December 13, 2019

Utopia “Episode 1.1” Review | Off the Beaten Path

How many of you have ever worried your life might fall apart in an instant? I’m not talking about physical death, that’s too absolute. I’m talking about the idea that your life could change irrevocably in an instant. Maybe it’s something that is fairly common, like a random car accident that leaves you with a permanent disability? Maybe it’s something rarer, like a natural disaster? You’re probably thinking “Joe, why are you talking like this?”, which is fair. Well, if I had to sum up Episode 1.1 (side note: the episodes of Utopia don’t have titles, so I’m going off of the IMDB episode names) and what it’s about, I would describe it as an hour of tv where we watch the lives of normal citizens fall apart around them.

This is fairly common for drama tv and storytelling in general. You need an inciting incident in order to kick off a story arc, otherwise, the story will feel aimless. With conspiracy fiction, this incident will usually involve the protagonist(s) stumbling across knowledge deemed forbidden by some clandestine group and the efforts of the group to suppress said knowledge. What the protagonist(s) does with this knowledge is incidental. What matters is that now the clandestine group is after them. The thing that sets Episode 1.1 apart from other conspiracy fiction is how brutal this chase starts.

The Episode Summary

Episode 1.1 starts in a comic book store, right after it has closed for the day but before people are told to leave. Two men, Arby and Lee, enter the premises. Arby goes to the protesting clerk and makes two demands; the Utopia Manuscript, and “where is Jessica Hyde”. Lee, meanwhile, is killing everyone in the store, eventually killing the clerk himself. 

We are then introduced to some members of The Utopia Experiments fan forum. First, there’s Becky, a Ph.D. candidate who has just the worst graduate school interview. There’s Ian, an IT worker stuck in a soul-sucking job. Lastly, there’s Bejan, the well off owner of the Utopia Manuscript. Bejan gets on the forum and invites everyone online to check out the manuscript, first to his apartment and then a pub.

For the rest of the episode, the plot follows 3 roughly separate plotlines, and I’ll address each in turn. The first one I’ll talk about is Grant’s since he helps kick off the greater plot. We are introduced to Grant, an 11-year-old delinquent and a member of the forum no one really likes. He takes Bejan’s home address and breaks in to steal the manuscript. While he’s in the apartment, Arby and Lee arrive with Bejan at gunpoint. Grant knabs the manuscript, then watches in horror as Arby knocks Bejan off the roof. They realize Grant is there but quickly lose him, but get enough info to know who he is. Grant then runs to the school and to his home but finds Arby and Lee there every time. By the end of the episode, Grant has the manuscript but is on the lam.

We are also introduced to Michael, the civil servant. He’s on the verge of committing suicide in his motel room, all because of one thing. Namely, a sonogram from the pimp of a Russian prostitute he’s been with, claiming he’s the father. There’s also a threat; do what the pimp wants, or his wife will find out. Michael calls the pimp. The pimp tells Michael that some friends of his want Michael to complete some spy mission and to wait for word, or else.

Michael goes to work at the National Health Service and is given his mission during a meeting with some vaccine suppliers. Namely, to order a large volume of vaccines for Russian Flu instead of Rubella, even though it would be career suicide. After tricking the head of his department aka his boss, Michael gets the shipment in. The next day, Michael’s boss has resigned due to the colossal fuck-up with the vaccines, and the new boss wants to meet him. During this meeting, Michael realizes his new boss is with the same people blackmailing him, and thus his troubles will continue.      

Lastly, there’s the rest of the forum. Three people accept Bejan’s invite to meet; Becky, Ian, and Wilson Wilson. They spend the day drinking at the pub, then Wilson’s flat, ending in Wilson’s fallout shelter. In the shelter, Wilson passes out, and Ian and Becky nearly sleep with each other. The next day, their lives fall apart. Becky and Ian are arrested and later released for some truly heinous sex crimes they didn’t commit. 

Wilson, after ending up on Bejan’s suicide police report, is paid a visit by Arby and Lee. They proceed to torture him for information, likely causing permanent eye damage. Deciding he doesn’t know anything, they leave him alone for a minute, which gives Wilson time to break free and shoot Lee upon his return. Ian and Becky rescue Wilson and they treat his injuries the best they can. The episode ends with them pondering their next move when someone rings the door; a one Jessica Hyde.

