Utopia Series 2, Episode 1 (2014)
Written & Directed by Dennis Kelly
When we last left the world of Utopia, we were merely looking backward at a short-lived British television that deserves a second glance by viewers. In the time since my review of Series 1, big Utopia news has dropped. For some years David Fincher and Gillian Flynn have been working to bring Utopia to the United States but a deal with HBO fell through, and it appeared the prospects of a return were dead. However, in April 2017 it was announced that Amazon was going to work to develop Utopia with Gillian Flynn as showrunner. Flynn has been very public in expressing her love of the original, particularly for its strangeness. She became friends with Dennis Kelly and said she’ll seek his input on the new version of Utopia, release date to be determined but like sometime in 2019. So, as we look back at Series 2, we do so with the notion that a different yet hopefully will be tonally similar show will be coming in the new future.
Dennis Kelly decided to open Utopia Series 2 with a jolt. The first thing you notice is the drastically different 4:3 aspect ratio to resemble old tube televisions. This is because the entire episode is set in the 1970s and follows Philip Carvel and his involvement with the Network. We get to see young Arby/Petrie and Jessica. Millner (played by Rose Leslie) has her motivations explained, and we even get The Assistant complete with the first reveal of his Mr. Rabbit branding.
Carvel is already crossing dark ethical lines even before he meets Millner. His wife is worried about their son, Petrie who is showing sociopathic signs even as a toddler. What she doesn’t know is that Carvel is experimenting with the biochemical nature of violence and has accidentally turned his son into this thing. He claims to be trying to reverse it later when discovered, but nothing we’ve seen leads us to believe that claim is valid. At one point, he presents Petrie with a rabbit, after feeding the youth drug-laced chocolate covered raisins. Carvel then decapitates the rabbit in front of Petrie with a butcher knife which leads to Petrie mimicking this when his mother brings a pet bunny into the home.
When Millner and Carvel meet at a Bilderberger style gathering of leaders and minds, the scientist is debating the usefulness of malaria as a means to regulate the human population. Miller, already with the Network, sees a kindred spirit in Carvel. Later, when he shows off a basic design for the Janus virus, she emphasizes that it must kill at random, that no one race or group of people be intentionally kept safe. There’s a comment she makes about having seen a genocide firsthand, and so we can infer that Millner believes the Network is an anti-fascist organization, that its genocide will be egalitarian.
There is a focus on Millner and Carvel’s spouses, in particular, romantic relationships holding them back from realizing the grand vision. This eventually extends to Carvel’s children and sets up why there is such tension between Millner and Jessica. Millner’s husband is an alcoholic who is oblivious to his wife’s occupation, and she is shown to have genuine love for him despite his illness. Carvel, on the other hand, doesn’t seem as in love with wife and shows little to no respect towards her feelings on what is happening to Petrie. The Network becomes involved in their personal lives and this “frees” them up.
In the background of the episode lurks the coming of the Thatcher administration. The episode starts in 1979 with the recovery of kidnapped former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro in a newscast. We see that the Network is behind the assassination of journalist Carmine Pecorelli (which in real life was blamed on the mafia). Then the story jumps back to 1973 while the United Kingdom is in the midst of the oil crisis which led to mandatory power outages to conserve energy. This all serves to emphasize The Network and Carvel’s points that the planet’s capacity has been exceeded and resources are depleting at a rapid rate.
In the second half, the 1979 vote of no confidence in U.K. prime minister James Callaghan’s Labor government looms over the characters. Carvel has broken from the Network at this point and leaked information about them and Millner to a potential member of Thatcher’s cabinet, should the vote go through. He pushes Millner to target an MP into staying home sick so that the vote can carry on. She bends but later explains that instead of killing this man, they gave into his demands because the Thatcher government would serve the Network well as a means to push their corporate branches into assuming more power.
The episode concludes with the incident on Three Mile Island where Carvel has been in hiding. All the pieces fall into place, with Christoph ending up with Jessica while her father is finally committed to the Swiss asylum. The last we see of Carvel he is furiously drawing out the Utopia Manuscripts and gazing up at a noose that waits for him. Everything about this episode feels apocalyptic but also helps expand the universe of Utopia. Information from the first series is contextualized and organized which results in a better understanding of how things got so bad in the first place. I have to give it to Kelly for starting this run of episodes off without featuring a single one of the show’s regulars. The one big theme that will carry forward throughout the remaining five episodes will be the questions surrounding the cost of loving another in the face of the end of the world.