In Amazon’s ‘Utopia,’ Gillian Flynn Taps Into Contemporary Paranoia
Master of the modern, rug-pulling thrillers Gillian Flynn has delivered a show about conspiracy theories and pandemics. You cannot skim through it or start half-way through, like the most absorbing bits of paranoia we find online, the show functions as a rabbit hole. Flynn, having been a critic before an acclaimed novelist and screenwriter, has always been tapped directly into the vein of American culture. Now she holds up a mirror image, designed as a semi-comic book thriller, but casting an eerily familiar reflection.
It opens innocently enough with a young couple rummaging through an old house and finding a comic book. But it’s not just any comic. It is “Utopia,” the long-awaited sequel to “Dystopia,” a comic with a massive cult following whose most fervent fans believe holds hidden codes. Past pandemics and coming new ones are said to be encoded into its illustrations. Realizing they have something of rare value, the couple decides to auction their discovery at a Comic-Con-style convention. Now we are introduced to the real “heroes” of this whole saga: Ian (Dan Byrd), Wilson (Desmin Borges), Samantha (Jessica Rothe) and Becky (Ashleigh LaThrop). These Chicagoans have all met online and share an obsession with the hidden messages they believe are in “Dystopia.” Now they want to band together to purchase the sequel. But it all gets turned upside down when first the comic is sold to a big baller and then gets stolen by a kid named Grant (Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton). It then gets even more dangerous when two hitmen, Arby (Christopher Denham) and Rod (Michael B. Woods), begin killing anyone who has seen “Utopia.” Also involved somehow in all this is Dr. Kevin Christie (John Cusack), a magnate also seeking the fabled comic. For the foursome trying to evade these dangers, their own lives are drawn further into this maze by the appearance of Jessice Hyde (Sasha Lane), who claims to be the real inspiration behind the comic book’s central character.
“Utopia” is not a comic book series. It is a show only on the surface about comic book culture. Flynn based the concept on a British Channel 4 series of the same name by Dennis Kelly, and transforms it into an adrenaline-heavy parable about American paranoia. If you were to combine QAnon disciples with Comic-Con obsessives, you would get the characters of this show. In the same way Flynn’s “Gone Girl” captured the middle class generation impacted by the Great Recession with Hitchcockian edge, “Utopia” weaves a thriller out of a culture enamored with superheroes and conspiracies. Don’t even try to decipher the whole thing with the first, second, third, or even fourth episode, what matters is the very tone of these people. Flynn vividly captures the contemporary paranoiac. Wilson, Samantha and Becky in particular are zealous to the point of insanity, pouring over every comic book panel, managing to snap a picture of a “Utopia” page and examine every illustrated raindrop. Ian seems to be tagging along because these are his friends and he likes Becky. At times he seems to feel like those of us who’ve had friends convinced the pyramid in the dollar bill harbors a secret code, or that Jay-Z is aligned with the Illuminati. There is a moment of brilliant irony when Samantha snaps at some convention cosplayers, mocking them for taking cartoons so seriously, while missing the urgent, hidden messages in the drawings. Some of the wildest conspiracy theories have an understandable attraction for their followers. They fill a void in our demand for answers in a world going crazy. “Utopia” gets this.
Flynn is working on all cylinders here, grabbing wherever she can from any and all headlines. A strange flu begins to spread around the country, leaving a T-shaped mark on victims’ foreheads. Of course there must be a clue about in “Utopia,” it’s right there in front of you if you just look. John Cusack’s arrogant Dr. Christie is manufacturing artificial meat to serve at schools, hoping it is the wave of the future, but he also wants “Utopia” because of his own nefarious schemes involving…a vaccine! Flynn is having so much fun (she wrote every episode) that we sense the energy in every monologue. There is great suspense in the whole plot line involving Jessica Hyde, who is searching for her father, and claims to be the inspiration for the girl in every “Dystopia” comic. But the real tension is in wondering just how much of any of this is true. Is the group really onto something? Or is it all delusion?
There’s much gruesome action as well in “Utopia.” Flynn has a knack for capturing darkness with startling effect, whether it’s in a serious character study like “Sharp Objects,” or criminal thrills in “Widows.” Even when dealing with comic book nerds, we still get plenty of bloody shootings and at least one eyeball being scooped out. Yet it’s also hard to stop watching. The comic book panels of “Utopia” itself are alluring, with their images of a “Bunny Man” and odd, surrealistic visions of an apocalyptic storyline that barely gets explained. As with many conspiracy theories, the source itself, whether a song or picture, gets lost in the haze of all the ulterior connections attributed to it. In this sense it is also a lite jab at our ongoing elevation of comic book characters to religious status. “Utopia” profiles with satirical charm those Marvel fanatics who discuss Iron Man or Wakanda with the same focus political scientists are debating the Syrian war.
Some critics are wondering if “Utopia” should have still been released in this season of high political tensions and an upcoming election already putting many on a paranoid edge. Tune in at your own discretion, but it’s a devilishly fun time. Maybe we need shows like this right now. They help us have a more sobered view of our current state. Besides, whether today or 20 years from now, humans never lose their suspicions that there’s always more than meets the eye.
“Utopia” season one begins streaming Sept. 25 on Amazon Prime Video.