This review contains spoilers.
There’s often something anti-climactic about watching the resolution of a conspiracy thriller. The fun of acting detective and testing paranoid theories (Grant’s mum is Mr Rabbit! No, it’s Wilson! No, it’s a cabal of world leaders using Rabbit as an acronym for ‘really a bit bleak in truth’!) outweighs the pleasure of being presented with the answer.
We should have had Milner pegged as one half of The Network’s tag-team from the off, seeing as her first lines on screen contained a condensed version of their pro-sterilisation argument: “He’s already dead. You’re not killing, you’re saving my life”, she told Wilson, in reference to the skinhead on the chapel floor, but equally applicable to the future of humanity and The Network’s particular brand of moral equivalence.
The revelation was as much a surprise as it could be after Dennis Kelly spent six weeks working his viewers up into such a state of shivering paranoia we were prepared to believe that anyone, from Wilson’s dad to Dugdale’s unborn (and fictional, as it turns out) child was behind it all. Raised on a diet of Norman Bates and Keyser Söze twists, Utopia’s audience had most likely measured Milner up for big bad potential long before this finale, making the rooftop scene less an ‘a-ha!’ and more an ‘oh, right’ moment. We’d been told there were no sides, we’d been told to trust no-one, and eventually, our scepticism was rewarded with an ending that proved both to be the case.
Kelly did such a good job preparing us for apocalypse and despair in fact, that the actual resolution felt relatively happy. Humanity wasn’t chemically neutered, at least. Admittedly, Wilson was left in a pool of his own blood, Grant’s now a murderer not just by reputation, Becky’s facing a lonely decline into suffocation and death, and Jessica is in the hands of a geneticist with a God complex who wants to use her and then destroy her… I did say relatively happy.
Fifty-five minutes in, Utopia teased a much brighter ending before snatching it away. The sun rose on a day that saw the vaccine destroyed, ‘Mr Rabbit’ dead, Grant and Alice reunited, and Becky and Ian pledging to give their relationship a go. The ominous quarter of an hour remaining (that, and the preceding six hours of unrelenting grimness) primed us for a turnaround though, which arrived with Milner’s final jump over the ‘whose side is she on?’ fence.
That wasn’t the episode’s only switcheroo of course. Russian prostitute ‘Anya’ was revealed to be in on it and not carrying Dugdale’s child (another twist we should have seen coming thinking back to how fond The Network is of faking medical records). After pulling the metaphorical rug from under Dugdale’s feet, he returned the favour and her skull ended up meeting the business end of a glass-topped table. No baby? No problem. Precocious Alice needs a home to go to, and Dugdale is willing to provide one.
Speaking of fathers and daughters, once it was revealed that Janus was hidden inside Carvel’s greatest achievement, Jessica was the prime suspect (her surname is Hyde after all). The manuscript was a red herring, it seems, bait to bring Carvel’s daughter out of hiding and back into the lab. Presumably The Network engineered it reaching Doomsday Comics in the first place? The twist prompts a good few questions: If Jessica was the target all along, then what was all that business between Grant and The Assistant in the interrogation room? Did those numbers, or the chemical diagram revealed when Alice pieced together the manuscript’s pages, hold the key to Janus too?
With Wayne Yip and Alex Garcia on directing duties, Utopia brimmed once again with stylish composition and colour. The show’s trademark acid-yellow infected a number of scenes, from Grant’s interrogation room to the boxes of vaccine, matched by the sickeningly bright green of the grass in the backdrop to Becky and Donaldson’s confrontation. One shot in particular, of the Crayola crayon Grant was using splattered with The Assistant’s blood seemed to sum up Utopia’s cartoon horror aesthetic and violence-destroys-childhood message.
The chief vehicle for that message, Arby, was noticeably absent this week. Last seen in his childhood bedroom as smoke billowed towards him, we didn’t see Arby die, so have to imagine he lives to wheeze another day. Utopia director Mark Munden confirmed that Dennis Kelly is already in the process of sketching out series two, should Channel Four grant one.
On the subject of second series, I’ve often thought there should be more glory in being a one-hit wonder. People should think it more… wonderful. If one glorious hit was the end-goal, not a sequel, or a franchise, or a second series, audiences would be given more satisfying endings. As it is, writers like Kelly have to wind in their stories while leaving enough loose threads to justify a second go. Characters don’t die, they’re put on ice, abandoned in burning buildings, or left in pools of their own blood, ready to dust themselves off and pop back in a year’s time. Stories don’t end, they zoom out and reboot.
To conclude then, what was Utopia’s closing statement? Ultimately, was the series anything more than a devastatingly good-looking game of chase?
We’re all screwed, and yes, are my answers to those questions. Though it couched its fears about humanity’s future in an exhilarating package of conspiracy thrills and provocatively gory deaths, Utopia asked its audience to consider the very real situation that life on this planet cannot continue as it is. There are simply too many of us, using too much.
By ushering its most sympathetic character, Wilson, around to The Network’s point of view, Utopia forces us into a position of ethical dilemma. The horrific hypothetical of Janus – aptly for its two-faced namesake – is both poison and antidote for humanity, disease and cure. Don’t like it, then what’s your alternative, the show asks us? Energy-saving light bulbs?
While the BBC and ITV wrap their audiences in the comfort blankets of cosy period settings, dramas like Utopia and Black Mirror show Channel Four prompting their viewers to look forwards, and not back. It may be a bleak vision, but it’s a provocative and refreshing one.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, here, and see the 13 questions left unanswered by the Utopia finale, here.
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