Paul Brian McCoy: So, we’ve made it through another six episodes of Dennis Kelly’s Technicolor conspiracy comedy-thriller Utopia and once again, worldwide disaster has been averted thanks to the work of those meddling kids. And a few unstoppable assassins. Many threads were brought together in this final hour and a whole new batch of storylines and plot twists were introduced. And yet for me it felt like something was missing. I’m not sure what, though, so hopefully this conversation will help me sort that.
How about you Kelvin?
Kelvin Green: I’m happy (sort of) that you say that because I too felt that there was something a bit off about this episode. I think, as we feared when we discussed the prologue episode, that the rest of the series was a bit rushed, and so there were a couple of moments where things went missing. There was also a distinct feel of all the toys being put back in the box ready for series three, if that makes any sense.
Paul: Most definitely.
Kelvin: There were a couple of important plot developments that were not earned, in my opinion, and seemed to have been shoved in to resolve storylines before the end of the series.
Paul: Well, let’s dig into those right off the bat, then.
Kelvin: Okay then! The first was Grant’s weird behaviour.
It seemed like this was going to be a big part of the episode, and of the series as a whole, but then it got resolved in such an abrupt manner that even the characters commented on it.
Paul: I totally agree. I understand that Grant’s mom was his only family before this, so I assume they’re wanting Jen to become the strong mother he’s been missing (since Jessica’s a no-go), but it was so abrupt that it really took me out of the story. Shoehorning him into Dugdale’s family was an interesting echo of the first season’s conclusion, but it just didn’t work for me at all.
Kelvin: Given some space and time it would have been an interesting thread and it could have worked, but they gave it neither space nor time.
Paul: Yeah, at least give it an episode or two to grow and develop.
Kelvin: One moment Grant’s shouting and stealing knives and being creepy with Alice (and that worked) and then ten minutes later he’s being nice and polite (that didn’t work).
Paul: OVERLY nice and polite. There’s never been a moment in either series where he was that nice and respectful — which again, may have been the point Kelly was trying to get across. Maybe all he needed all along was a strong mother?
Kelvin: Perhaps. There was a lot of potential in those early scenes of Grant being weird that I can only assume that they’ll revisit it in series three and the abrupt resolution was just clumsy.
Paul: Yes, clumsy is the word for it.
It’s like they just ran out of ideas for Grant’s character once they decided that having him follow in Pietre’s path was a non-starter.
Kelvin: Quite so. On the subject of running out of ideas, the other unconvincing plot development for me was the revelation about Becky’s illness.
Paul: That one didn’t really bother me, as it provided another example of what a piece of shit Donaldson was. Although Carvel’s comment about Donaldson just being a bad person who wanted to control Becky was both too simple and too loaded with irony to work effectively.
And it provided an explanation for the hallucinations that worked for me.
Kelvin: To me it seemed as if they weren’t interested in the Deel’s subplot anymore and made it go away with a bit of hand waving.
Did we see Ian give Palpatine the pills at any point?
Paul: Nope. The train of events was implied but we didn’t see any of it.
Kelvin: Yes, that was part of it. Suddenly there’s a scene out of nowhere in which Palpatine is suddenly lucid and tells Ian that he’s been running tests on the drug and it’s a hallucinogen rather than a treatment.
I think they decided that they didn’t want to, er, deal with Deel’s and so hand waved it.
Paul: Well, we had the scene with Becky telling Ian that she tried to figure out the drug but molecular biology wasn’t her strength, and then we got the scene with Carvel working on the board when Jessica came in to wash the blood off of him. So there’s a plotline in effect, we just skipped the connecting bits. Again, it was clumsy, but I liked the end result. She still has Deel’s, it’s just not activated.
Although it seems like she would have been having hallucinations all along. Unless this was a new addition to the pills Donaldson added after finding her again. Which would be an interesting storyline if we ever actually saw it.
Kelvin: Exactly. Choppy and clumsy.
I was also not fond of the general arc of the episode, which seemed to be putting everything back to how it was, just with a different Mr. Rabbit in charge. Compared to the finale of series one, it felt flat.
Paul: I agree that it essentially reset all the pieces, but it also left us in a place where, if there’s no third season pickup, would make this one of the darkest endings possible for the series.
Kelvin: That is true.
Paul: Clearly though, they’re hoping desperately for a third series.
Kelvin: Oh yes. I read a snippet of an interview with Kelly in which he stated that it was always intended as an ongoing series and that he was surprised when everyone thought the first series was self-contained, with such a bleak ending!
Paul: Well, in retrospect I would expect him to say nothing less.
Kelvin: Yes, I do wonder how much Lucasing he was doing in that interview!
