Hear that? Underneath all the eerie buzzing beeps and whispering drones? That’s the sound of a TV show running at full pelt and knowing exactly where it’s heading. “They’re starting again” said back-from-the-grave Lee this week. That they are, praise be.
Episode two was this series’ real opener after that superb trip back to the seventies carefully and stylishly shaded in the outlines of Milner, Arby and Jessica. The purpose of that fifty-minute flashback was nowhere more clear than in this episode’s final scene. Imagine Milner asking a possum-playing Jessica “What have I done to you?” without understanding her history with Philip Carvel. Or for that matter, consider watching Milner’s meeting with Arby in which he assured her that his father was “not incredible, not at all” without realising why she insists on protecting Carvel’s boy. This episode owes its emotional heft to Rose Leslie, Tom Burke and a creative team willing to take risks.
There was more cheekiness than risk-taking in episode two, which delivered outright laughs and gleeful winks towards the first series – a literal wink in the case of Lee and Wilson Wilson. The tension and punchline of Arby’s re-introduction, wheezing up that uncanny suburban street, yellow bag in hand, was played entirely off his child-killing series one persona. Top marks to Neil Maskell for wringing laughs out of just about every line, from SWAT teams to quinoa.
Speaking of which, what fate do you think befell Tess and little Amanda? Utopia provokes us to imagine the worst, but Arby’s character and childhood now inspire such peculiar affection, it’s hard to see him as a villain capable of series one’s atrocities. His transformation from robotic hit-man to romantic hero (if that isn’t pushing it) has been one of Utopia’s most enjoyable and surprising developments.
The laughs continued with the reappearance of Ian, who was back being terminally bored in IT until his months-long search for Becky bore fruit. Ian’s everyman persona is still at odds with Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s model good looks (he still seems more suited to sockless Hoxton fashion shoots than systems analysis), but his comic delivery in this episode papered over the disconnect.
Arby aside, nobody got more laughs than Alexandra Roach as Becky, who proves once again that swearing is not only big and clever, but also very funny. Putting together a cast that could handle Dennis Kelly’s vicious comedy with the same fluency as it handles the scripts’ darker moments was just one of the many things Utopia’s creative team did right. See Michael Maloney attempting to flee a gunman whilst dragging a heart-attack-suffering Kevin Eldon along the ground, or Fiona O’Shaughnessy’s demented giggle at the mention of Jessica’s attack on her last interrogator, for proof of that.
The last time we saw Jessica Hyde, she was a five-year-old sweetie pie off to her first gun-handling lesson. Thirty-five years later, we find her in full Hannibal Lecter mode, a lethal animal in a purpose-built – acid yellow, naturally – cage. When she electrocuted Ross, telling him “I know you’re not in my head. I’m in yours”, it was every bit as delicious a moment as Arby’s rescue of the gang in that derelict mansion (another round of applause for the locations team, there). The Carvel siblings are a gift to television from Dennis Kelly, Neil Maskell and Fiona O’Shaughnessy, a pair of demented, unpredictable, Frankenstein’s creatures – comic book superheroes/villains that, thanks to the work of the series two opener, we really want to see win.
As for the plot this time, there’s another graphic novel-like mystery to hang all the weirdness, laughs and murder on: what adjustment did Carvel make to Janus? The answer may well come from the horse’s mouth if the mysterious ‘Anton’ (Ian Mcdiarmid) turns out to be who many suspect him to be. Whatever the solution is, I’m less interested in finding out than I am in bathing in four more episodes of beautifully shot, thought-provoking TV.
Energy was never something Utopia lacked, but episode two of this new series shot out of the traps. It returns bolstered by the success of series one, more sure of itself and funnier than ever.