There's a very good chance that you've not seen Utopia, the now-cancelled British conspiracy thriller that's spent the past year and a half blowing our minds with its messed up dystopic take on the modern world. You should change that very, very soon.
It's funny, having to re-edit a piece of enthusiastic recommendation into an Elegy for lost potential, but that's exactly what we have to do now when it comes to discussing Utopia - a story that had barely begun to scratch the surface of its potential in its 2 short series, cut down before its prime. And yet, despite cliffhangers and unanswered questions, Utopia's 12 episodes still stand as some of the weirdest, darkest, most compelling storytelling in recent memory.
In light of the show's cancellation I have edited out most of the major spoilers in this look back at series 2, but nonetheless, there will still be some spoilers beyond and in the comments, so consider this your warning as well as my conclusion - if you want to see Television unafraid of being wholly unique, unafraid to say the weirdest, creepiest things no other show would dare touch, Utopia is a must watch, and you should seek it out in any way possible as soon as possible. Off you pop.
Everyone else? Spoilers ahead...
One of the most interesting things Utopia did in its second series in comparison to the first came about through its unexpected flashback into the late 1970's to give us a look the younger Milner and Carvel - played to perfection by Rose Leslie and Tom Burke - as they begin their work behind the Network and the population-limiting Janus project in the first episode. Not only was it a completely bold move for the show to return with no sign of its regular cast in sight, with a stylistic and tonal break (in a show practically defined by its twisted, bold style and direction) - but it gave us something the first series was lacking in amidst the darkness and twisty-turvy plotting: Heart. Understanding what set Milner and Carvel, as well as the younger Jessica and Arby down the path that we see them on in the modern day retroactively added depth and even a sense of tragedy to the first series, as well as giving us a laser-sharp focus on the second run's defining theme of family - and how good people with good intentions can ultimately do monstrous things for the sake of those closest to them. Even when the episode ties into disturbing, controversial real-world events, and frames it in the twisted love story between Milner and Carvel, it only furthers our understanding of Milner's character and why she's been doing what she did over the course of the first series. Oddly enough, the more extreme she gets - committing to Janus' sterilisation of the world - the more human she feels to the audience.
So when the rest of the series returns to the modern day and the usual group of characters, that theme of family is sharper and more clearer than it ever has been. Arby's desire to get away from the maddening conspiracies and the Network with his new life and family despite the horrible things he did in the first series, Milner's growing sympathy for how messed up and lethal Jessica has become, the role of Ian McDairmid's Anton in the second half of the series with Jessica and Arby, and his revelation that Janus' vaccine will spare his own people, the Roma, from sterilisation - even the more literal scenes like Episode 4's shockingly violent cold open featuring a Network sleeper agent initiating the spread of Janus before ruthlessly wiping out his family and himself. Families are crucial to the core of Utopia, they're what drive all of the characters, and ultimately, the largely the fate of the world itself: Milner wants to solve the world's population crisis for the life she lost with Carvel. When he finally decides to choose the fate of the world, Carvel acts to save his own kind - a twisted aversion of the Holocaust that would see the group the Nazi's tried to wipe out be the only ones preserved from a Holocaust that would destroy the rest of humanity - to protect the family closest to him. Arby's declaration in the fourth episode that 'this is all about family' almost becomes Utopia's motto. Families are what drive us to do some of the darkest, most inhumane things, and that's something that Utopia puts a very keen focus on: But there's also an element of the love we have for them getting in the way (Milner's love for Carvel lead to her keeping him and his family alive, eventually laying the path for her own downfall for example). Utopia's belief that one of our best attributes, love, can also bring out some of our worst, and having seen what's happened to our characters, it's a belief you can understand.
But it also communicates something about the virality of an idea itself, mirrored by the literal virulent nature of Janus itself and the Russian flu engineered by the Network to spread Janus's sterilisation across the world. Utopia's first series merely revealed the Network's plan to control the world's future, but its second truly delves into it. The exploration of that idea, of limiting and controlling the world's population, the how and why of it, is shown as harmful and infectious across the series - The flashback first episode shows us the heartbreak behind Milner's relentless pursuit of attaining it, how it consumed her life with the sacrifice she made in the attempt to see it through. How Carvel himself was driven mad by the idea and his involvement with it in the past, and how it eventually 'infected' his children, Jessica and Arby, thrusting them into the Network's conspiracies, and the way it travels out from them and infects their friends - the idea that drew them all together in the Utopia Manuscript ultimate turns all of their lives upside down in the dark reality of the show's world. In the final episode, Wilson's transformation from one of the group into a true agent of the Network is complete - another example of the Network and Milner's idea being an infectious, corrupting influence on people - and in carrying out the plan to spread the Russian Flu across the world, tells another character that the best way to get Humanity to take the Janus-infected vaccine isn't with an actual virulent pandemic: it's with the idea of one, the fear of which would drive them into the Network's arms. The idea itself is a weapon that has mutated into something as deadly as a virus itself - a truly dark realisation that sits at the heart of what made watching Utopia such an engaging experience.
But ultimately Utopia's second series feels like it hardly pushed the story forward, an all the more tragic realisation in the light of its cancellation yesterday. The show dived further into its backstory and its characters than it ever had in the first season, but even with the temporary halting of the Network's overall plan in the finalé, the series largely ends up where it started, a few reset buttons hit for a third series that will now never materialise. Some things had moved on - the reunification of Carvel and his family, Wilson's transformation from 'hero' to murderer and thrall of the Network as well as the transformations of ancillary characters like Lee and Becky - but if anything, Series Two felt more like a pregnant pause in Kelly's plans for the show than some real progression, despite its willingness to dive into its own lore (and come out much richer and satisfying for it). There are questions that we'll never get answered, but the fact that Utopia could be barmy enough, could be daring enough to ask some of them in the first place, is why we loved it so much in the first place. Such striking, twisted Television will be truly missed.
Utopia aired on Channel 4 in the UK - a remake by David Fincher is due to air on HBO later next year.
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