Paul: I’d imagine it’s a rare case when a creator just plans six episodes and doesn’t have any intentions to come back to the project afterwards. Sure there’s something like The Shadow Line which stands out, but a job’s a job, man. Keep that work coming.
That’s the hard part about crafting a series like this, I’d imagine. If it’s not set in stone from the beginning that it’s a one-off miniseries, then you’ve got to structure it in a way that will serve as an effective end if there’s no pickup, but that will leave the window open for future stories. That’s a hard line to walk.
I’ve hogged the spotlight a bit with my moans about the episode. What did you think?
Paul: I’m still not sure. There was a lot of very strong work in the episode, but it was all so rushed that I didn’t feel like we got the chance to really let most of it soak in.
Kelvin: Well, let’s balance out my negativity and look at something that you liked, some of that strong work.
Paul: There’s one more bit of clumsy that I wanted to point out first.
Kelvin: Go on.
Paul: Pretty much the entire scene in the parking garage was just poorly handled, collapsing into clichés that had me shaking my head from the moment Jessica suddenly can’t hit the broadside of a barn with her shooting, through the tired chase up a spiral staircase, to Ian stepping out from behind a post and stabbing Terrence — and then making another amazing head shot for the kill.
Kelvin: Ha! Yes, in my notes I have “Ian attended the same shooting school as Wilson and Grant”.
Paul: And Jessica forgot everything she learned there.
How can she empty her clip into the car but not break a window until the thing is speeding away from her? And how can Terrence just magically disappear afterwards, with only a scratch across his cheek? I looked. There’s no door nearby and Jessica has a clear view of the getaway route. It was just sloppy.
Kelvin: And how do they know that Terrence is going to run to that exact spot where Ian can jump him?
Paul: Exactly. It was just like suddenly someone else — someone who writes for CSI or “Insert generic cop show here” wrote and directed a segment.
And once again I have to wonder if it was simply necessitated by the shortened number of episodes.
Kelvin: It was derivative, which stands out so much in a programme that is so unique.
Although it did remind me of Terminator 2, something that kept coming up in this series.
Kelvin: Pietre’s “Come with me or they’ll kill you” and then becoming a weird surrogate father to Grant.
Paul: What did you think of Pietre magically waking up in the final moments of the episode?
Kelvin: As a dramatic moment, I liked it, and it tied in well with Wilson’s “rebirth” but after all that stuff about his wounds being mortal it seemed, yes, clumsy.
Paul: I was surprised there wasn’t your traditional “Dum Dum Duuuuuuuuum” music. Like the end of Matrix Reloaded.
Almost like it was tacked on at the last minute, just in case Series 3 is a go.
Kelvin: Yes, and while we’re on the subject, what was that weird nothing scene with Lee visiting Pietre’s bedside about? He just goes and doesn’t try again?
Paul: I’m sure he would have if other things hadn’t happened.
Speaking of which, I thought Wilson’s arc, especially in this single episode, was excellent.
Kelvin: Yes, one of the highlights. I have a question for you.
Paul: Fire away.
Kelvin: Do you think Wilson was really trying to rebuild his relationships with the gang, or was he just trying to won them over enough to get them to do the Network’s, er, work?
Paul: That’s a good question.
I think that he really did want to rebuild the relationships. I think there are enough little quiet bits in the way Akhtar plays the character to make it believable that he wanted them back. Now, he may have wanted them to join him in the Network, but I think the impulse was honest.
But after making no headway, and being told over and over that “this isn’t you,” his transformation in the end was extremely effective.
Kelvin: It was a nice bit of ambiguity in the script and a great performance from Akhtar.
Paul: It was.
I had wondered early on if Kelly was going to take the character in that direction, moving him into a leadership position in the Network. It was something I’d hoped for, but after he seemed to be possibly playing both sides, I started hoping for his salvation instead.
Kelvin: Me too. Even after all he’s done Wilson is such a sympathetic character. There’s a pain and vulnerability to him.
Paul: It was a very nice touch, reminding Ian that he had lost his dad to the Network too.
Kelvin: While being cagey on exactly how Ian’s brother died!
Paul: Exactly. Wilson has become one of the most morally complex characters in the show.
Then by the end, he doesn’t seem to even comprehend the cognitive dissonance of telling Dugdale that he’s a prisoner and that his family will be murdered in front of him if he doesn’t behave, but then promising that he’ll be set free once everything is over.
It was kind of chilling.
Kelvin: “I promise you, I’ll be better than her.”
Paul: The benevolent dictator.
Kelvin: And that almost celebratory howl after he’s marked himself as Mr. Rabbit.
