This contains spoilers for Season 1 of Utopia. Not caught up? See our spoiler-free review here.
“Hello, I’m Ross. I’ll be your new interrogator.”
That’s the way all characters seem to introduce themselves in Utopia; a violent threat under a veneer of civilised manners. That’s where Dennis Kelly’s far-from-idealised world exists; on a knife edge between the sunny yellow prison bars of etiquette and the scarlet puddles of hostility locked inside.
Of course, by now, we need no guided tour of the place; if you hadn’t seen Season 1 already, yesterday’s opening episode gave you all the backstory you need to follow events. It’s telling that this second part comes with the standard “Previously on…” introduction – a sign, perhaps, of how standalone the opener was, a prologue more than an essential numerical chapter.
It will be interesting to see if we jump back there at a later date. Now, we race forwards in the present, catching up with our conspiracy busters from last season. The mystery of Janus might be solved, but it turns out that another question is enough to keep us hooked: not “What now?” but “Who next?”
As has always been the case, the tension in Utopia stems from which side of Kelly’s knife each person will fall; the tease of a bad guy turning good or the blow of a fugitive giving in to cold logic. There are those still trapped on the blade, such as Michael Dugdale, who is muscled into carrying out civil duties as the government drives its plan to spread the Janus protein through the population. Seemingly unstoppable, they swiftly bail out the pharma company and recruit celebrities for a marketing campaign.
These kind of touches are what keep Utopia’s vivid alternative universe queasily believable. It continues to captivate with dazzling colours and eerie architecture – jails are disembodied, reflective pyramids, where clouds sheer off into sugar paper blue backdrops, while Whitehall offices are Gothic wooden-panelled cells of authoritarian fear – but never feels unreal. It’s a disturbing cocktail of gruesome fantasy and grim satire; Alan Moore meets Chris Morris.
Brass Eye alumnus Kevin Eldon even makes an appearance as a boffin who, like everyone else, somehow gets caught up in events, much to their bewilderment. “I’m a respected scientist!” he cries as the cover-up barges through his front door, scraping away that genteel British surface covering the garish violence beneath.
Familiar faces return too, from Oliver Woollford’s grown-up Grant to the terminally bored Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), who is still hung up over Becky. As he tries to track down Alexandra Roach’s wonderfully mouthy Welshy, we’re reminded of the strong will of Milner (Geraldine James, given an added steely presence after yesterday’s expository flashback) and the even stronger will of Jessica Hyde (Fiona O’Shaughnessy), who spends her days gazing out of the window menacingly.
Director Marc Munden and Editor Luke Dunkley string together this catch-up at breakneck pace, a gripping dash after last week’s langouring period detail. There’s barely even time to register Ian McDiarmid in the background.
It is the slow Neil Maskell, though, who once again steals the show. The troubled Arby is still carrying his bag of tricks, but now he sports a beard, which gives his staring, sniffing face a newfound warm and fuzzy edge; one that Dennis Kelly’s script milks for maximum dark humour. Arby has come a long way from Episode 1’s bunny-killing torture, but still finds himself facing a bright figure from the past. Season 1 saw Maskell creep up and down Utopia’s line between polite and nasty; sympathy and psychopath. Season 2’s shock comes from the discovery that he has now planted his feet firmly one one side. What will it mean for those on the other, or those still squirming in the middle?
For one person, there is no question: Fiona O’Shaughnessy’s Jessica remains the most volatile – yet clear-minded – of the cast. She’s had years of practice at balancing civil and savage and wastes no time in turning the most innocent of objects into a coiled spring, ready to act. What she will do next you can’t bear to watch – and can’t wait to see. Oh yes, Utopia’s knife edge is as sharp as ever.
Utopia is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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