July 9, 2020

Utopia “Episode 1.5” Review | Off the Beaten Path

Oh, how the veil has been lifted! To go way back to my review of Beyond the Aquila Rift in my review series of Love, Death & Robots, we have finally climbed out of the Platonic cave and seen the sun for the first time. While the true reality of Utopia doesn’t include a flesh-colored telepathic spider monster, it’s almost blinding in its own right. All of this is to say that as of Episode 1.5, we now know the motives behind the conspiracy the Network has spent decades setting up.

This is a moment that can make or break many a conspiracy tale. Maybe the reveal itself is rather tepid. Sometimes the motives are still rather nebulous and plain ala our goal is world domination. Other times there are numerous reveals ala dueling conspiracies with so many layers we’ll never get to them all. So, does Episode 1.5 land this reveal?

The Episode Summary

Episode 1.5 starts when Ian, Becky, and Wilson decide to interrogate their prisoner aka Letts. Seeing the writing on the wall, Letts clues them in on just how much the Network knows about them. Even more shockingly, Letts tells them the ultimate motives of the Network. Namely, to save the human race from overpopulation related devastation with an engineered sterility plague. This further escalates tensions within the group, with people on both sides of the argument. 

Through a tip from an increasingly suspicious Milner, the group seeks out Michael’s help. Michael himself deals with the fallout of Jen finding out about Anya’s pregnancy, who has surprisingly taken the betrayal in stride. Separate from all this, Pietre takes Jessica on a winding trip to the rest of the manuscript. During this surprisingly personal journey, Pietre reveals that he and Jessica are connected in ways neither of them previously realized.

My Thoughts

So to the surprise of absolutely no one who read my intro, the bulk of this review will be an examination of the Network reveal. I know, real shock right? To be fair, like with Beyond the Aquila Rift, this reveal is such a pivotal moment in the narrative that makes or breaks the story. It was also one of the main things I remembered from my initial watch back in 2014. But what exactly makes this reveal so effective?

Well to start, as a motive, it’s pretty grounded and focused. In a nutshell, the Network is engineering a Children of Men-style sterility plague to curb all the issues related to overpopulation before it’s too late. Everything they have done up till now has been focused on making this a reality. Often with these kinds of global conspiracies, the motives turn out to be rather nebulous. For an example of this, consider Orphan Black, the other conspiracy show that emerged during this time. 

For those who don’t know, Orphan Black was a conspiracy show that debuted around the same time as Utopia. I watched it around the same time as Utopia in fact and was quite a fan. Over time though, Orphan Black started to slip and I would inevitably compare it to Utopia, especially where it went wrong. So what does this have to do with the Episode 1.5 reveal? Well, by the end of its first season Orphan Black had introduced us to two dueling conspiracies, and each season more and more layers kept getting added. At first, this wasn’t bad, but soon the show started to suffer as the conspiracies got needlessly complicated and bloated from adding on vague and conflicting motives and constantly shifting alliances. 

Utopia completely averts this pattern. I won’t spoil what comes next, but this motive is the motive. There aren’t any rival factions within the Network, no additional agendas that keep getting more and more nebulous. In other words, no needless complexity. All there is is the one, unifying goal, and it’s refreshing as hell. To often these conspiracy stories get too wrapped up in the mystery.

Another thing I like about this is how the Network is grounded compared to other fictional conspiracies aka not omnipotent. While they certainly have an immense amount of power, they are not perfect. Letts tells them that they plan on rolling out Janus in three months, regardless of its efficacy. This is why they want the manuscript so badly; with Carvel gone, this is their only way to check their work and make sure they don’t cause some global catastrophe beyond their design. It’s grounding in a way, knowing these are just men and women and not some almost supernaturally powerful group. Now that the cat’s out of the bag, we can start dealing with the ramifications of Janus, from examining it from an ethical standpoint to mining drama from the initial reveal to the inevitable rollout.

Speaking of ethical examination, another reason this reveal works is because it’s quite compelling. Like I said before, many conspiracy stories have rather nebulous motives, which I often find rather boring. What these nebulous conspiracies also tend to lack are good reasons for their continued agendas. That’s why Utopia’s to be so good; what I find more interesting are the ones that end up trying to do something good, or at least what they consider good. 

I mean, Letts not only tells the forum group what the Network is planning but also debates them about the veracity and validity of his argument. And you know what, it makes sense. What’s more, the others can’t even come up with a solid counter-argument beyond “we’re changing things, getting better, etc”. The Network’s solutions and their methods are rather horrendous (I mean, they operate on removing reproductive agency from 95% of the human population), but the result is arguably truly altruistic and necessary.

