Utopia episode 3 review

Review Louisa Mellor 29 Jan 2013 - 23:00

Be warned: Utopia’s tense third episode is its most unsettling yet. Here’s Louisa’s review…

This review contains spoilers.

The opening moments of this week’s Utopia were dreadful in the true sense of the word. They were dreadful to watch, and, once it was made clear what was happening, dreadful to anticipate.

Some will feel - perhaps justifiably - that the school shooting was a step too far into shock territory, but it’s not as if Utopia hadn’t prepared us. The tacit contract drawn up with viewers over the preceding episodes stated clearly that nobody, innocent or guilty, child or adult, was safe. After sitting through a terrified child’s execution, a man’s eye being gouged out, and a family being gassed to death in the name of entertainment, it’s problematic for the outrage to kick in only now.

That’s not to deny that it made for horribly uncomfortable viewing. The whole opening sequence was stomach-sinking, from Letts’ go-ahead, to the accidental smiley face on that acid yellow holdall contorted into a lopsided smirk, to the pan across Arby, sitting monstrously oversized and dumb in that cramped children’s cubicle, all accompanied by Cristobel Tapia de Veer’s eerie drone score.

Was it necessary? Plot-wise, Grant could have been framed for a less emotive, less nightmarish crime and still gained notoriety (Cat Bin Lady managed it). Did it teach us about The Network’s inhuman pragmatism? No more than we already knew. What it did though, was to cast a pall over the rest of the episode, which was Utopia at its most tense and captivating, and inch open the aperture into Arby’s character.

As Arby, Neil Maskell is steadily stealing Utopia. Given more dialogue than his monotonous, insistent “Where is Jessica Hyde?” mantra, it transpires that Arby is no recent recruit to The Network, but a lifelong member. A parent-less creation of Philip Carvel, the animal-killing Arby arrived as “part of a consignment from Bulgaria”, in Letts' words. The inference being that through conditioning and probably pharmaceuticals, Carvel made Arby what he is today: a desensitised weapon of The Network.

What may soon present a problem to his creators is the fleeting glimmer of conscience Arby experienced in the school gymnasium, and again - if that’s what it was - when confronted with his methodically hunted quarry. I’m not sure what I expected to happen when he and Jessica Hyde finally came face-to-face, but it wasn’t for him to down tools, and plod numbly away. Like Frankenstein’s creature, Arby is beginning to question his origins, and woe betide the Doctor who made him.

His counterpart, Jessica Hyde, also revealed more of herself this week. Like Arby, she’s a weapon of sorts, a character robbed of her childhood and empathy. “It’s a handful of kids, so what?” was her cold-hearted response to the school massacre. Fiona O’Shaughnessy gave a better account of herself this time around, playing Jessica with a detached, robotic grief that made her scenes fascinating, if not entirely accessible.  

Elsewhere, Dugdale was off on a daytrip to a remote Scottish isle, where he did all the usual tourist stuff: shouting at military checkpoints, hiding in quarantine tents, and stealing the fingers of flu-infected corpses. Working in tandem with tip-off scientist Donaldson (the ever-reliable Simon McBurney), Dugdale is going up against The Network to investigate the recent outbreak of deadly Russian flu, and somehow, I don’t fancy his chances.

At the half-way point in Utopia's story, we’re still left with a satisfying number of unanswered questions: who did Becky phone last week? How will MI5 Milner fit in? Why aren’t we seeing more of Wilson Wilson? Is liking Coldplay the result of years of evil organisation-fighting desensitisation? Is Stephen Rea’s Letts Mr Rabbit? Why is James Fox' character known only as The Assistant? Why is Ian and Becky’s tedious romantic hook-up being pursued when so many more interesting things are going on? Does Jessica really only want the manuscript to get to know her dead, pro-eugenics scientist father? Is he even dead? Is he even her father? Why hasn’t this paragraph ended yet?

Looks-wise, things were as delicious as ever, with yet more psychotic yellow creeping menacingly into shot (on the boat, in the school gym…). And who would have thought that a loo paper dispenser could be the backdrop to such a gorgeously nasty shot as that finger-slicing number? By rights, director Mark Munden shouldn’t have to go looking for a single day’s work after Utopia. If they aren’t already, they’ll be hammering down his door.

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here.

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Where is Jessica Hyde!!!!

Loved episode 1 but after last week's and this week's I'm massively disappointed. The whole conspiracy theory story has become hackneyed and boring, the characters are mostly woefully underwritten (Grant and Arby being the only two I'm bothered about) and the whole thing is a bit too up itself. That said, it is gorgeous and well edited. Not making up for the shortcomings for me at the moment though.

Wasn't the man in the white coat disappearing down corridors a hint as to who the Rabbit is? I think the horrible violence is completely justified as the whole underlying theme of the series seems to be 'This is what it's like when your everyday life collides with powerful, half understood outside forces'?

That's a great shout re Rabbit!

Beautifully filmed, edited........can't fault the visual.......but, where is this all going? I'm not feeling any depth of character or the right balance of story/suspense .......and I find myself idly drifting off into a daydream. Perhaps the writers thought they had something more clever, or that it hasn't been very well executed. Oh well, I shall keep watching in the hope that something pans out! The shock factor stuff doesn't bother me much these days.......I am a avid 'Game of Thrones' and 'The Walking Dead' viewer - need a storyline we can get excited about......'Utopia' just not providing right now.
Would be interesting to see other people's opinions on this!

I can't recall anything more grittier and darker than this on British Television- with the new series of Black Mirror on the way, this year seems to make headway for even more disturbing dramas. Kudos to Channel 4 for commissioning those wildly watchable, albiet controversial television.

Agree 100%. So glad to see one other person with this view. It's depressing me that I'm not enjoying Utopia as much as everyone else!

I find it entertaining and well-made. However, the (repeated) killing of children in a drama series makes me very uneasy. There seems to be an unwritten rule that, generally, you don't have kids being murdered onscreen for entertainment. Whilst, IIRC, Utopia hasn't actually shown the death of a child character it has gone as far as it can go without showing the actual killing. The creators of Utopia are clearly talented and I don't believe that they need the cheap sensationalism of mass child killings to make an edgy, entertaining show.

Just my tuppence.

Just watched it on 4OD - surprised nobody picked up on the number in the background during the appeal...

Huh? Explain, please.

try ringing it :)

Its pure brilliance! You can't imagine this being shown anywhere else on British TV than Channel 4 as they excel at producing drama that takes risks. Its the best thing they've produced in years (Film 4 excepted). You find yourself having those moments where you simply gasp 'f*uuuuu*k', I can't believe that just happened'. That's what quality drama should do.


Some food for thought here; the characters have to be under developed because that is what they are reduced to in order to survive. We're gradually getting more and more from each of them, but I am currently more invested in just how deep this thing will go. Oh and the confrontation between Jessica and Arby was downright incredible.

Where is Jessica Hyde?


That's brilliant. Can anyone else catch the web address given in the call? Can't quite make it out.

I've been watching it via my iPad with headphones on and it makes it even more disturbing - the sound design is incredible. With layers of background, almost subliminal sound - whispering voices, birdsong it all adds to the almost nightmare/dreamlike quality. I am really enjoying this series...

I was really stoked for this but yeah, it seems to be all gloss at the moment.

Storywise, there really isn't anything new or inventive about it as yet, just that it's willing to go places with it's characters that few other shows would.

I hope that it's just setting up some conventions in order to blow them away in the back half.

Arby say's to Jessica, "Where is Jessica Hyde?" and then leaves... opening more questions. Is Jessica Hyde who she says she is?


hella strong shout

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