January 29, 2020

Utopia “Episode 1.2” Review | Off the Beaten Path

So in Episode 1.1, all the protagonists experienced the symbolic death of their previous lives. It doesn’t matter whether this transition was immediate or in slow motion. What matters is that everyone who got in the way of the Network, no matter how tangentially, paid some kind of price. It should come as no surprise then that Episode 1.2 is about everyone’s symbolic rebirth. 

Sure, this theme isn’t as present as the symbolic death theme in Episode 1.1. That said, Episode 1.2 deals with how the various groups we’ve been following try to survive the new lives they’ve found themselves in. Some fight this with abject incredulity, others kick and scream. In the process, we get some small details that begin to reveal the bigger picture of the conspiracy at work. Now our question (or at least, my question) is, does Episode 1.2 carry this well?

The Episode Summary

Episode 1.2 starts immediately after Episode 1.1, with Jessica Hyde finding Ian, Becky, and Wilson, still reeling from the destruction of their former lives. Jessica quickly introduces them to their new lives as wanted fugitives.

Before the end of the day, Jessica tells them about the origins of the Network as a multi-national bio weaponry think tank, and how she relates to them; her father, Philip Carvel, was the chief architect behind the Network’s research, and after going rogue was institutionalized as a deranged schizophrenic, where he wrote The Utopia Experiments.

The next day, Jessica takes Ian on a hunt for the manuscript, involving an undercover CIA agent and a man only known as The Tramp. Ian and Becky make arrangements to connect with Grant and get the manuscript. Meanwhile, Grant, still living on the streets, befriends a young schoolgirl named Alice, who takes an interest in the manuscript. Michael struggles with increased pressure from the government and the media after his actions in Episode 1.1, which he desperately tries to fix until his issues are horrifyingly solved for him.

My Thoughts

So, where to start with my thoughts about Episode 1.2. If you read my admittedly long summary, you’d assume that Jessica is the focal point of this episode. And you know what, you’re not wrong. If Episode 1.1 is about the forum group and Michael, then Episode 1.2 is about Jessica. It doesn’t matter if it’s about how some main characters are like Jessica or how they respond to Jessica, it’s all about Jessica. Because of this, most of my positive thoughts about this episode will fall, unsurprisingly, back onto Jessica.

Let’s start with how Jessica is a great foil character for certain members of the man cast. If you don’t know what a foil character is, it’s a storytelling trick used to define characters. In particular, it involves at least two characters with similar yet distinct qualities. When these characteristics are examined, it reveals qualities and depths for each character. This is an efficient way to establish the characters, especially beyond a surface level if done well. Because of this, it’s pretty omnipresent if you know what to look for.

When it comes to Jessica, there are certainly arguments for how she’s a foil for all the main characters. For the sake of brevity (aka to keep this whole review under 2,500 words), I’ll focus on two that I think are the most distinct; Grant and Arby.

When it comes to Grant, we should look to Jessica’s reveal about Carvel being her father. During this reveal, Jessica tells them that she has been on the run since she was a child. Sure, this can apply to everyone aka contrasting the differences between someone who has been on the run for years and someone new to being on the run. That said, this is especially apparent with Grant. 

In Jessica, we see how a child, forced to live on the lamb without any kind of support network, becomes a hardened sociopath. From what we saw in Episode 1.1, this is where Grant is now. So knowing this, we get a glimpse at what Grant will become if nothing is done. We see this in action already. I mean, if Grant weren’t an 11 year old, him breaking into a house and watching a girl sleep can’t be seen as anything other than creepy (and it already is pretty creepy). I have a feeling a lot of Grant’s future development will be him being pulled between the diametric influences of Alice (assuming she continues to be a presence) and Jessica.

There are also comparisons between Jessica and Arby. Here, I’m referring to the fact that these two are both sociopathic individuals who are socially awkward enough that they wouldn’t be able to function in normal society. The only real difference is they happen to be on separate sides of the conflict. 

For an example of this, consider the torture scenes across the two episodes. We see that Jessica and Arby, at the very least, consider using the same methods, and have similar responses. They also tend to kill people who get in their way, even if they’re on their side (aka the Tramp). Like with Grant, I wouldn’t be surprised if this becomes a point of character growth, seeing how Arby is becoming more important in the overall narrative. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out Arby has a similar backstory. Time will tell (I mean, I know the rough points, but I’ve forgotten a lot of the smaller details over the last 5 years).