Paul: He’s gone full super-villain at that point.
Kelvin: Yes. I have to say that I’m not that interested in seeing the gang fighting the Network again in series three, but I am very interested in seeing Wilson as the master villain.
Paul: That marking himself scene was another horrifying one. Akhtar put everything he had into that one.
I guess as far as Michael’s concerned, he may be a prisoner, but at least there’s a job opening he may be qualified for!
Kelvin: Ah yes, poor Geoff. Inevitable, really. Michael as Prime Minister in series three?
Paul: At least Health Minister, or whatever Geoff was.
I absolutely loved the scene between Michael and Geoff in the field. Not only was it beautifully shot, it was so very satisfying to finally see Michael get some licks in.
Kelvin: It was, and it was one of the few Utopia Moments in this latter half of the series. The other was Wilson’s little Red Room in his HQ.
Paul: I loved the little Red Room! That’s when you knew before anything even happened or anyone spoke that Wilson was a changed man.
Kelvin: Yep, it was a great use of colour, as we’ve come to expect from Utopia, but that had been in short supply in the second half of the series.
I also loved the repeat of the Wilson/Lee clash.
Paul: It was perfectly staged. With another amazing headshot! Lee’s not coming back from that.
Kelvin: Yep. I liked how it looked just like their previous encounter. Only with a very different outcome.
Paul: But with Wilson switched from right to left.
I wonder if there’s a recurring motif of people killing people from left to right in the show?
Paul: I think the camera position even flipped when Ian shot Terrence, too.
Kelvin: I seem to remember the same. There may be something to that.
Paul: A project for another day! Trolling through all the pulled guns in Utopia to see which way the kill shots were filmed!
Kelvin: A special Utopia Picture Post!
Paul: And then projecting some thematic reasoning behind it!
Kelvin: It’ll be good source material for some media student’s dissertation.
Kelvin: There was another nice bit of ambiguity in the episode. When Jessica visited Becky in (what Becky believed to be) her last moments.
Paul: That was the next thing I was going to bring up!
Kelvin: Was Jessica’s pep talk intended to drive Becky to kill herself while Ian was away or was she trying to get her to abandon the suicide plan?
Paul: I think it was absolutely about trying to get her to kill herself while Ian was away.
The only ambiguity about it, in my mind, was whether or not it was actually intended sincerely as a way to save Ian the experience or if it was just to get it over with faster so she could have Ian for herself.
Kelvin: You cynic!
Paul: Her earlier comment about slipping into the cupboard was a little off-putting. I reacted almost exactly the same way Ian did.
Kelvin: Me too! She is such a weird, alien character. When she has moments of recognisable human feeling — like her warmth towards Pietre — it creates such a contrast.
I did wonder if her poor shooting in that car park fight was somehow related to her emotional growth.
Paul: Holy Moly! I hadn’t considered that!
I did notice that she was really embracing a nurturing, motherly role with the washing blood off of her father and shaving Pietre… I suppose the awkward advances toward Ian are just her trying to find her “human” footing. But she didn’t even want to leave Pietre’s bedside until Ian begged her to help him.
Kelvin: I chuckled a bit in that shaving scene. She told him she didn’t like the beard so she’s taking the opportunity to get rid of it while he’s in a coma.
A normal person wouldn’t do that, but that’s Jessica for you.
Paul: Both that and the bit with her dad were warm and loving while retaining that touch of the alien. Especially the way she was perched on the bed to shave Pietre. Creepy and touching all at the same time.
Kelvin: Yep, they’ve done good work with that character. Even if this episode was a bit weak, Jessica came out of it well. Aside from the shooting, but we may have explained that. Sort of.
Paul: I think you’ve nailed it, personally.
Kelvin: It may also explain why Pietre got shot. His skills are rusty now that he’s got feelings.
What else did you like about the episode?
Paul: I thought it raised some interesting points about suicide, especially in light of Robin Williams’ death earlier this week. It was just bad timing, but it made the scenes in Utopia with Ian and Becky preparing all the more effective.
I was already verging on tears watching them laugh together, but the second time through really tore me up. Especially after the news that Williams had Parkinson’s Disease.
Kelvin: Yes, they sold the relationship well. For the first time they’ve sort of accepted that they’re a couple, but in the grimmest of circumstances, so you have the heady joy of young love mixed with sadness.
Paul: I did wonder just for a minute, whether or not Kelly would actually kill Becky off with the suicide attempt.
Kelvin: Me too! They announced just before the episode that there would be a Twitter Q&A with Kelly and Alexandra Roach just after, so it was clear that she’d have a big role in the episode.
When Becky was found unconscious I thought “Ah, that’s why she’s doing the Q&A!”