My Thoughts

Like I Danced for Hitler! and Merry Christmas Colonel with Danger 5, Episode 1.1 has to establish the story and atmosphere of Utopia. Like I said during the intro, the theme of this episode is how easily your life can be ruined. Everyone who gets in the way of The Network ends up either on the run with ruined reputations or are strung along with the threat of ruination hanging over their heads. Even those who are only on the periphery by association aren’t spared, often ending in death. All this established almost immediately in the intro scene.

If you’ve read my reviews for I Danced for Hitler! and Merry Christmas Colonel, you’ll know I find introductory episodes to be incredibly important. This is especially true for the intro scene of the first episode of a show. I mean, if the show immediately starts off with a stumble, however minor, the show is already facing an uphill battle. Luckily for us, the intro scene of Episode 1.1 is near perfect, even more so than I Danced for Hitler! and Merry Christmas Colonel.

First off, the intro sets up the theme of the episode along with the greater themes of the show. For the episode theme, everyone who is in the store when Arby and Lee arrive is killed off just because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even the kid isn’t spared. All because the clerk sold a manuscript. It really shows that whoever sent Arby and Lee (since we don’t know about the Network yet), they aren’t fucking around. They don’t care who you are, just that you are an impediment and as will be annihilated as a formality. 

There’s also some subtle foreshadowing for the greater themes of the show. In the beginning, we hear a news anchor talking about the rising costs of food. If you’re wondering what this has to do with anything, I mentioned in the pre-watch summary that Utopia deals with issues of the Anthropocene. Sure, we don’t get anything directly related to this in Episode 1.1. That said, the fact this news anchor is the first thing we hear means that this will reappear in a big way. There’s also a man in a rabbit suit outside the shop (which is itself symbolic but only from a name association). 

Rabbits will prove to be a big recurring symbol in Utopia, comparable to Mr. Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. In a way, I see this man in a rabbit suit as an invitation for us viewers, inviting us down the rabbit hole into a hidden world of madness.

Now I bet you’re asking “what about the rest of the episode?”, which is fair. I mean, the intro scene is at most 5 minutes out of an hour of story. While the intro scene is a microcosm of the show and symbolic look at what’s to come, the rest of the episode sets up the greater narrative arcs for the rest of the season. This setup includes storylines that range from the microscopic, all the way to the macroscopic.

I’ll start with the microscopic, seeing as that’s the bulk of the episode. So what do I mean by the microscopic? Namely, the idea of a story where the stakes and consequences only rise to the interpersonal level. In the case of Episode 1.1, this refers to the forum plotlines aka the Grant plotline and the Wilson-Becky-Ian plotlines. These are the plotlines dominated by one thing; the hunt for the Utopia Manuscript. I’d say it’s these plotlines that are defined by the episode theme. Namely, everyone has their current lives destroyed swiftly and brutally, forced into new lives filled with paranoia and immediate danger. 

For Grant, this was watching Bejan’s murder. For Wilson, this was his torture and the likely death of his father (I mean, he lived with his father, and the torture happened on their property, so I’m putting two and two together). For Ian and Becky, it was the arrests for some heinous sex crimes. Sure, these don’t have global ramifications (yet at least). If anything, the hunt for the manuscript is merely a loose end to a large tapestry. Despite this, this hunt hits us harder because of how low-level these stakes are. I mean, the episode shows us how mundane these people are before everything goes to shit.    

The point is, as rough as these transitions are, it’s a great way to set up immediate, personal stakes and platforms for future character growth. In other words, not only is everyone perfectly teed up for the inevitable fight against the conspiracy they’ve found themselves in, but we’re firmly on their side. This is especially true with the appearance of Jessica Hyde. Whatever her role will be, it’s likely Jessica will help the group fight the conspiracy from the ground up.

