This review contains spoilers.
We jinxed it.
‘Why do they all seem so happy?’, viewers puzzled these past few weeks, ‘What happened to the This Is England we know and love? Where’s the drama that fills your pockets with stones and chucks you underwater, leaving you to gulp and struggle until you eventually emerge, gasping for air, battle-tired and all the stronger for it?’
It’s back, is this week’s answer. Goodbye to hugs and Hulk Hogan’s pants, hello to heart-heavy emotion and a lingering sense of dread. Instead of pop songs and nostalgia-inducing news footage, episode three of This Is England ’90 opened with a nightmare. That set the tone for what followed.
It was the most emotional hour of the run so far. Not that there’s been much contest. Spring and Summer were like palate cleansers, mostly frothy scoops of fun whose job it was to establish the bonds Autumn broke. Had they not shown us Woody and Milky eating hooky chips together and snoozing happily in each other’s arms, then this week’s excruciating dinner scene wouldn’t have had the same impact.
Likewise, showing Lol and Trev seeming to get on with life and having put their respective traumas behind them only made it more painful when it all resurfaced. The equilibrium we’d witnessed—dancing and barbeques and happiness—was proved only a temporary holiday. This week’s lesson was that the past won’t be ignored. As Combo explained in the episode’s opening monologue, the past is important: “It kind of shapes the future, if we face it.”
The future Combo’s facing now depends on the choice Milky makes between revenge and forgiveness. Woody may have preached forgiveness at the group’s last supper, but that final shot of Milky readying for a fight promised Old Testament payback, not New Testament cheek-turning.
Answer me this: who are you rooting for? Milky’s revenge or Combo’s new start?
There’s obviously no contest. Watching Combo deliver that speech, collect his one pound thirty six in change and greet Lol and Woody with nothing but tears puts us firmly in his corner. As Combo, Stephen Graham is the convincing, compelling best of this tremendous cast. The last thing anyone wants to see now is that man dealt a blow.
Had you been asked the same question after watching the brutal last moments of the film that spawned these episodes though, your answer might have been different and understandably so. That’s the best argument there is for spin-offs like these, and indeed, long-form TV drama, to exist. Given more room, characters and our responses to them can expand. Our empathy for other people, even ones with Swastika tattoos who’ve committed unconscionable acts, can be nurtured. Combo’s story is a lesson in human compassion. Which is what makes it such good drama (and perhaps, what made the last two episodes frustrating in his absence.)
Combo’s story has such a parable-like simplicity about it that in comparison, Kelly’s plot—though acted up a storm by Chanel Cresswell—feels a little unsatisfying. As viewers, we’re obviously here to respond to the story being told, not pick our own preferable version out of the ether. That said, it’s hard to swallow that the matter of Mick abusing Lol or raping Trev didn’t come up in court as part of Combo’s mitigating defence. The dinner scene was captivating and heartrending but the whole thing couldn’t shake a sense of contrivance. Still, whatever the scenario lacked in realism, the performances more than made up for.
Autumn was This Is England back at its best, telling hard truths and combining the lows with highs. (Congratulations to Lol and Woody by the way, the Plasticine ring was a nice touch, even if Combo’s request for towels spoiled the mood.)
This episode proved that This Is England ‘90 hadn’t forgotten the events of previous years. Its most powerful moment, arguably, was the ten-second silent shot lingering on the empty room where Trev had been attacked and Mick had been killed. It invited viewers to fill the space with their own rightly uncomfortable memory of watching, without the need for the overt flashbacks seen elsewhere in the hour.
Overall, the amnesia’s been shaken off, the moustachioed clowns have disappeared, and next week’s episode feels unmissable. Combo is back, and so is This Is England. One of those, maybe both, for not much longer.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Summer, here.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.