BBC’s Better Ending Explained: Did Lou Escape the McHugh Gang?

BBC drama Better kept us guessing – but did Lou end up betraying Col? What happened to Vernon, Esther, Owen and Noel? And how did Col’s daughter really die? (Warning: spoilers!)

Laila Farzad and Andrew Buchan in BBC drama Better
Photo: BBC

WARNING: contains major plot spoilers for BBC drama Better

Better may have at first seemed like just an excuse for Leila Farzad (I Hate Suzie) and Andrew Buchan (Broadchurch) to test out their best regional accents, but what starts as a disappointingly slow crime thriller grows into a gripping and at times moving exploration of whether a true friendship can survive when you end up on opposite sides of the moral spectrum.

Set in Leeds and West Yorkshire, the five-part BBC drama follows DI Lou Slack (Farzad) on her quest for redemption when – after almost losing her teenage son Owen – she reevaluates her life of corruption. 

For two decades Slack’s been a bent copper (Hastings would have a field day with her on Line of Duty), nurturing a mutually beneficial relationship with the head of Leeds’ criminal underworld, Col McHugh (Buchan), who has become one of her closest friends. Better sees Lou very messily attempt to extricate herself from the McHugh gang without putting her family at risk, while also trying to right her many wrongs, and decide if she can take her friend’s empire down with her. Lots to unpack, and many spoilers ahead…

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Did Lou Slack Finally Take Down Col McHugh?

Essentially, no – she just convinced him to do it for her. In their final stand-off, in which at one point they both hold a gun to each other’s head, he realises his life and criminal empire have no meaning since his daughter’s death. With no way forward for either of them – Col doesn’t want to continue being a gang leader, Lou knows her conscience demands she must confess to all of her police corruption – Lou very easily convinces Col to turn himself in with her.

They drive to the police station together at dawn and, in an exceptionally clever use of anti-climax, there’s no-one on reception, so these two titans of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ end up having to sit in the waiting area until a police officer comes on duty. The sight of them looking up as a door opens is the final shot of the series.

How Did Lou and Col’s Relationship Begin?

20 years ago, Lou was a struggling new police officer, and Col became an informant on a case she was working on. He gave her an important win, kick-starting her career, and in return she agreed to turn a blind eye to his crimes as long as he gave her important intel on worse criminals in exchange. In DI Slack’s eyes, she was still a good cop because she was doing good police work with the information Col gave her.

They grew close over the years, and then when Lou’s husband’s business went bust, Col gave him a share in the building merchant he laundered money through to set him up with an income. That only got Lou even more embroiled in the McHugh gang’s criminal activities.

Why Did Lou End Her Years of Corruption?

In episode one, Lou’s teenage son Owen (Zak Ford-Williams) nearly dies when he contracts meningitis, and as she waits by his bedside Lou begs him to survive. When he makes it through (albeit with severe physical disabilities) she realises she has to repay the universe by ending her involvement with the McHugh gang, making things right, and living a better life.

What Was the McHugh Task Force Investigating?

The police investigation aiming to take McHugh down had three main strands. The first is the gang’s cannabis farms, but McHugh cottons onto their investigation and clears them out before they can get any solid evidence. The second is the arrest of gang member Noel (Kaya Moore), who ends up in prison for armed robbery, but refuses to turn on Col McHugh (we don’t blame him). The last is Thomas Ajazi, a drug dealer found dead in a pub, who we later learn was killed by Col’s boys for dealing gear in McHugh territory. All three investigations end up leading absolutely nowhere, proving task forces are as useless as they sound.

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What Was the Deal with the Maliks Gang and the Drugs War?

McHugh wanted to continue expanding his drug empire, but his supplier wouldn’t increase their shipment, so he looked for an extra source to sell him cocaine. This led him to Jimmy Erskine, who supplied the rival Malik gang in neighbouring Bradford, and when a deal was arranged between McHugh and Erskine Lou bribed a police informant to tip off detectives about the exchange. That cheeky scamp of an informant pocketed the cash and told the Maliks instead, allowing them to intercept the drug drop-off and give the poor unsuspecting McHugh gang members a right battering, which made Col want to start a drugs war in revenge. Lou realised it was going to be her fault if someone gets killed, so instead she convinced Col to let her plant drugs in the Maliks’ car, taking them off the streets and allowing him to expand into the Bradford drug scene. Win win.

What Happened Between Owen and Donal/James?

When Col began to suspect Lou’s allegiance had changed, he planted his son Donal in Owen’s support group, and they struck up a friendship so Donal (who is known to Owen as James) could extract information from him about what his mum might be up to. Donal kept out of sight of Owen’s parents, knowing they would recognise him.

