July 9, 2020

Utopia “Episode 1.4” Review | Off the Beaten Path

After three adrenaline-pumping episodes of Utopia, you know what we need to kick off the back half of the season? Is it a shot of adrenaline for a show that’s already pumping with adrenaline? Is it a shot of horse tranquilizer to cool us down and start a pseudo-narrative reset? If you guessed the cinematic equivalent of a horse tranquilizer, you’d be correct. 

Episode 1.4 acts almost like a hard reset, giving everyone a breather and a chance to collect themselves after the non-stop insanity of the first half of the season. In the end though, it this narrative ketamine shot a refreshing one or a bit too much? The answer to that is yes, and no.

The Episode Summary

Starting immediately after Episode 1.3, the forum group settles down for the night in an abandoned mansion in the middle of nowhere. There they get closer as individuals, regather themselves after the insanity of the last few days, gain some crucial insights about the operation of the global arm of the Network, and set out to take control of their destiny. 

Michael continues to try and get one up on the Network. After his initial plan with the sample fails, he takes the Network head-on, and get’s burned as a result. Arby, now in possession of a portion of the manuscript, realizes his past is largely a lie and confronts Letts. His suspicions confirmed and with new knowledge (including his real name), Arby aka Pietre seeks out Jessica for his reasons. Also, Jessica is hanging around the periphery being jealous and not much else.

My Thoughts

So, Episode 1.4 is a shot of horse tranquilizer to bring us down after the break-neck pace of the first half of Utopia season 1. By slowing down, we’re able to calm down, get a chance to know the characters normally operate, and maybe get some build-up for later plot points and revelations. With this in mind, the big question should be “does this episode slow down too much?”. The answer to that is yes, and no.

After watching what I’d call a sizeable number of movie series and TV shows over the years, I’ve noticed a trend in these kind of breather stories (and I bet you have too). Namely, when they take too much time to recollect themselves, they end up losing narrative momentum and can’t get back to their original pace. 

Sure, Episode 1.4 regains that sense of urgency and momentum by the end of the episode with some new revelations and status quo changes. That said, it is an episode that is noticeably bloated compared to previous episodes, largely due to misaimed narrative focus and weird pacing. To me, this can be demonstrated through two aspects; the prolonged focus on Alice, and the scene when Ian tries to visit his brother and his run-in with Milner. I’ll start with the Alice bit. 

I understand what Dennis Kelly was trying to show with Alice. Namely, how a child living a normal life reacts when her life falls apart in only a few days, especially without knowing why. She does provide an interesting foil to Grant this way, who is in the same situation but has managed this transition because his old life was noticeably worse than hers. That said, compared to the rest of the main cast, I find her rather boring. 

This whole episode she was in various stages of shock, from silence to her focus on things that aren’t at all important (aka her book report), to abject rage (when she kills Monroe). This may sound bad, but I just feel like she isn’t as interesting a focus as some of the other characters, especially when she’s barely responsive and in denial. This may sound bad, but I’d rather watch one of the other cast members. For example, say we take one or two of the scenes involving Alice and Grant and instead focus on Michael. 

If we had followed Michael, we could have seen more of his efforts to navigate the tight-rope his life has become along with learning more about the Network and their levels of global influence. I mean, through Michael we learn that the Network has a history of engineering fake outbreaks (the SARS outbreak in China, and the current Russian flu outbreak). We could have also seen more of the fallout of Jen learning the truth about Michael’s affair with Anya. Instead, we got multiple scenes of Alice trying to finish a book report she can’t seem to accept is no longer necessary. The only interesting scene with Alice this whole episode is at the end when she kills  Monroe with a shotgun blast to the gut, and even that doesn’t save her from being boring.

Let’s change gears, and consider a single scene. Namely, that scene with Ian and Milner I mentioned earlier. This is a whole scene that lasted a little over three minutes (3 minutes and 18 seconds to be precise), and honestly, I don’t know why it’s needed. There are only a few things I can think of that could make this scene necessary; namely the influence of Milner, Ian wanting to see his family, and to briefly get Ian away from the group. The problem is, I don’t see why these are even necessary. 

In terms of Ian wanting to see his family, he could have just communicated this to Becky during their on-the-run date the previous night. If Ian needed to be away for Wilson and Becky to learn more about Pergus Holdings (if you don’t know what that is, I’ll get into it a bit more later in the review), then they could have just left while Ian was asleep. If it was to get a sense of what Milner is capable of on the fly, that could have been more effectively done near the ending. All in all, this scene struck me as wholely unnecessary, and only took away from more interesting storylines.

