldson (Michael Maloney) comes over and sticks a metaphorical knife into him with the news that Becky had been working with him all along, trying to get the manuscript.
He’d just opened up and thought he and Becky could trust each other and then has that trust yanked out from under him.
Kelvin: Yes, I can see that’s what they were going for but I don’t think it worked. It seemed petty and soap-opera-ey and not as well worked as everything else.
Paul: It was convenient, I agree, but I liked it. It should shift Ian into a position psychologically where he may do something extremely dangerous. Or maybe he’ll just mope around some more. He’s completely alone now, though. He can’t trust Becky or Milner. He can’t stand Donaldson. Grant and he don’t get along at all anymore. That just leaves Carvel and Pietre.
And Jessica, who’s looking for a boyfriend, apparently.
Kelvin: Oh, I have no problem with it in terms of its effects on the wider plots. That’s fine. I just don’t think it was handled well. Perhaps it seemed rushed because of the general squeezing of this series. I don’t know.
Paul: Could be.
Kelvin: Anyway, as good as Pietre and Jessica were, it was Michael Dugdale (or rather Paul Higgins) who impressed me the most.
Kelvin: Yes, I thought he did some excellent work in that sequence with Bridget. It wasn’t a main thread of the episode but Higgins did a splendid job of selling Michael’s anguish as he tried to figure out what to do.
All that squirming.
Paul: That’s true. It was another case of watching what was going on inside the actor’s head expressed subtly through their expressions and body language. Only instead of Jessica’s alien insect approach, Michael is all too human.
He’s in so much pain, the Network must have his wife and Alice.
Kelvin: Yes, it’s clear that he’s not a believer.
Paul: Unlike a certain conspiracy theorist with a new Piratey look.
Kelvin: Yes! There’s an interesting sort of inverse parallel there. Michael doesn’t believe but will force himself to do what must be done to save the conspiracy, whereas Wilson does believe but — as we see this episode — lacks the guts to act on it.
I hadn’t thought of them occupying similar roles, but they do. Bumbling, comedic, out of their depth.
Paul: That’s the second time now that Wilson has had the drop on someone and botched it. Although the face-off between Wilson and Lee was priceless. That might be my favorite overall moment this week.
Kelvin: It was excellent. That long shot as Lee limps off to his car, Wilson pointing the gun at him all the time.
Paul: The two of them slowly crouching face to face until Lee whacks his knee and disarms him.
I was giggling.
Kelvin: Wilson has all the time in the world to get one of the villains off the board but can’t do it. It was a funny moment. It shouldn’t be, but it was. Wilson curling up into a ball as Lee swings that crowbar.
Paul: Then capped with Wilson shouting at Lee not to hurt them. He hasn’t entirely switched his allegiances, after all.
Kelvin: Or if he had, he’s switched them back. I love how everyone has flipped back and forth in this episode.
Paul: Everything is fluid. Everyone is in motion.
Kelvin: The loyalties are all over the place, and it all goes back to that quote of Pietre’s you mentioned earlier.
Paul: Did you get a little thrill (like I did) when he and Lee were facing off just after the Wilson scene, and Pietre says, “When it’s done, I’m coming for you.”??
Lee’s casual, “Fair enough, matey,” was perfect, too.
Kelvin: Yes indeed. That’s going to be a battle. Or maybe not, with this programme. I don’t imagine a rain-lashed fight scene is Utopia’s style.
Paul: Probably not. It’s more likely to be something quick and brutal. But you never know.
Kelvin: That is the thing with Utopia. You never know.
Were there any other highlights for you this week?
Paul: A couple of visuals that I enjoyed: Geoff leaning over the table, preparing himself to sacrifice his career was a little rapey; all the blood and mess when Lee killed Joe (Gerard Monaco); the way director Marc Munden used two very rare close-up shots to gross us out, first with the medical waste all over Jessica’s hands and face, then with the couple tonguing each other in the alley.
Michael creeping himself out staring at the carvings all over his walls was nice, too.
