This interview includes spoilers for the first season of “Utopia.”
The world of the zeitgeisty Amazon Prime thriller “Utopia” is dauntingly complex. Adapted from a 2013 British show by the same name, the series centers on a wild conspiracy theory about viral epidemics — or not so wild, as it turns out, because the theory proves to be true.
This revelation, and much else, has been coded into mysterious comic books (“Dystopia” and its sequel “Utopia”), whose most obsessed readers eventually learn that the epidemic has been engineered, the media and the government have been manipulated and shadowy forces are promoting a worthless vaccine. In short, the end of the world is nigh.
Near the end of the show’s first season, released in late September, the biotech chief executive Dr. Kevin Christie (John Cusack), who created the bogus vaccine and is also a secret human trafficker, finally reveals his master plan: His vaccine is designed to make people infertile in order to radically reduce the world’s population. In Christie’s view, humans are the real virus, wiping out other creatures, and he’s convincing enough to make one of the show’s crusading characters join his mad cult.
The show’s resemblance to our own very real pandemic was accidental, but it lends it an uneasy verisimilitude, inspiring a few critics to lament what felt like a validation of anti-vaccine crankdom in the era of QAnon. Could that be irresponsible? Even dangerous?
“I think it is a Rorschach test, you know?” said the creator and showrunner Gillian Flynn. “It’s a show designed to let you find what you want from it, and have different points of view, which is exactly where we are right now.”
In a phone interview, Flynn sifted through some of the show’s mysteries, revealed a few meaningful clues and Easter eggs, and discussed the show’s debated ideology. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
One of the things that distinguishes your “Utopia” from the British version is that we actually see the “Utopia” comic book here. Did you have artist João Ruas embed other clues within it beyond the ones the characters find, such as the Christie Labs logo that implicates Kevin Christie?
I felt strongly about seeing the comic book. I wanted people to know why the characters were obsessed with the comic, both because of the secret clues hidden within it and also the beauty of it. I got the wonderful João Ruas to do the art. I discovered him through Bill Willingham’s “Fables.” I was looking for something that was like Arthur Rackham on acid, with a Henry Darger vibe, and that was João. He specializes in creepy children, haunted animals and nasty situations.
For some images, I was vague: “I want to see people doing something shocking.” For the images I really wanted people to look at, I would describe it exactly. When we see the Blue Fairy and Jessica work on a puzzle in the comic, it’s an incomplete puzzle of the depopulation virus that Alice pieces together later. You can freeze the images and look at them more closely.
It might also be worth freezing the conspiracy wall Wilson Wilson (Desmin Borges) constructed. Among other things, he has a Post-it note reminding him to “call Dennis K,” meaning Dennis Kelly, the creator of the original series?
Exactly. He’s got all the answers. You know when Wilson and Christie make a connection about all the animals becoming wiped out, except the ones that are cute? Christie says, “Never in history has a creature been begging for extinction more than the panda.” Well, if you look closely at Wilson’s wall, there is a big picture of a panda, and he’s written on its forehead: “I suck.”
Do you see a QAnon quality to the show’s conspiracy?
Absolutely. The weird thing is, I started writing this in 2013. I was intrigued by the rise of conspiracies at that time — and it’s only become more so — but I wrote it before I knew about QAnon. Certainly there is that idea that if you look hard enough, and if you want it bad enough, you have the ability to convince yourself of anything. We’re in this weird place where truth has become malleable. Even science has become debatable, which is very frightening. It puts us in a position where we are easy to manipulate.
He’s definitely winking at it, if not coming straight out and embracing it. I’m looking right now at an issue of The Atlantic, and the cover story is how QAnon is warping reality and discrediting science. I think it’s easy to get wrapped up in conspiracies, because there is sort of an interesting intellectual factor where doubting makes you feel cynical. It’s easier to cross your arms and go, “Oh, but there’s more to this.”
I just watched “The Social Dilemma,” which is eye-opening about how metrics can control what you’re watching, what you’re getting and how it’s helping to feed conspiracy. It’s frightening. You can spend your day reinforcing almost anything. “Climate change is not real.” “The moon landing’s not real.” If I had written a story line that said powerful Democrats were running a secret child sex ring from a pizza parlor — PizzaGate — I would be laughed out of the business. It would be like, “That’s the most ridiculous story line!” But there it is.
Some critics have taken issue with what they see as the show’s underlying ideology, interpreting it to be on the side of anti-vaccine groups and pandemic skeptics because it makes conspiracy theorists the heroes. But you could also say the show exposes how indoctrination works.
I wanted to play it both ways. That was a deliberate choice. I understand how conspiracies are born, and how you can find your own truth that pleases you. I also wanted to acknowledge the fact that we do live in a world where people are really trying to convince each other of incredibly odd ideas, and if you get enough followers, they can become “real.” And we do live in a world where Watergate happened. We do have this proof that the people who are supposed to be in charge of us are not trustworthy. So I wanted to acknowledge both those sides of it.
I did have moments where I kind of had a stomach lurch, especially as the anti-vaxxer movement gained steam, and here I was writing a story where there is something bad with a vaccine. Obviously, it’s because of a bad human being who is clearly out of his mind, as far as his zealotry. If people watching this show take medical advice from John Cusack, something’s gone horribly wrong. Don’t do that. This is fiction. John and I had lots of conversations about what the vibe of Dr. Christie had, and I always said, “He’s kind of like Bill Gates.” And then there was a Bill Gates conspiracy theory that he was deliberately spreading a disease so that he could profit off it. That was unsettling.
How much of what’s happened in the real world is going to shape how you treat Season 2, if there is a Season 2?
It’s not going to continue with the same story line about the vaccine and depopulation. I don’t want it to be the vaccine show, you know? It’ll go in a different direction. Season 2 of “The Boys” is probably the most brilliant Season 2 I’ve ever seen. You think it’s going to be about Compound V, and then they just smash it all and move on. That was daring and smart.
I thought that flashback in Season 2 of the U.K. “Utopia” was brilliant. I’ve always been a big back-story writer. The audience will follow you through far-out plotlines — like Amy killing Desi and framing Nick in “Gone Girl” — if you have a plan. So I spent months on everyone’s back story, especially the Christie-Milner-Dad triumvirate — how they met, how they started hatching this idea, how they could afford to do it. I am planning an episode where you spend the entire time back in the 1980s, as they were figuring this all out. I’d rather see it in action than expository the hell out of it.
Originally, we also had in the script that Jessica would burn down Home, sort of in the symbolic “you can never go home again.” But as I was writing the back story of Home, I realized I wanted to see in action how Home works, what Home feels like. So that is also something we’ll play with in Season 2.
You make three cameo appearances. One of them is almost immediately following a shot of the “Gone Girl: The Musical” marquee.
They weren’t all entirely planned. My daughter is the little girl staring down Grant on the subway [in Episode 5], but she wouldn’t do the scene unless she could sit on my lap, so I’m the sleepy mom there. And I’m the bitchy woman checking in at the hotel, wearing a T-shirt for the petting zoo, right before Grant goes to pull his trick to get into the penthouse [in Episode 1]. And in my cameo with Rainn Wilson, I’m the waitress giving him some extra whipped cream [in Episode 4]. If you look closely, you’ll see the Christie Labs logo on one of my fingernails. You can also see menus with the name of the diner, Gilly’s, my nickname. We had a whole delightful back story for Gilly. I don’t know if that’s an Easter egg, or megalomania!