Paul: Oh yeah! It’s like when they schedule an actor to appear on Talking Dead, there’s always the fear that it means they’re done for in that evening’s Walking Dead episode.
So I assume that it’s the Network busting in at the end to capture Carvel, Ian, and Jessica, right? We’re not supposed to question that, right?
Kelvin: That seems to be the intention. One never knows with Utopia. It could be the organisation that raised Jessica, but I doubt it.
Paul: Cross cutting it with Wilson’s self-mutilation (a recurring theme with him, now that I think of it), seems to make it plain, but I always have that tiny element of doubt with this show.
Kelvin: I can’t think who else it could be (aside from Jessica’s organisation) but it is strange how they left Pietre.
Of course, that leaves him free to stage a daring rescue in series three.
Paul: And Becky, maybe. We don’t see her get dragged out, but we do see some black boots walking into her frame of vision.
Kelvin: Oh yes, that’s a good set up.
Paul: Of course, Wilson thinks she’s dying and maybe thinks Pietre is as good as dead too.
Kelvin: Well, we were told that he wouldn’t survive, so I can understand why the characters believed it.
Paul: Dang you Dennis Kelly with your false information!
Kelvin: Nothing is true! Everything is true!
Paul: How about that opening scene? If I ever were to take up acting again, I think I’ve found my audition monologue.
Kelvin: That was a stunning opening scene. The way Terrence was so brazen about murder but also nice in a strange and unnerving way.
Paul: All those years of taking shit from everyone just let loose.
Kelvin: He was quite a fun creation so I’m a little sad to see him go, and not just because it was in a rubbish action sequence.
Paul: Yes, exactly. Now who does the Network have to do its killing? All three of the sleepers are dead along with Lee!
Kelvin: Perhaps they’ll get Grant to do it. They’ll have to issue him with a bright sports bag first!
Paul: On a purely trivial note, did you recognize the mum in the coach station? I thought I did, but couldn’t place her. Had to do some digging.
Kelvin: Yes I did. She’s one of those actors who turns up in lots of minor roles.
Paul: She’s Jennifer Hennessey and was the library patron who refused to return her book in Psychoville Series Two!
Kelvin: Ah yes! I could only remember her from Doctor Who but now it’s coming back to me.
So she’s been shouted at by a psychopath on more than one occasion!
Paul: If they could have worked in a Silent Singer reference (providing Alice isn’t one) I would have lost my mind.
Kelvin: Ha! What a crossover that would be.
Well, Becky has Marius.
Paul: That’s true.
Kelvin: Did anything else stand out for you?
Paul: I was just about to ask you the same thing! Did you think the pissing on the bed scene was a reference to Nathan shitting on the bed in Misfits 2.02 when they thought it was Super Hoodie’s apartment?
Kelvin: Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. It seemed familiar.
Paul: It made me laugh. Especially given that Ian’s reaction was almost exactly the same as his reaction in Misfits.
Kelvin: It could have been a reference, but Utopia has been quite light on pop-culture referencing, aside from Terminator 2 of course, so i don’t know.
It was funny though.
Paul: Despite being out of character. I doubt Wilson would leave that much DNA evidence lying around. Or can you get DNA from urine?
Kelvin: I… do not know. Psycho Drive In readers, do leave us a comment and tell us!
Paul: Let’s get some interactions going in the name of forensic science!
Kelvin: For science!
Paul: Well, how about your rating then?
Kelvin: I was dreading this bit to an extent.
Paul: Same here.
Kelvin: I think it was a choppy episode that suffered a bit from being rushed, or so it seemed. On the other hand there were some good character moments and one or two flashes of Utopia brilliance. It’s tough, but I think I’ll go with 3.5.
Paul: Ouch. That’s a serious drop in ratings. But not entirely without reason.
I think that the good parts outshined the bad, although there was more bad this week than in any previous episode. It still hurts to drop it down below 4. If it were any other show, it would have been very impressive. It suffers, however, in comparison to its own history. I think I’ll have to go with 3.5, too.
Kelvin: Exactly. It would still be a 4 or 4.5 in comparison to your average episode of CSI or something, but when compared to earlier episodes it didn’t stand up.
Paul: And with all that said, Channel 4, if you’re reading this, PLEASE give us at least one more go around.
I need more Pietre in my life.
Kelvin: Yes please! I want to see Becky and Pietre versus Wilson’s Network!
Paul: The kinder and gentler Network.
Kelvin: “We promise.”
Paul: It’s kind of brilliant how the biggest paranoid conspiracy theorist of them all ends up running the biggest conspiracy in the world.
Kelvin: It’s perfect.