But what about the macroscopic? Well for that we have Michael’s plotline. Sure, it’s easily the most disconnected by far. His life also doesn’t fall apart right away. Instead, his is a slow-motion fall, held together by a thread that can easily fall apart with the right words and actions. Despite all that, this plot, as of now, is the most consequential. Granted, Michael’s struggle is also pretty small in scope and intensely personal. What separates Michael from the others though is the fact that his actions have greater consequences. Much greater in fact. I suspect this is by design of The Network. While Lee and Arby are chasing loose threads, Michael is affecting change on a national level through the NHS, advancing whatever agenda The Network has.

It’s also through Michael we get our best look at what the inner workings of The Network is like. Sure, Lee and Arby are more immediate threats, but we haven’t seen them report to anybody. The vaccine manufacturers that Michael meets with though are likely near the top, if not at the top. By meeting these two men, we get a clearer idea, though still plenty foggy, of what the greater designs of the conspiracy are. 

If I had to compare the microscopic storylines of the forum members with the macroscopic storyline of Michael, it’s how immediate they are. I get the feeling that for the next few episodes it’ll be the drama of the forum crew that drives the narrative momentum. Conversely, Michael’s plot is the one setting up the greater game. In other words, Episode 1.1 is doing mad work setting up not only the driving force of the narrative but also the greater narrative framework, and I love it for that work.

I’d also like to give a shout out to the cinematography and sound design. First, let’s take a quick look at the cinematography. From what I’ve seen over the years, Utopia has the best comic book-esque cinematography and color grading. Right from the get-go, we are given some truly breathtaking shots. In the intro scene alone, we get shots of a beautiful landscape and a slowly expanding reflective pool of blood. I mean, just look at the colors. My favorite shot though is of Lee, Arby, and Bejan on Bejan’s balcony (it’s the thumbnail for this review). I mean, it’s just gorgeous, I don’t know what else to tell you. 

If there’s another scene with some great cinematography, it’s during the torture scene. Here, the cinematography makes us feel claustrophobic. It doesn’t pull away when Lee rubs peppers and salt into Wilson’s eyes while not showing us the worst of it. It makes an already brutal scene one of the most brutal things I’ve seen put to film.

The sound design also deserves a shout out. I almost forgot how on point it is, but man does it leave an impression. If you want an example, consider Arby. Every time he moves, his outfit squeaks and groans, and that’s not even bringing up his wheezing. It’s so good that even if you were blind you could see not only how overweight he is but also how much his body strains against the confines of his clothing. Going back to the torture scene, you can almost feel the sand getting rubbed into your eyes just from the sound of grinding sand alone. It’s horrifying how effective it is.

If there’s anything that I could criticize Episode 1.1 about, it’s the sheer brutality. This is not a show for people with weak stomachs. I mean, the fact that a child is one of the victims in the comic book store massacre should have been a clue Utopia doesn’t fuck around. There’s also the fact that Ian and Becky are framed for some awful sex crimes, rape, and child porn respectively. Sure, this is a common tactic in counter-intelligence, but it’s one that is hard to stomach either way. Once we get to the torture scene, I think we’ve officially lost a fair number of curious viewers. I mean, I understand why people wouldn’t like the brutality on display. That said, it’s a shame they are missing out on such a great show.

In Conclusion

So what’s there to love about Episode 1.1? Like any great pilot episode for a serialized story, Episode 1.1 has to set up both an immediate dramatic conflict along with laying the groundwork for the future. On top of all that, the pilot has to be exciting enough to draw us in for more. Safe to say, Episode 1.1 does this with aplomb.

With Episode 1.1 we are introduced to a brutal yet intriguing conspiracy thriller. We see how this conspiracy effects, in a most devastating fashion, those who have merely provoke its ire (aka the forum group) and those who are deemed instrumental (aka Michael). While a lot of the mysteries are, unsurprisingly, still mysteries, the appearance of Jessica Hyde means that we will be getting some concrete information in the upcoming episodes. I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to dive back into the rabbit hole.

My Recommendation: Highly Recommend

Joseph MacMaster

Writer extraordinaire in progress who hangs out with the Chicago Film Scene crew. I screenwrite for my fellow CFS filmmakers. I also write TV and movie reviews, and am a co-host/main writer of the Chicago Film Scene: Live! podcast.

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