So, I’ve established how Jessica is a foil for a number of the main cast, but what about how they respond to her in general? If we go by the loose theme of rebirth, then Jessica is the figure that introduces the forum group (and us in general) to their new world. Unsurprisingly, this transition is rough, and everyone responds to Jessica in different yet similar ways. For Ian, it’s more of a cautious trust. For Wilson and Becky, it’s a marked distrust. 

Since Wilson doesn’t do much, let’s look at Becky. She chafes at everything Jessica does and suggests (and for good reason) and doesn’t trust Jessica one bit. Granted, I think a big part of this is based on sexual jealousy. If you don’t know what I mean, watch the episode if you can. You’ll see that Jessica is pretty clearly into Ian, what with watching him sleep (very Grant like) and only taking him on missions. Sure, she could justify it as Wilson is still nearly blind and Becky is, well, Becky. Still, it seems quite apparent Jessica is interested in Ian, and Becky notices this. I get the feeling this love triangle will play a role going down the line. Plus, I wonder how Jessica will react once she finds out that Becky is working for someone else. Knowing Jessica, probably not well. Only time will tell.

I should also give a mention to the Michael storyline this episode. Sure, Michael’s storyline was once again focused more on the macroscopic happenings. Namely, it establishes a few things. It establishes that beyond assassinations, the Network is orchestrating disease outbreaks for their ends (which is terrifying in itself). It also establishes Geoff, who will play a bigger role in Utopia going down the line. Yeah, it’s not a lot compared to the forum group, but it does the job of establishing the greater threat well enough.

So was there anything I didn’t like. Well, it should come as no surprise that since Episode 1.2 is so reliant on Jessica’s presence carrying the narrative, other aspects of the narrative don’t stand nearly as high. There are some minor pacing issues because the other narrative strands don’t get as much to do, the reveals may be coming in too fast, and the episode isn’t as thematically strong. All that said, these are minor issues that may not even be issues going forward, but I thought I should address them nonetheless.

I’ll start with Grant’s and Arby’s plotlines, which are pretty thin to non-existent. With Grant, you could easily cut his appearances in this episode in half and not miss a beat. I mean, he spends the first half of the episode just wandering the streets. The only things that are needed are Grant meeting Alice and finding the group, which I think could have been done more efficiently. With Arby, we see him officially tied to the Network for the first time (taking orders over the phone), but besides that, he doesn’t have much to do. His role this episode is just a background threat, hot on the forum group’s trail but always a step or two behind. I’m just not sure his presence was needed that much beyond a scene or two.

If there’s another thing I’m wondering about, it’s the amount of information that was revealed. Episode 1.1 gave us some tantalizing bits of information to chew on. With the arrival of Jessica and the presence of Geoff, that unsurprisingly goes out the window. I’m just worried we learned too much too fast. I mean, we now know what the Network is, along with the why of the chase for the manuscript and roughly what their goals are (“Janus” and the outbreak are probably connected). So unless there’s a lot more to learn or there are some red herrings at play, it feels like that shroud of mystery was lifted too fast. Granted, this is a small quibble, and it could very easily turn out the sum of these reveals amounts to scratching the surface of a greater mystery.

Lastly, Episode 1.2 isn’t as thematically strong as Episode 1.1. Because we’re focused so much on Jessica, we don’t have as strong a thematic throughline. Nominally, this episode is about a symbolic rebirth into a life of paranoia and grey-and-gray morality. That said, it doesn’t help that a good portion of the main cast ends up largely sidelined in a house (aka Becky and Wilson) while Jessica, the one person accustomed to this new life, is out and about with Ian. While it makes sense for some people to be sidelined, it doesn’t do much in terms of introducing them to a life on the run.

In Conclusion

So what do I think of Episode 1.2? It serves as a great introduction to Jessica. Through her introduction, we get a glimpse at multiple different avenues for character growth while showing she’s a force to be reckoned with, playing into the gray-grey morality of Utopia. On the downside, Episode 1.2 suffers from some minor plotting issues and revealing too much, largely because Jessica dominates the episode. That said, it’s still an entertaining episode which further lays the groundwork for the rest of season 1 of Utopia.

 My Recommendation: Recommend

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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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