Kelvin: Oh yes! And after we talked about his creepy office last week too!
Paul: And Becky’s reaction to realizing Anton is Carvel was perfect: “Oh my fucking fuck!”
Kelvin: Becky’s my favourite of the original gang, I think.
Paul: Definitely. She can always be counted on for the perfect response to a situation. Usually with a “fuck” or two added for good measure.
Kelvin: Yes! She gives the impression that she thinks the whole thing is absurd. And doesn’t mind saying so.
Paul: Have you noticed how much Oliver Woollford has grown up between seasons?
Kelvin: I did notice. At first I thought he’d been recast.
Paul: Ha! They’re doing an okay job hiding it, but probably shouldn’t have started last week with him shirtless and wrestling with Ian. When he got punched in the mouth and cried about being a kid, I had no sympathy.
Kelvin: Oh yes. He was always tough and violent but he did have a child-like quality too, but now he’s more of a hulking brute that latter quality is more difficult to sell.
Paul: He’s good though. I’ll give him that. And he keeps reminding me of Dane from Invisibles with every scene.
Kelvin: Definitely. In an alternate universe where that TV series got made, he is Dane.
Paul: And they’ve got their Tom O’Bedlam now too.
Kelvin: Ha! Don’t tell Grant Morrison!
Paul: That’s okay. Milner shot him in the head last season.
Kelvin: Oh yeah, good point. Sorry Grant.
Paul: Well, ready to score it? Or are we forgetting anything?
Kelvin: There’s one thing I wanted to mention.
I’ve been aware of it from the first episode of the first series but it didn’t really click until this week for some reason, and that’s the way Utopia uses — for lack of a better word, because I don’t know the proper film term — one-point perspective in a lot of shots. It’s not all the time, but it is a lot of the time.
Paul: That’s exactly the term
Kelvin: Ah good. Using that so often should make the programme look stagey and boring but it doesn’t and I don’t know why that is.
Paul: I think part of it is that although the scenes are set with that perspective, the camera is almost always slowly moving forward in those shots — unless it’s an establishing shot, and those are just so unbelievably gorgeous they make up for the stillness, while usually having some small movement in the deep background.
Munden talked about it a little in the commentary for Series One. They wanted to avoid close-ups and stick to wide and medium shots to utilize the wide-screen effect. It gives the show a larger feel than you usually get with TV (or with a lot of films, for that matter). And then, when combined with the use of Technicolor for that oversaturated look, we get something that’s beautiful and helps to establish tone and carry the theme.
Kelvin: It definitely works. It goes back to what we were saying last time, that Munden is working hard at every shot.
Paul: He truly is. I’m so glad that they brought him onboard as a visual supervisor for the whole series this time rather than signing it off to another director who will just try to emulate what Munden was going for.
Kelvin: Yes, it should mean that there will be a consistency that was missing in the first series.
Paul: We should probably mention again that the back half of Series One wasn’t bad at all — it was in fact very, very good — but it lacked some of the unifying vision that the first half of the series had.
Kelvin: Yes, it seemed at times to be a cover version of the first half, but it was a very good cover version.
Kelvin: Anyway, I just wanted to mention that as it sprang to mind this week.
Paul: If I ever get the chance to make my own film, I’m stealing everything I can from Utopia and Munden.
Paul: So, I think I’m going with a perfect score this week. Five stars. No apologies.
Kelvin: Ian’s mini betrayal seemed clumsy to me so I’m knocking half a star off for that. It would be quarter of a star if we could do that. Can we do that?
Paul: Sure. I just have to do math. Thanks WordPress!
Kelvin: Four and three quarters stars it is from me then.
Paul: Okay then. And since I didn’t get a chance to use this line from my notes, I’ll just suggest that everyone who can, watch Utopia because it’s maybe the only time you’ll watch a show where all the characters are shades of gray despite being filmed in Technicolor.
Kelvin: That’s a great way to put it. I think we’re done.