The Long Song episode 3 review: a skilful blend of comedy, tragedy and history

The Long Song shines a light on our country's imperial past while telling poignant human stories. Spoilers ahead in our finale review...

This review contains spoilers.

As Robert Goodwin’s (Jack Lowden) already tenuous grip on the now-freed Amity slaves loosens, July (Tamara Lawrance) finds herself caught between two worlds, that of her lover and that of her plantation colleagues. The dispute over Christmas working escalates into strikes and violence as the new Jamaican liberty of the present clashes with the imperial system of the past. Though now illegal, the institution of slavery still lingers on the island and that prejudice threatens July’s happiness.

In the previous two episodes, the little acts of rebellion that are used against the Amity workers’ masters have threaded through the narrative. In its final hour, it seems only right that The Long Song brings outright defiance to the forefront of July’s story. The 1831 riots were glimpsed in the background, but this is the first time violence is properly seen at Amity. The mounting tension in the confrontation between Goodwin and James is palpable, so much so that when James utters “no,” it feels like an exhalation. As the narration says, it is one word, three hundred years coming. It’s a triumphant moment, but it is also a breaking point.

Mahalia Belo’s direction focuses on the devastation caused as a result of Goodwin’s firing of the worker village. An already emotional scene is more impactful through this, particularly the moments that focus on Sarah sobbing amongst the wreckage and James clutching what remains of his plants. It is here that Goodwin shifts fully into the villain of the piece, one who is so utterly convinced that he is doing the right thing that it makes his wilful destruction even worse. For a man whose journey began with promoting kindness to all men and women, it ends with him committing calculated acts of cruelty.

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Goodwin is a character that reminds me a lot of Alias Grace’s Simon Jordan, a man with noble intentions which are not strong enough to resist his patriarchal and imperial upbringing when he should be seeing them through. Lowden’s increasingly wide-eyed and desperate performance is nicely inverted against the calm that Atwell brings to Caroline’s acceptance of her situation in this final episode. Lawrance blends the two of them in her portrayal of July at this stage in her life; there’s a desperation to help out her friends and fellow workers, to marry the two worlds that she straddles, but always with an underlying knowledge that truly, there’s not much she can do.

Doña Croll’s depiction of the older July also deserves a special mention, for she manages to be a recognisable version of the spiky, mischievous young woman, one who has been steadily eroded by the hardships she faced as a result of losing her daughter and the lover that promised an escape from drudgery. The scene in which she is reunited with the son she thought she had long since lost is elegantly low-key, a burst of hope with which to end her difficult tale.

A BBC period drama is such a staple of the Christmas schedule, but the beauty of The Long Song is that it delivers something that adheres to the corsets-and-breeches relationship dramas we’re used to whilst also shining a light on an often overlooked period of our nation’s imperial past. Sarah Williams captures Andrea Levy’s tale beautifully, blending the comedy and tragedy with skill. Likewise, Belo’s direction has a playful quality to it that swiftly shifts to a clinical look at the horrors of the period as the story requires.

The series ends on an especially poignant note too, returning it to that opening scene in which the narration told us that this was a story we aren’t used to seeing. As the camera lingers on the faces of the various former slaves like Dublin and Molly, July’s reminder that these people have their own stories is a timely one in an age where people are finding their voices and unearthing stories long since buried by others.