Speaking of Milner, I’m not sure what to think of her. I mean, I’ve seen this show before and know the twists and turns regarding Milner’s role in the narrative, and even then I’m confused. Even though she is a spy she strikes me, along with Alice, as being the more boring characters in the narrative. Honestly, Dennis Kelly could have just had Milner show up in Episode 1.3, and not show up again till Episode 1.6, and I think her narrative purpose wouldn’t be affected all that much since she’s largely an enigma who spouts exposition as of now. 

Granted, this may change in Episode 1.5 and I merely forgot her immediate importance, but for now, I think she would serve better as a character we don’t see often. Instead of giving focus on Milner and Alice, I would have focused more on characters like Jessica and Pietre (I’ll be referring to Arby as Pietre going forward). They are more interesting characters in general that are already enigmatic, and who barely got any presence this episode. 

This might sound off-topic, but I realized while watching Episode 1.4 we don’t know exactly why the Network is hunting Jessica. I mean, we know she’s Carvel’s daughter, but beyond that, we don’t know what the Network wants with her. Is there more she knows? Could she expose the inner schemes of the Network? We just don’t know. Plus there is Pietre’s whole past that could be explored, and it doesn’t help that Pietre’s storyline this episode (the shortest by far) was also the most interesting. Either of these would have been a more interesting focus than Milner and Alice. 

Now don’t get me wrong, even though I may be complaining a bit, there were some great elements in Episode 1.4. For one, I appreciated the growing dynamics between Becky, Ian, and Wilson. While Becky and Ian are growing closer, there’s a growing divide between the group and Wilson. There are three different instances where this was important. 

There’s the argument they have in the beginning about what to do with Alice (Wilson wants to get rid of her while Ian and Becky feel she should stick around). There’s their time in the mansion, where Wilson kind of drifts around while Ian and Becky connect. Most importantly, there’s the hostage scene at the end (I’ll get to that in a minute), when Wilson realizes Becky lied to him about his father’s fate. During this last bit, Wilson, who is wielding a loaded shotgun, points it at Ian and Becky and questions their friendship before coming back to his senses. While this was resolved, for the time being, I bet this gulf will only become a greater presence and will lead to heartbreak.

Back in my review of Episode 1.3, I mentioned how I was worried that the micro and the macro storylines (the forum group and Michael) would remain separated for too long. Safe to say, I was happy with how Episode 1.4 ended. At the mansion, the forum group looks at sketches of the manuscript in Grant’s sketchbook. They realize there are specific connections between Project Janus and Pergus Holdings, a food conglomerate that controls numerous processed food companies on every populated continent. What’s more, it’s led by a man named Lane Monroe, who could be Mr. Rabbit. 

The group (sans Jessica) then visits Monroe at his apartment and takes him hostage. They learn he is merely a pawn in a greater scheme. He claims he was paid by an unknown benefactor to add a select amino acid to corn that makes the husks soft. He ends up shot by Alice, but the group gets a new, more valuable hostage; Letts, who had dropped by to visit Monroe himself on behalf of the Network.

To me, this scene saves Episode 1.4. It brings back the narrative momentum the episode had lacked, it adds new wrinkles to the mystery of the Network (I mean, what do they want with soft corn husks?), but most importantly it shakes up the status quo by finally bringing the disparate plot lines together. By taking Letts hostage, the forum group not only has a chance to get answers about why the Network has been so hellbent on destroying their lives, but the forum group also gets the best chance to bring down the whole operation. It’s a change to the status quo that was becoming more and more necessary, and I’m over the moon it finally happened. For me at least, the main draw for Episode 1.5 are the answers we’ll likely get from Letts, and how the group will fuck up the plans of the Network.

In Conclusion

So to wrap up this review, Episode 1.4 to me is the weakest episode so far. While we needed a good breather after the breakneck pace of the show up till now, Episode 1.4 does this by focusing too much on the wrong characters (aka Alice and Milner) and largely sidelining the more interesting ones (aka Jessica and Pietre). This resulted in unnecessary scenes that felt more like padding in a show that hasn’t needed it so far.

On the brighter side, we got some great revelations about the Network and how it operates, plus the reveals about individual characters. I mean, that Arby/Pietre reveal. We also got a great final scene that shakes up the status quo the show has been following since the beginning. Here’s hoping Episode 1.5 capitalizes on the implied promises of that final scene, it just might redeem this episode for me.

My Recommendation: Recommend With Caveats 

Subscribe:


Email


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.

View all posts by Joseph MacMaster →

Leave a Reply