Review of Utopia – Series 1, episode 3

Alex Straker

utopia 3 300x211 Review of Utopia   Series 1, episode 3

(Channel 4)

SPOILERS: Do not read this if you have not seen episode 3 of Utopia

This week’s episode presents a relentless series of character assassinations, both literally and figuratively speaking. Opening with the liquidation of a school and closing with a man being blackmailed in his own home, the threat to the central characters seem far more immediate in this installment. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of episode one, it’s entertaining and engaging throughout while providing sufficient plot and character revelations to keep the story moving.

It is now common knowledge that young Grant is the key to locating the manuscript for Utopia II. While the goal is still centred on obtaining the manuscript, this episode constructs new, interesting obstacles to keep the dramatic events feeling fresh. Utopia doesn’t recycle plot twists but rather throws up new ones, often relating to the last character the audience would expect.

Jessica Hyde tries every trick in the book to get Grant to give up the manuscript while Becky, Ian and Wilson Wilson, well aware that they’re in over their heads, make contact with a mysterious MI5 agent in an attempt to gain answers. All this action is interwoven around the dilemma faced by Michael Dugdale (Paul Higgins), whose role becomes more prominent this week, as he manoeuvres his way into the quarantine zone and steals a few human fingers for study (in the absence of a gift shop, he had to find his own keepsake).

The great strength of this week’s episode lies in its ability to interlock several stories that are preoccupied with childhood and the loss of innocence. The presence of a unifying theme enables Utopia to tie together several complex arcs under one dramatic umbrella. The aforementioned ‘character assassination’ on Grant is perhaps the most disturbing of those witnessed to date. Blaming him for the murders that open the episode is a diabolical but ingenious plot development that seems to provide a critique on the modern media and its ability to manipulate reality. The fact that the scapegoat for the murders is an innocent child only heightens the sense of frustration evoked by this turn of events. Sandwiched between the sex and violence, Utopia is raising questions that would make George Orwell proud.

It’s a shame that despite these moments of brilliance, there are occasional blunders in the construction of the episode. Ian’s call to MI5, humorous as it was, felt too straightforward, although he does have very polite telephone manner (at this stage the moral of Utopia is either ‘be nice to others’ or ‘shoot those who stand in your way’, the jury’s still out on that one).

In the nick of time, the series manages to introduce a dose of humanity in its central villain, as Arby (Neil Maskell) suddenly takes on a surprisingly infantile persona, and his character seems to fall into place. He is perhaps the greatest remaining mystery, a dazed Pinocchio who seems to think that if he causes enough pain to others, he might eventually be rewarded with feelings of his own.

Fiona O’Shaughnessy continues to deliver a compelling performance as Jessica Hyde, swerving between the role of surrogate parent and ruthless automaton with ease. Perhaps the most chilling moment occurs when Jessica holds a towel over Grant’s head mid-makeover. For a split second it’s unclear if she’s about to dry his hair or smother him. Utopia likes to serve its comedy with a touch of horror.

After last week’s more subdued, suburban installment, this week marks a return to the daring visual style and provocative cinematography that contributed to the thrills of episode one and it’s all the more interesting because of it. It begins in the school with the writing on the wall, where ‘LOL’ is written in giant letters, a taunting design feature that holds the camera’s focus throughout the opening massacre, which is all the more unnerving considering recent stateside events.

Despite the pleasures of episode one, Utopia could not have maintained such an intense colour palette indefinitely. This week the presence of bright colours has been toned down in favour of quirky modern architecture, essentially the apocalypse as designed by the Tate Modern.

The music of Utopia is the other thought-provoking highlight, as the score often appears to be battling with the images on screen. Whether it’s the ominous whale song that pervades Michael’s entrance at the quarantined camp or the frenetic intensity of the closing credits, this week’s musical score is the series’ most outlandish (and yet most addictive) to date.

By the time the closing titles roll, several new questions have emerged. How long will it be before Becky gets her hands on Grant’s manuscript pages? Will Michael join the group in trying to bring down the Network? What if the manuscript holds the secrets to some horrific 21st century Holocaust?

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  • JDSixsmith

    I’m really enjoying Utopia, I think it’s one of the most original, unusual & stylistic TV series I seen for a long time.

    The plot is driven by the quest for the comic book & I think I recall reading that much of its construct is “comic book conspiracy”, but the scenes also seem to have been shot with that style in mind, many of the characters are shot framed by doorways, windows, lots of backgrounds with rectangular or square shapes, echoing the panelling of a comic book page.

  • Soomro

    So far, going good and strong

  • David Stephenson

    I’m going to use the spoon now.

  • Jasmine Meow Morris

    I’m actually beginning to enjoy this series now. The first two episodes were a major mind-warp for me though, I didn’t understand what was happening, but I’m glad it’s starting to fall into place. I was about to give up on it as a lost cause, but the people who wrote and made the series have done a damn good job to draw its viewers back in.

  • Sam Cel Roman

    The one to pay attention to is Michael, the government worker.

    It’s quite obvious that he ENJOYS being ordered around by the shadowy Russians to do all these things. As the big, bad boss even said himself, how exactly the hell is it that you get a prostitute pregnant? Hm…

    He was going to kill himself but then when he gets a threatening phone call, he springs into action. And even after he’s “made his bones” and been told point blank that if he continues to play ball, he’ll be rich and have a good life. So why rebel and hide the bit of finger?

    Because he WANTS to be punished. So what’s his connection to the rest of the group? Hmm…

    Oh and btw it’s “CYA L8R LOL” on the wall in the gymnasium ;)

  • Ashley George Smith

    I’ve noticed that exact same theme – the vast majority of shots are still frames, with little movement even from the characters. Like a graphic novel committed to celluloid.
    Utopia has me completely smitten, a whirlwind romance like I haven’t experienced since Breaking Bad. Except this bitch is REALLY twisted…

  • JDSixsmith

    dues to Dennis Kelly & his directors

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