Utopia Series 1, Episode 2 (2013)
Written by Dennis Kelly
Directed by Marc Munden
Episode Two comes out of the gate ready to lay the first real building blocks of the series mythos. We are introduced to The Network, a Cold War-era response by the West to Soviet Bloc countries building up arsenals of chemical weapons. The obvious question after learning about their existence would be, why are they still around then? That answer is not laid out in any sort of clear way this chapter, but their new agenda is hinted at. Outside of the core “gang on the run” cast, we have the background story of the Ministry of Health’s purchase of Russian flu vaccine coming under scrutiny and then a very convenient outbreak in the Shetland Islands. This helps flip the script on the government incompetence story and turn the Ministry into forward-thinking heroes.
If you had to give this episode a formal title, you might call it “Meet Jessica Hyde.” While she continues to be an essential character throughout the remainder of the series, this marks the first full exposure to her for the audience. So what sort of person is Ms. Hyde? To put it plainly she is a barely functioning sociopath. She lives entirely off the grid, a kind of real-world application of the fantasies Wilson Wilson believes his own life to be. In just a few rapid scenes writer Munden outlines everything we need to know about Hyde. She doesn’t believe in boundaries, everyone’s home is a possible safehouse when it needs to be. Vehicles are easily disposable conveniences. Violence is the most direct tool for survival and the gathering of resources. Yet, she still negotiates with a group of drug dealers on the street to obtain heroin for Wilson’s recovery. It’s violence against what is accepted as the norm that directs Hyde. The marginalized are those she parlays with, not the power structures.
The seeds of a love triangle are already being sown between Hyde, Ian, and Becky. That is probably the most typical plot development in the series which I always wish could have been played up as weirder. Actress Fiona O’Shaughnessy is physically such an odd looking person, yet still retains traditional beauty. The bone structure of her face hints at a sort of alien quality, her eyes large and open, almost unblinking. Every aspect of her screams not entirely human, and it plays out so well on screen.
Always paralleling our core cast of runaways is Michael Dugdale, a senior civil servant with the Ministry of Health. In the opening episode, it is his affair, and subsequent impregnation of a Russian sex worker that forces him into the hands of what we assume is The Network at this point. He facilitates the purchase of an obscene amount of Russian flu vaccine that leads to his direct superior being fired. Now his boss’s replacement is an obvious plant by the Network and Michael is pulled further down the path of playing ball or having his personal life run through the shredder.
If the role of Dugdale were cast by a Hollywood studio, we’d end up with Martin Freeman. It’s that sort of befuddled, in over his head type that Freeman is becoming dangerously close to being typecast as. However, we get the brilliant Scotsman Paul Higgins. While he embodies the everyman-ness that Dugdale needs to exude his face relays such a Droopy Dog pallor. What makes the character even better is the nervous, unconfident bravado with which Dugdale attempts to one-up his handlers, failing at every turn. James Fox and Stephen Rea, as the executives at pharma-corp Corvadt, are stone-faced and cool in perfect counterpoint to Higgins stuttering gotcha attempts. We never have any doubt that he cannot beat such a monolithic entity and in turn that is what endears us to him. In spite of the most incalculable odds, Dugdale is going to try and find a way out of this.
By the end of this episode, the four key players have finally been united. Ian. Becky. Wilson. Grant. They are embarking down a path of discovery that will forever alter their perceptions. Jessica Hyde lays this out to the characters during a car ride, her explanation reminding of why I am drawn the specific sub-genres of horror I love so dearly. For me, the best horror is not when characters are afraid of getting macheted by a masked maniac or fighting off grotesque monsters. The best horror is when ordinary people are suddenly confronted with a dark reality about their world, often something they may have had an inkling of in the back of their minds, yet pushed down because to accept that would mean you couldn’t go on living in the way you always had. Utopia is about a few humans’ descent down that rabbit hole and a refusal to accept that they can do nothing about it.