April 7, 2020

Utopia “Episode 1.6” Review | Off the Beaten Path

Does anyone else think we should take a lesson of show length and pacing from British tv? If you answered “yes, do need more baking shows filled to the brim with boundless optimism”, I say good on you and I don’t disagree with you, but that’s not what I’m getting at. Namely, we should take a lesson from the British about the narrative brevity of their tv.

I mean, it’s only Episode 1.6 of Utopia and we’re already at the first season finale aka at the halfway point of the whole show. With that in mind, Episode 1.6 has a lot to do. It has to successfully end all the main narrative threads of the season and set up a narrative for season 2, all on top of being an entertaining hour of television.

The Episode Summary 

Episode 1.6 starts with returning to the abandoned mansion to find the forum group pondering their next move. While the others work to deduce the identity of Mr. Rabbit, Ian heads out to confront Michael about his role in Grant’s arrest in the previous episode. Michael, on the cusp of earning his freedom from the Network after one last task, finds out just how much the Network has manipulated him. 

Ian and Michael both go to the mansion with a new plan; to destroy a warehouse full of Russian flu vaccine. Meanwhile, Jessica preps for a different plan; to find and assassinate Mr. Rabbit aka Letts’ assistant. Meanwhile, Grant is held prisoner by Letts’ assistant. Grant is told to write down the last few numbers from a code in the manuscript or else his mother will die.

The group then splits up. Jessica and Wilson head to Corvadt while Michael, Ian, Becky, and Alice head to the warehouse. After some timely help from Milner, they manage to burn down the warehouse. At Corvadt, Wilson attempts to kill Jessica only to be distracted by the arrival of a shaken Grant, who had just killed the assistant. Jessica turns the tables on Wilson, they leave him for dead. Their tasks complete, the group disbanded, but not without hitches. Becky, succumbing to Deels, leaves Grant and Ian at the train station. At the same time, Jessica goes to Milner to deliver the manuscript only to realize that Milner is the real Mr. Rabbit after it’s too late.

My Thoughts

So yeah, Episode 1.6 has a lot of ground to cover plot-wise. I mean, we have the forum group trying to end their ordeal once and for all, Jessica’s need for vengeance, Michael’s familial and professional drama, Becky’s condition, Wilson’s new allegiances, the mystery of Milner, and the men at Corvadt. So safe to say, this episode has some real breakneck pacing. Does Episode 1.6 succeed in getting everything across? The best way I can put it is a solid “mostly”.

To be fair, with a season finale there’s always going to be a lot of plot that needs to be covered. While many finales falter under this pressure to deliver, Episode 1.6 doesn’t buckle. Instead, it delivers in nearly every aspect. The thing that pulled me in was the agency our protagonists showed throughout. I mean, the act of the protagonists finally banding together to retake control of their destinies, while not exactly original, is one that is hard not to be compelling. 

After a whole season of these individuals just trying to stay alive, how can you not cheer when the group burned down the warehouse full of the Russian flu vaccine? What about when Grant killed the assistant? Sure, with the final Milner reveal this is largely all for naught. That said, the mere act of striking out is noble itself. Plus, it leaves the door open for further season 2 developments.  

Looking at the individual plots, the one that struck me as the most interesting was Michael’s and Becky’s (I know I know, I’m surprised myself). With Becky, we see her go through an entire arc by herself without anyone even noticing. I mean, when we were first introduced to this plot in Episode 1.2, Becky was just a woman fearing the onset of Deels while acting as a mole for a mysterious party. By Episode 1.6 she decides she’d rather help her new fire-forged friends, even if it means she succumbs to a debilitating nightmare of a disease. It’s a surprisingly compelling arc, made all the more tragic by how banal the Network considers the disease they created.

