This contains spoilers for Season 1 of Utopia. Not caught up? See our spoiler-free review here.
How do you follow the first season of a conspiracy thriller?
That’s the problem facing Dennis Kelly. Season 1 decoded Utopia’s central puzzle: it was all a <spoiler> hunt to find the Janus virus designed by The Network to sterilise 90 per cent of the human race and save the other 5 per cent from extinction due to overpopulation. A grim problem given an even grimmer solution. The comic book? A dud to reel in Jessica Hyde, the daughter of the man who made the virus and, even grimmer still, hid it inside her.</spoiler>
Season 2 of the show needs to offer something new to returning fans but also avoid alienating those who have never seen it before. Utopia comes up with an elegant – and, aptly, logical – answer, by telling us what we already know, but in an unfamiliar way.
We find ourselves back in the 1970s, where we meet Philip Carvel, a boisterous young scientist fond of proclaiming mankind’s impending demise and even fonder of his assistant, Milner. If the first season of Utopia let its moral conundrum creep up underneath your feet with a sickening common sense, this opening chapter tackles it straight on, debating the ethics of the Janus virus in heated conversations inside secret drinking clubs.
Tom Burke is superb as bearded boffin Carvel, at once excited and conflicted by his discovery – and even more so by his assistant, Milner. Rose Leslie (of “You know nothing” fame) follows her turn in Game of Thrones with another superb one here, proving an alarming, alluring and amorally ruthless addition to the cast; the young agent not only believes that she can create a utopia but also that she will. Having already seen what Milner goes on to create, her screen presence is disquietingly powerful.
Of course, filling in the backstory of a mystery risks ruining it altogether. Kelly, though, is careful to keep things vague away from the central conspiracy, offering insights into Arby and Jessica’s childhoods without spelling out their emotional information. Bunny rabbits, nosy members of the press, romantic liaisons all come and go but this is as much an exercise in atmosphere as it is about plot.
Cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland returns alongside director Marc Munden, immediately recapturing the sickly yellow groove of this comic book world; a reality that feels heightened rather than cartoonish. As that violent shade of claret splatters over the lens once more – and we are paid a visit by the nicest torturer ever to grace UK TV screens – Utopia reminds us that it has lost none of power to shock or surprise. Despite treading over old ground, this is television that manages to be both graphic and novel. The script’s blunt dialogue (you’ll be using the phrase “brain love” for years) and blunter displays of brutality feel squirmingly fresh. By the time we end up somewhere recognisable, Kelly achieves a rare state of anti-de ja vu; we’ve been here before, but it all feels different.
A recap and a reboot in a single, nasty package, Episode 1 is at once a sneaky cop-out and a smart start to a second season that brings first-timers up to speed and gives veterans a renewed understanding of what Jessica Hyde and co will be up against in 30 years’ time. Both audiences are left asking the same question: what happens next?
How do you follow the first season of a conspiracy thriller? By creating another one that looks like it could be even better.
Utopia is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
Where can I watch Utopia online on pay-per-view VOD?