For those anticipating the new series of Utopia, Monday’s opener may have come as an initial disappointment. While fans were itching to discover the fates of our protagonists, instead the season began with an unnerving step back in time. Without a single lead character, and complicating the plot further in an already complex storyline, it was a risky move; but then what do you expect from a program characterised by subverting expectations?
With so much riding on the opener, it was an accomplished touch to create something new. It’s 1974 and the sinister events of the first series are put in motion. A young Milner (Rose ‘You know nothing Jon Snow’ Leslie) meets Philip Carvel, a name which hung over the first series like a fog, but whose long-awaited appearance doesn’t reveal him as the bogeyman you expected. The terrifying intention of The Network, to halt mankind’s ability to procreate, always had a sickening logic to it, but here at the beginning it’s also given a heart.
Tom Burke as Carvel gives a disturbingly tender side to this rabbit-mutilating, mad scientist with a taste for ethnic cleansing and experimenting on his own children. Yet it is Leslie who is truly remarkable as the big, bad wolf before it grew fangs. The lengths Milner goes to for the sake of their work are increasingly brutal, but Leslie makes it heart-breaking. ‘Have you ever been in a genocide?’ Milner asks Carvel, with a flash of rarely-seen vulnerability, ‘Because I have.’ And there is her entire reasoning. Don’t destroy mankind, “humanely” prevent it from destroying itself any further. She’s hardened, cold and cruel, but Leslie’s performance is not the typical Machiavellian Ice Queen. She brings a desperation and a depth of emotion to this unpleasant character which is ultimately very unsettling.
If you, like many others, turned away and switched off at the torture scene in series one, get the remote ready once again. The violence is brutal and uncompromising, but this is no Hollywood gore-fest where blood and death are fetishised, even sexualised. What the show does is make violence something mundane, unglamorous, and even necessary. But it is for this reason that every act of brutality is deeply felt, shocking in its inevitability.
The second episode picks up where the first series left off, and drags in comparison to the first. Alexandra Roach as Becky is still a highlight, giving a fury and humour to lines which would shrivel in the mouth of a lesser actor. Neil Maskell’s Arby is back, his fascinating and studied performance lifting the entire show into a different league. But then you have Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and Grant (Oliver Woolford). Stewart-Jarrett struggles to find anything interesting to do with Ian. Is he supposed to be the “normal” one, someone with whom the audience can identify? But in the world of Utopia, normal is out the window. Grant, as an angry little boy in series one, was annoying but his youth kept him endearing, but then he’s not a little boy anymore.
Utopia is still a fully accomplished show, going places others can’t and won’t, and it’s this which is going to keep the audience guessing, gawping, and hiding behind their fingers in anticipation.