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Major spoilers below for Utopia's early episodes, so be warned!
For her first official TV creation, best-selling novelist and screenwriter Gillian Flynn years ago took on an Americanized remake of the cult UK dramedy Utopia, which premiered recently on Amazon Prime Video. A kooky, fast-paced and unpredictable show that centers on a group of comic fanatics, Utopia made it very clear in its premiere that death would be a regularly occurring event throughout the series, thanks in large part to Christopher Denham's quietly sadistic killer Arby. Somehow, though, he wasn't responsible for arguably the most shocking death of the season.
In the second episode, Sasha Lane's mysterious character Jessica Hyde met the Nerds, including Jessica Rothe's Samantha, Ashleigh LaThrop's Becky, Desmin Borges' Wilson Wilson, and Dan Byrd's Ian. The formerly online-only friends, who had also just recently met each other in person, had long been following Jessica's story via the fictional Utopia comic book, which featured cryptic artwork and storylines that seemed to predict major medical outbreaks, pandemics and more. All the characters were attempting to secure pages from a new and unpublished, but Lane's Jessica proved just how serious she was about finding it by putting a bullet in Samantha's head and killing her.
CinemaBlend spoke with Gillian Flynn and the Utopia cast during a recent group of interviews with other entertainment outlets, and I asked the showrunner about the decision to kill off Samantha so soon, considering the Happy Death Day series' Jessica Rothe was one of the more well-known stars other than John Cusack and Rainn Wilson. Here's how Flynn explained it.
Samantha was a character that I created – she's not in the UK original – and I did it for couple reasons, some of which I'll be able to remember and some I probably won't be able to remember. I liked the idea of a character being suddenly shot and killed. I really like that idea of 'Welcome to this world.' Obviously, that's nothing new; I'm not taking credit for that. You know, you can go back to Psycho when you think of the person that you think that you're following, but you're not. But I still liked it, and I did like that it was the person that you think might be the leader. We should have a drinking game for the number of times someone refers to Sam as the leader. [Laughs.] You know, 'Sam knows the most.' Because I wanted her to feel that way.
Gillian Flynn also dropped the reminder that she'd first started developing her version of Utopia back in 2013, the same year that the UK version was released. At that time, she was teaming with Gone Girl director David Fincher once again, and the series was set for HBO, but obviously a lot happened to change that plan in the meantime. But even though it took as long as it did for Flynn's Utopia to debut, it didn't really dilute the feeling of utter shock when Jessica Hyde killed Samantha, after the latter had just talked Ian down from angering Jessica and possibly getting himself killed. That moment itself fed into the notion that Samantha was considered a group leader of sorts, which is precisely why Jessica wanted her out of the picture.
Even beyond those kind of narrative conceits, Gillian Flynn also wanted to buck viewer expectations when it comes to the kinds of actors and actresses that are expected to survive genre projects like this. In her words:
I also really liked the idea of casting a blonde-haired, blue-eyed actress, and Jessica Rothe was totally in on this and great about it as the person that we've been trained to think is going to be the one to watch for, and having Sasha Lane kill her, sort of like 'Welcome to the new world order, bitch.' I appreciated that reversal of that, and that it would be sort of shocking. Sasha did such a great pivot there where I don't even think you see it coming, the way she does it. So I did like that. I like that a new heroine is in town, and she doesn't look like the girls from the '80s.
Considering Jessica Rothe was indeed the central lead in the Happy Death Day films, fans of that film likely went into Utopia fully believing Rothe's Samantha would be around for all eight episodes. Such is the power of horror movie tropes and stereotypes getting reinforced for years on end. (That said, I'm still fully down for Happy Death Day 3 happening.)
I also asked Jessica Rothe about her character's shortened arc on Utopia, as well as how she got involved, knowing that it wasn't a full-time gig. In her words:
You know, the moment a Gillian Flynn project comes across your desk you say yes, no matter what. I was such a huge fan of hers from Gone Girl, from Sharp Objects, from her work as a novelist. And when I read the script, and read the first two episodes and saw Sam's short-but-fiery presence in the show, I just knew I had to be a part of it. I think it's such a rare and unique opportunity both to portray such a strong female character who knows what she wants and isn't afraid to go after it and is so fiercely intelligent and unapologetic in her desires and her dreams. It was such a joy to jump into that space. And not only that, but I got to work on a show with such an incredible lead character in Jessica Hyde, and such a fierce, brilliant showrunner in Gillian Flynn. Of course, I wish I could have stayed around a little longer, because I think this is one of the most talented and unique casts and crew that I've ever encountered, and everyone brought their A-game every day. But I do actually think, in a funny way, Sam fulfilled her destiny. I do think that, although tragic what happens to her, it helps fuel the Nerds on their quest to save the world. And at the end of the day, that was her sole focus. So you know what, she'd probably be like, 'Fuck yeah.'
All eight episodes of the uncomfortably timely Utopia are available to stream in full on Amazon Prime Video, with no word yet about a possible second season. Stay tuned to CinemaBlend for more from those interviews, and be sure to keep up to date with our Fall TV 2020 premiere schedule to see what new and returning shows are still on the way.