With Michael, it was much more of a visible tightrope walk than Becky’s. I admit I was starting to get bored with his storyline. That is until the end of Episode 1.4 when Jen finally learned the truth. But man, Episode 1.6 was a big one for Michael. First, he realizes that everything he’s been through this season was predicated on a lie; namely, the reveal that Anya was an agent for the Network and that the pregnancy was fake. Following this, he finally strikes out against the Network in a meaningful way by burning the very vaccines he ordered for them. All this concludes with him connecting with Alice, whom he plans to adopt as a daughter. Like I said, that’s a whole season arc right there. The real victory though was how this didn’t feel rushed, at least at the moment (I profess, my mind may change about this, but I’m sticking with it for now). If anything, it reaffirms how important Michael is to the success of the protagonists and Utopia as a whole.

Also before we head into season 2, I want to give a shout out to the non-story aspects of the show.  First, while I’ve singled out Neil Maskell’s performance of Pietre, everyone played their roles well. Like, I don’t think I can ever not see Fiona O’Shaughnessy as a snarling she-beast. Also, while I may not have enjoyed the prominence given to Alice and Grant, Emilia Jones and Oliver Woolford themselves never annoyed me.

Secondly, I’d like to give a shout out to Ole Bratt Birkeland, the director of photography for season 1. While I may not have brought up the cinematography and color design often, safe to say it was consistently some of the best I’ve seen in film in general, and we have Birkeland to thank for that. Lastly, I gotta give a shout out to Cristobal Tapia de Veer, the lead composer. On paper, you would think a score so distinctly whimsical would clash with the dark as hell subject matter. Thankfully with Cristo at the helm, we were always good. I wonder if you can purchase the score or listen to it on Spotify? Man, that would be awesome.

I did mention though that the finale is mostly successful, so what wasn’t successful? Mostly my thoughts about what’s not successful revolves around Milner. Full disclosure, I remembered from my initial watch way back when that Milner was Mr. Rabbit. As such, during this rewatch I’ve been wondering about her role in this season. I thought her actions would make more sense, but now I’m even more confused. 

I mean, if she wants to capture Jessica Hyde, why exactly does she need to play triple agent? I get why she’s dismissive of the manuscript in the end if Jessica is truly the key to unlocking the secrets of Janus. That said, she could have avoided all this earlier if she just took the manuscript from the forum group. I mean, wouldn’t it be easier for the Network to check their work against the page art than to analyze Jessica’s blood? Don’t get me wrong, the twist is an interesting one. It gives her more immediate importance and sets the stage for season 2. The problem is that here in season 1, it just feels like an excuse to add in some spy drama which is frankly unnecessary.

My other big issue with Episode 1.6 was the absence of Pietre. While his presence may have cluttered up the already stuffed narrative, it feels odd such a central figure to the show so far is completely absent, barring the quick flashback to Episode 1.5. I mean, Dennis Kelly’s writing and Neil Maskell’s performance took a terrifying man who murdered a bunch of kids in Episode 1.3 to making him into the real-life equivalent of Bucky Barnes from Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In other words, they made Pietre, a relentless killing machine, one of the most interesting characters of Utopia, at least to me. 

With that in mind, it just feels odd to leave his fate in limbo until season 2, especially when the other major plotlines of season 1 were closed. Sure, his fate isn’t the only one up in the air. We don’t know what happened to Wilson after Jessica stabbed him, what Becky will do without the Thoraxin to treat her Deels, and even Jessica herself after Miler captures her on that rooftop. The difference between those and Pietre’s is that those other established arcs were allowed to naturally end (for the time being). With Pietre, it just feels like there should be more, especially after the ending of Episode 1.5

All that said, these aren’t major complaints. I would be very surprised if these aren’t addressed in season 2, especially early on in the narrative.

In Conclusion

So, how does Episode 1.6 stack up against the rest of the season? While I wouldn’t say it’s the best episode of the season, it is one of the better ones. Despite everything going on, Episode 1.6 manages to tell a cohesive story that successfully caps off the season 1 narrative while leaving room for future growth. Does it leave some unanswered questions? Yes, it does. Are there things I would have changed to the narrative? Of course. Does this make me excited for season 2? Hell yes, it does.

My Recommendation: 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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