April 7, 2020

Utopia “Episode 2.4” Review | Off the Beaten Path

Man, Episode 2.4 has me conflicted. Since I watched the episode two days ago, my opinions and interpretations about what’s going on have swung fairly wildly. If I had to sum up my thoughts on the episode into a single image, it would be the Chernobyl “Not great, not terrible” meme. Sure, this is a fairly standard episode of Utopia; it has plenty of brutal action, always great cinematography, and some great character work. That said, compared to other Utopia episodes, it has some flaws that make me scratch my head, along with prolonging some of the issues I’ve had with the season as a whole. So without further ado, let’s air some grievances.

The Episode Summary

Episode 2.4 starts, of all places, in the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia. A middle-aged father, about to sit down for dinner with his family, gets a call from someone “who sounds British”. Making an excuse related to work, the man goes out into the woods and pulls a canister. The man stores this canister in a hidden compartment of his truck, which he abandons in a long-term parking lot. Finally making it home, he proceeds to kill his whole family, then himself.

The forum group is more or less splintered for the episode. While the thrust is divining information about Carvel, the various members go about it differently. Ian, still reeling from the fallout with Donaldson’s reveal about Becky and the fallout from calling Milner in Episode 2.3, ends up going out on his own to find the broadcast footage that made Carvel talk. Meanwhile, Becky and Grant, after finding out that Carvel has been speaking Romanian, bring in an interpreter. Through both the interpreter and the footage Ian manages to find, they learn a surprising amount about Carvel and what’s in motion at the Network. 

Separate from all this, Pietre, making a deal with Lee, manages to have Tess and Amanda smuggled to Albania and set up with a new life in exchange for Donaldson. Through a slip of the tongue from Grant, Pietre learns the truth about Carvel.

At the Network, Milner works to groom Wilson into a full-fledged member who’s dedicated to the cause at hand. His upcoming task; to find the forum group and extract Carvel. This grooming ends when Milner has Wilson kill Ian’s brother, which Wilson eventually acquiesces to.

During all of this, Jessica recuperates at Michael’s empty house. While we learn the truth about Jen and Alice’s departure from Michael’s life, Ian stops by to talk to Michael. There he finds Jessica, and they end up sleeping together. Distraught at what he’s done, Ian flees before Michael comes back. Later, they are paid a visit by Milner herself. Jessica turns the tables by getting one up on Milner, who only survives Jessica’s wrath by telling her about Carvel being alive.

My Thoughts

So yeah, Episode 2.4 has me conflicted, even as I write this. One minute I’m just disappointed in the choices made during this episode, to understanding what Kelly was going for, back to disappointment, and so on. I think while Episode 2.3 highlighted a lot of what I liked about Utopia season 2, Episode 2.4 highlighted everything I haven’t liked so far. What’s worse is that even the stuff I do like, both stuff that’s been ongoing and stuff that was introduced this episode, has elements I’m not fond of.

For one specific story element I’m just not feeling, it’s Michael’s whole plotline. This whole season, I’ve wondered why Michael is even present. While his story had some promise, what with being made the director of Corvadt and all, it hasn’t exactly gone anywhere. Even getting tied up to the main plot comparatively earlier with Jessica’s arrival hasn’t changed that. Even with Episode 2.4, Michael isn’t doing much beyond being both Jessica’s host and just being lonely. In other words, it’s a far cry from the intrepid government worker dancing on the knife’s edge in season 1. This may change down the line in the last two episodes of the series, but at this rate, I’m not holding my breath.

The other big things I didn’t really like with the episode have to deal with the espionage elements added to the story. Don’t get me wrong, espionage and conspiracies go together like peanut butter and chocolate, and there’s a fair amount about this mixture in Utopia I like. I mean, the forum group racing against the clock to stop the Network sleeper agents from releasing the Russian flu is a great story element for driving the back half of the season forward. That said, after binging better spy stories earlier this year (primarily the whole of The Americans over the whole of February), this story element just strikes me as wonkily implemented.

For one, why do the Network sleeper agents have to kill themselves and their entire families? I mean, it does play into the Network’s (Milner in particular) methods of keeping things quiet by killing all loose threads, and so far this strategy made sense to me. Not here though. This act to me seems counterintuitive. Like, why can’t the sleepers just resume their normal lives? A random murder-suicide of a whole family attracts attention and suspicion; it’s what makes Carvel realize the final plans are now in motion. Granted, the Network didn’t predict Carvel realizing this, but he’s probably not the only one. The fact this happened all over the globe at the same time just raises more suspicion.

