July 9, 2020

Utopia “Episode 1.3” Review | Off the Beaten Path

Holy shit is Episode 1.3 intense. Even 5 years after watching Utopia, I remember this episode as one of, if not the most brutal episodes of television I’ve seen. Back in my intro post for Utopia, I said that this show doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to sheer, balls-out brutality. Safe to say, it was Episode 1.3 I had in mind when I wrote that. Honestly, I wonder how the upcoming American remake will tackle Episode 1.3.

That said, don’t think I’m bashing this episode. Episode 1.3 has some of the best things the show has to offer. The narrative is tighter than Episode 1.2. There is even some great sound design and cinematography at work. We even get some surprising character growth from a character largely on the periphery. If you haven’t seen the episode yet and are dying for me to explain why this episode is the unique beast it is, don’t worry, I’ll tell you why.

The Episode Summary

Episode 1.3 begins with a bang (literally), with Arby ordered to carry out a mass shooting at Grant’s school. The reason for the massacre; to frame Grant for a very public and heinous crime, so he can be flushed out of hiding as fast as possible. The consequences of this action ripple out through the main cast.

Arby begins to question himself and his past. Jessica and Grant take a road trip together to retrieve the manuscript from Alice, and bond over shared childhood pain. The rest of the forum mates meet Milner and learn more about Mr. Rabbit, the mysterious leader of the Network. Michael follows up the tip from the reporter and meets Dr. Donaldson to get one up on the Network. The episode reaches a climax at Alice’s home, where multiple parties race to get the manuscript.

My Thoughts

Alright, Episode 1.3 is one hell of an episode to review. There’s the school shooting at the beginning, which I imagine would turn off a lot of the nascent audience of Utopia. I could spend this whole review talking about this scene (and will in time), but there’s more to talk about. For one, outside of the intro, Episode 1.3 is probably the best episode so far. I bet you’re asking what makes this episode so good, especially if you haven’t watched the episode and only read my summary, which is fair. The answer to that is somewhat surprising, at least to me; Arby.

If Episode 1.2 is driven by Jessica Hyde, then Episode 1.3 is driven by Arby. Let’s consider this from a narrative standpoint. Sure, based on my summary his narrative plotline gets the shortest run time. That said, Arby is present in two out of the three major set pieces of the episode. What’s more, these set pieces, namely the school shooting and the hostage situation, bookend the episode. The shooting itself is what drives the narrative for Arby, Jessica, and Grant, so his presence is undeniable. It’s a step up for Arby compared to Episode 1.2, who just acts as a threatening presence on the periphery.

But enough of the overall narrative, seeing as that’s what I end up talking about in these reviews most of the time. For once, I want to talk about the acting. If you’ve been reading my reviews for Off the Beaten Path, you’ll notice I haven’t brought up specific acting roles, largely because I was never blown away by any individual performances. In Love, Death & Robots, there wasn’t much room for great performances because of the short runtimes and animated medium. While the acting in Danger 5 was much more prevalent, it was defined by deliberate overacting, so outside of a few instances (like in Super Dead), I wasn’t blown away. That changed after watching Episode 1.3, specifically watching Neil Maskell aka Arby.

If I had to describe the characterization of Arby in the first two episodes of Utopia, I would say he’s like a socially awkward Richard Kuklinski aka The Iceman. Granted, that opinion hasn’t changed a ton after watching Episode 1.3, seeing as Arby is still a sociopathic killer. What Maskell did bring forward is a sense of vulnerability and pathos of all things. This is apparent in every scene he’s in, including the shooting scene with the boy with the raisins, but most apparent when Arby talks to Letts.

During the scene with Letts, Maskell shows us a vulnerability to Arby I didn’t think was possible, and I’ve seen this before. This scene changed my opinion from Arby being a purely Kuklinski-esque killer to something more resembling a more realistic Winter Soldier from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Namely, instead of just being an unapologetic hitman, this interaction makes it apparent Arby was essentially designed to be a remorseless killer from a very young age. What’s more, Arby is unnerved by his sociopathy and his blase reaction to death in general. This, along with Arby being shaken by the school shooting (or at least his reaction to it) culminates in the hostage scene at the end. After seeing Arby’s new vulnerable side, this scene comes off as Arby desperately trying to keep himself together with the only way he knows how. 

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t excuse Arby’s actions; he’s still a remorseless killer after all. That said, the fact that Maskell can generate this kind of pathos for a terrifying killing machine is a testament to his acting ability. Also, the fact Dennis Kelly is positioning Arby for some semblance of redemption is ballsy as hell, especially in a culture where random school shootings are so prevalent. Only time will tell if this narrative direction will bear any fruit.

All that said, the reason why I think Episode 1.3 is the best episode so far isn’t just because of Arby. The other reason is for the more technical aspects, namely the cinematography and sound design. For a good example of this in action, once again check out the school shooting scene. Namely, they managed to both play up the horror of an already horrifying situation while having it suitable (enough) for audiences.

For one, they don’t show Arby during the main part of his rampage. After he executes the guidance counselor, the camera is merely left running in one unending shot in the atrium. It only pans around when Arby crosses the atrium to go to different rooms. While we don’t see anyone, we still hear the screams of children and adults alike punctuated by gunshots. This with the lack of music means that only those screams and gunshots are audible, even during the titles. All this means serves the dual purpose of hiding the horror of the act while playing it up, making the act even more terrifying.

So what about some of the negative aspects of Episode 1.3? Well, the episode walk’s a fine line when it comes to the brutality on display, especially during the shooting scene. I mean, I don’t usually have an issue with on-screen violence, but even that scene had me feeling anxious. Sure, the whole reason behind it makes perfect narrative sense. Namely, the Network needed to flush out Grant as fast as humanly possible to get their hands on him and the manuscript. Thus, framing Grant with such a grizzly and attention-grabbing crime will lead to a swift capture. 

All that said, the use of a school shooting for any kind of narrative purpose can easily be a bridge too far, especially for a show that has no compunction about on-screen brutality. Honestly, I understand if people check out at this point. It’s a shame for sure, but one I find perfectly understandable.

For a complaint about something other than the brutality, Arby, and the intro scene in general, I’d have to go with the plot lines. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with any of them. They all have more narrative momentum than the weak ones of Episode 1.2, both for the episode only narratives and the overarching narrative. My issue so far is how separated they are. Now that Episode 1.3 is over, we’re officially halfway through the season, but we haven’t gotten any indication that the plotlines involving the forum group and Michael’s will interact in any meaningful capacity. That said, this could be solved in Episode 1.4 for all I know. Even so, the plots ideally should converge sooner rather than later, and I’m worried it’s going to be later at this point.

In Conclusion

So how would I describe Episode 1.3? To put it shortly, I’d say it’s complicated. It features some interesting characterization for an unexpected character, some great acting, all on top of some great cinematography and sound design. There are even advancements to the central mystery (aka Milner and the story of Mr. Rabbit) and more backstories (mainly Jessica) which I didn’t get around to discussing to keep this review from getting too long.

That said, Episode 1.3 is an episode that can be incredibly distressing to even those who have tough stomachs. I doubt I’ll ever watch an episode of tv that made me this uncomfortable with the on-screen savagery. So for once, my recommendation is going to be on the lower end of my scale, but purely because of the caveat, even though the rest of the episode is one of the best Utopia has to offer.

My Recommendation: Recommend With Caveats 

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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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