If there’s another property I’d compare Utopia to in terms of a benevolent plot using horrendous methods, it would be Watchmen. I see a lot of similarities between the Network’s plans to save the world and Ozymandias’ plans to save the world. They both have a central goal to fix a dire global issue, namely overpopulation and nuclear war respectively. They also use rather unsavory methods to accomplish these goals, namely everything we’ve seen the Network do and killing millions with Ozymandias. Lastly, they are classic utilitarian dilemmas made horrifyingly real, yet just convincing enough to the point you might side with the enemy, especially if you can’t come up with a better solution.

It’s convincing enough in fact that the forum group is irrevocably split. While Ian and Becky move forward with trying to stop what’s going on, Wilson, the die-hard conspiracy theorist, is totally convinced to the point where he’s become a mole for the Network. And this is a man who at the beginning of the conversation was seconds away from killing Letts for what the Network did to his eye and his father. 

This is a rather surprising development at first, but once we think about it it makes more sense. Wilson is the most pragmatic of the forum group. This has been part of why the rift between Wilson and the others has grown over the last few episodes. It should come as no surprise then that he’d agree with the ruthlessly pragmatic solution to saving humanity the Network offers, especially when no other viable solution is offered. Safe to say, going forward this is going to be Wilson’s start of darkness, which I find pretty compelling for a conspiracy nut.

Now with the discussion about the nature of the Network’s agenda out of the way, let’s discuss some of the other good stuff Episode 1.5 has to offer, which is a lot. I mean, consider the other big reveal of the episode; that Pietre and Jessica are siblings. Throughout the show, I’ve considered them to be two sides of the same sociopathic coin. The only salient difference between the two is that they are on opposite sides of the conflict. This personal reveal only brings them closer, and will likely change how they interact not only with each other but with the world moving forward. Once Pietre reveals the truth about not only his origins but their shared origins, their plotline this episode is thrown into stark relief; he’s trying to connect with the only family he has. We’ll see if Jessica is as interested in exploring this new familial relationship, especially after all that Pietre has done to shape her life. No matter what, it’s an interesting launching pad for Jessica and Pietre, who have become the most interesting characters of Utopia.

I also like that the forum group plotlines have finally become tied to the Michael plotlines. I mean, there’s the obvious one where Ian, Grant, and Alice seek Michael out to give him a sample of the vaccine. This is what I’ve been expecting to happen for some time now, so this didn’t change my expectations other than being happy it finally happened. What surprised me though was the surprising link with Becky and Donaldson.

I haven’t brought this up often over my previous reviews, but since Episode 1.2 Becky has been working as a covert agent, trying to get the manuscript for an unknown third party. The reveal this man was Donaldson all along and the nature of their relationship (namely, Becky is succumbing to Deels, and Donaldson is her source of medication) adds rich, and much needed, dimension to both characters.

For Becky, it plays into what brought her into this whole world of conspiracy; the mystery of Deels Syndrome and her race against the clock to stop it from killing her. For Donaldson, his talk of acquiring wealth to safeguard himself against the inevitable economic ruin that will follow the implementation of Janus adds further clarity into his blackmail offer to Michael in Episode 1.4. It’ll be interesting to see how this relationship will evolve, especially if it continues into season 2.

If there’s one thing I’m unsure about, it’s Milner. After the reveal of how her actions have helped the Network keep tabs on the forum group, I trust her even less. Her story with Jason being a Deels patient just seems too perfect to me. I mean, I know the trajectory of her character in the show, but I’ve forgotten enough details to the point she’s largely a mystery to me again, and this mystery seems off to say the least. In the end, I bet this will come up in Episode 1.6, so I’m not super worried.

In Conclusion

So, what are my final thoughts on Episode 1.5? I’ll be brief with this. Well, it’s easily the best episode since Episode 1.3. The reveal of the Network’s motives has put Utopia in an upper echelon of conspiracy shows for me, and I doubt it’ll be knocked down anytime soon. While it may not have the same kind of narrative momentum as Episode 1.3, the reveals create a great a rock-solid foundation for future narrative and character growth going forward, more so than any episode since Episode 1.1. Safe to say, Episode 1.5 left me hella excited for Episode 1.6, which I’m more than excited to review for you all.

My Recommendation: Highly 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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