Honestly, this is one of, if not the main point that I’m conflicted about. On one hand, I don’t like it since it’s Milner and the Network firmly grabbing the villain ball, which is a story trope I generally detest (check it out on TVTropes if you don’t know what I’m talking about), especially after they’ve avoided carrying it so far. On the other hand, I can see this being played as Milner’s self-proclaimed Ubermenschian but in reality, just bloodthirsty methods catching up to her, especially after seeing her falter in Episode 2.3. I imagine I’ll keep bouncing back and forth on this point for a long time.

The other big point I’m conflicted about, but not to the same degree, is Carvel. In terms of what I liked about Carvel in this episode, I loved the fact they delved into his Roma background, and how he’s a Holocaust survivor. Back in season 1, while the forum group was digging up information about Carvel, they found he wrote a paper on eugenics, which led to their belief the Network was implementing a Nazi-esque plan of racial destruction. Now knowing he’s a survivor of a regime heavily into eugenics, along with the viewpoint that Janus is forced eugenics on a mass scale, and the fact Carvel’s adjustment to Janus involves a race (I’m expecting a Roma connection) gives him some welcome complexity. The other thing I liked about Carvel this episode was how Pietre and Jessica reacts to the news that he’s alive. While this is something that will carry over to Episode 2.5 (especially with Pietre), I’m glad this familial drama is moving to the forefront.

What I don’t like is how Carvel’s mentality is brought into question. First, I don’t know whether they’re going with he’s just obfuscating insanity, or just having lucid intervals and experiencing a mental decline. I’m leaning more towards the latter since he slips back into speaking Romanian even after having a fully lucid conversation in English, but it’s still frustratingly ambiguous. While this may very well be addressed in the next episode or two, I’d rather they just stick to one or the other.

The other thing I don’t like about Carvel is how much knowledge he has about the Network’s operations; in this case, about the sleepers. To me, it seems rather lazy having him explain a plot perfectly that could have very easily changed over the last thirty years, especially since he’s been isolated from the Network during that whole stretch of time. That said, I’m still conflicted about this since it could be the case the plan has been set for the last thirty years, which would neatly contradict Milner’s claim to Wilson earlier about examining all the options over the decades. I expect I’ll waiver in my thinking about this, but as of now, I’m more firmly on the side of against this than Milner’s grabbing the villain ball.

My last main complaint is about Wilson’s storyline as a whole. Before I go further, I should mention that Wilson’s character storyline this episode was my favorite out of all the storylines. I find it interesting and compelling how Wilson has embarked on a path towards true utilitarian darkness, which will only continue to grow more pronounced in the final two episodes. My big issue is that I feel like this story should have started earlier. While I understand his story in Episode 2.3 plays a role in his overall arc, what with him going from unable to kill Lee to killing Ian’s brother, it feels like Wilson’s season 2 story arc has just now started. 

The worst bit is how easily this could have been fixed. For instance, Kelly could have cut the excess scenes involving Michael (or Michael all together), and shifting Wilson’s episode stories up an episode. That way, we’d have more time to explore Wilson’s development, which to me is too interesting to relegate to essentially 3 episodes.

The last thing I want to mention about Episode 2.4 in what has essentially become an airing of grievances is the return of the season 1 love triangle. Normally, I have little patience for love triangles in stories where romance isn’t one of the main focuses of the story. In season 1, it felt like it was there just to create drama within the forum group by escalating intergroup tensions. It didn’t help that compared to Jessica and Becky, Ian’s specific character development (aka what’s not shared with the others by being on the run) was mostly tied to the triangle. 

Here, while I’m not crazy about Ian and Jessica sleeping together, it isn’t as distracting to me as it was in season 1. I think it helps that every member of the triangle has something going on besides the drama created by the triangle, even Ian. That said, the cynical writer side of me thinks this was just added to create further friction between Ian and Becky, but we’ll see how it eventually pans out.

In Conclusion

So in summation, I found Episode 2.4 to be a mixed bag at the very least. While I don’t mind the inclusion of straight-up spy-fiction tropes to the story and building up Carvel’s complexity, I feel like the implementations of these aspects are rather wonky. Also, Episode 2.4 makes me question the necessity and implementation of some of the storylines at play, and I’m not sure how they’ll be justified going further down the line. Hopefully, this is just a misstep, cause I’d be rather disappointed if the last two episodes of Utopia fall around this level of quality.

My Recommendation: Recommend with Caveats 

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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