Max McCall is a bad brother, a worse friend, and a great TV character. That’s half down to Mark Bonnar’s exceptional performance as the disbarred lawyer who’d sell his granny for a rung back up the ladder he slid down in series one, and half down to creator Neil Forsyth’s writing.
Guilt’s scripts are beauties; they tell their twisting thriller story about crime, class and family without cliché or predictability. They’re funny and political, because so are people, and they’re universal because they have a pin-sharp sense of place. You don’t need to be from Leith or Edinburgh for its us-and-them rivalry to resonate, or to get the baked-in meaning of local boundaries and kinships, or see why it’s a punchline for a character to have moved to Dundee (“Could be worse, could be Glasgow”).
Anybody can also understand how wealth might be an expressway out of poverty and powerlessness, but how, in the UK at least, nobody’s ever allowed to forget where they came from.
Two compact four-part series have aired so far, and this final run concludes the tightly plotted trilogy. The first told the story of estranged brothers Max and Jake – one cast in titanium the other woven from hemp – covering-up an accidental hit-and-run. Corrupt lawyer Max trod over anybody, Jake included, to try to keep hold of what he had but ended up with a kind of divine punishment for his sins. Max emerged in series two dead-set on revenge and got it too, against Leith crime family Roy and Maggie Lynch, the latter of whom is now lying in wait for his return to Scotland.
Series three brings the McCalls back home and straight into the fray. Hit-men, drug dealers, kidnappings, an international bank takeover and a ticking clock all combine into the perfect goodbye. There’s all the action and surprise of the previous two series, with a little more political kicking against the pricks, and a little more heart.
That’s the thing about Max McCall. Bonnar occasionally lets us glimpse – only glimpse, mind – the molten centre of that hard shell. Max isn’t just an enjoyably ruthless operator with a fast mouth and a plan for every occasion, he’s also a boy abandoned. Series three delves into the McCall family past in a way that’s characteristically satisfying and emotional without being overplayed.
Outlander and Game of Thrones’ Jamie Sives has a major hand in that as Jake, the McCall brother who didn’t close down emotionally and become a capitalist Terminator. Sives brings a gentleness, warmth and natural comedy to Jake that wraps around the whole cast like a blanket. His mellow music-obsessive is not a traditional thriller character, so automatically creates the kind of Fargo/Coen Brothers humour for which Guilt is known and celebrated. Sives is far from the only one. Emun Elliott as Kenny, Greg McHugh as Teddy, Phyllis Logan as Maggie Lynch… there’s not a weak link in the cast.
Without being a comedy, Guilt has funny, down-to-earth touches that comedically undermine the intensity of its thriller plot. A kidnap victim wakes up to the offer of a Lorne sausage roll (always local, these references), a mark is distracted not by smooth seduction but hapless burbling about aubergines, a dangerous ex-con seeks Zen and mindfulness, a gun is pulled on a gang of drug dealers by someone wearing the giant head of a cartoon cat. It’s colourful and never bland.
The plotting in series three is as masterful as ever – a great web of stories that tie up into one big heist structure and deliver a constant supply of surprises and cliff-hangers. Everybody has a plan, everybody has an angle, nobody knows who to trust, and it all comes together like a well-choreographed dance.
It’s a satisfying exit that commits to its major themes. That’s still guilt, obviously, but also now the possibility of redemption. Characters aren’t only seeking an escape this time around, some (not all) are trying to do what’s right. There’s also a righteous message that makes sense from the writer of The Gold, about self-serving crooks in expensive suits whose financial crimes cause far more widespread pain than those of the small-time hoods they look down on.
These last four episodes play out in dramatic settings, with powerful staging from Happy Valley director Patrick Harkins and team, giving the story a sense of scale and import to match the size of its monologues. Vast industrial settings, a stately bank, a Leith estate, the city streets, a Lochside cottage… everywhere looks big, scary and beautiful as a fitting backdrop to this extremely well told story. In Guilt, you see it all.
Guilt Series 3 is available now in full on BBC iPlayer and airs weekly on BBC Scotland and BBC Two.