Although Donal fulfilled his Dad’s wishes – and Owen told him that his parents had been fighting about whether to ‘stab their friend in the back’ was what convinced Col that Lou had turned on him – the boys’ friendship clearly became real as they spent more time together. Col instructed Donal to take Owen to a remote lake while he confronted Lou (effectively taking him hostage without him realising it), and if she didn’t cooperate, Donal was instructed to drown Owen in the lake. 

While they waited, Owen kissed Donal, who politely declined his advances – it’s actually a very sweet moment, so it’s a good job Donal then received word that he didn’t have to kill Owen after all. He took him home unharmed, but Owen’s dad spotted Donal and gave him a good kicking for taking advantage of his son. 

After this, there was no need for Donal to spy on Owen, and he’d been scared off anyway, so he didn’t return to the support group, leaving Owen confused and sad about why his friend had suddenly disappeared.

Who Was Vernon, and What Happened to Him in Prison?

Played brilliantly by Game of Thrones’ Anton Lesser, Vernon is a disgraced, corrupt ex-copper who only escaped prison by making a deal with police, but lost his career and family in the process – a sort of ‘ghost of Christmas future’ for Lou. He also worked with Lou’s dad, a former detective, and shows her that her idolised view of him wasn’t particularly accurate, and he was actually a bit of a vain tosser who took credit for other people’s work.

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Vernon helped Lou form a plan to take down McHugh (finding her the informant to report the Jimmy Erskine drug deal to the police), which ultimately didn’t work. Then, when Col found out about Lou, his henchman Bulgey hunted her down at Vernon’s house, and tried to kill her. Vernon shot the henchman dead, sent Lou away and burned his house down, taking the blame for Bulgey’s death (in quite some considerable style) to save Lou from having her corruption exposed. 

In prison, the McHughs took their revenge, convincing their imprisoned former gang member Noel to shank him, and poor Vernon died before the medics even arrived.

Where Do Owen and Lou’s husband Ceri End Up?

Ceri realised Lou can’t rest until she takes McHugh down, even though it puts their lives at risk, so he took Owen to stay with his parents until the coast was clear. 

Did Esther Return to Policing?

It doesn’t look like it. After discovering her policing idol DI Slack is as bent as a two bob note, she ended up going off on long-term leave, saying she no longer believes she can make a positive difference in policing. Lou tried to convince her to come back, saying she would quit the force in return, but Esther was having none of it – the knowledge of Lou’s corruption alone was enough to destroy her faith in her beloved detective career for good.

Did Noel Have a Happy Ending?

It was never going to end well for Noel, was it? The lad was a liability. Lou told him to keep his nose clean in prison so he would be released before he’s 30, and to start with things are looking up – he takes some educational courses in prison, and even stays off drugs. But when Lou brought Gwen from the Yorkshire Resettlement Programme to visit him and talk about how she could support him in finding a job and a home when he’s released, he refused her help, stating his intention to return to the McHugh gang. 

Ultimately, he got his wish, after he was instructed to shank poor Vernon to death as revenge for Bulgey’s death. Noel being Noel, he got caught immediately, which somewhat minimised the likelihood of him being released from prison… well, ever.

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And What About Noel’s Cousin Jade?

Poor Jade. All she wanted to do was deliver a kebab to her cousin Noel, but while she’s there, his safe house got raided by the police and he took her hostage. 

Then Lou blamed her for leaking the safe house location to the cops, which prompted a visit from McHugh’s henchmen, who torture her to confirm she definitely didn’t betray Noel. 

She ended up left for dead, but Lou found her and took her to hospital. When Lou questioned her about who hurt her, she’s too scared to talk – we don’t hear from her again.

What Really Happened to Col’s Daughter?

Col’s daughter Aoife died by suicide using drugs from her father’s empire. While she and Col had initially been very close, and he’d wanted her to take over the business one day, she had started seeing his criminal activity for what it was. Col tried to convince her to follow in his footsteps, increasingly pressuring her, which drove her to drugs, and her eventual overdose.

We discover it was actually Col who found her, coming home after receiving alarming text messages from her, and discovering her dead on her bed. Next to her was a note, which apologised to her mum and brother, but tells her Dad ‘Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you’. Ashamed, he fled the house with the note, and called Lou to ask her to check on Aoife, pretending that he hadn’t already been there. This led Lou to think she’s the one who discovered Aoife dead, until he confessed what really happened in the final scene.

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