This review contains spoilers.
It was the ending nobody wanted for Combo, which is why, by the law of drama, it had to happen. This Is England 90’s message of love and forgiveness above all else wouldn’t have rung out so clearly if we hadn’t seen the potential of Combo’s new start destroyed by merciless retribution.
The final shot of this episode, and so of the whole series, was Milky lowering his head in regret and shame. That revealed the show’s ultimate lesson: in the words of Woody, forgiveness is underrated. Milky’s torment at the wedding showed that the reverse is also true: if mercy is a virtue, then revenge is a weight around your neck.
The injustice of Combo’s death was searing. If you don’t feel the same, try rewatching his induction to the community centre in the knowledge of what was to come. With hindsight, Stephen Graham’s nervous politeness and hopeful talk of Combo’s own place by the garden centre are heart-rending. Knowing his fate, those scenes turn Evelyn into a sort of angelic guide, an Irish Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life, giving Combo a tour of the life he could have had. “Let me do a good thing,” he’d asked a traumatised Lol at the close of ’86. That job was somewhere Combo could have done good things all day long.
But, because vengeance won out over compassion in Milky’s inner struggle, it wasn’t allowed to happen. Combo didn’t get a fresh start. Instead, his personal growth, striving and support was snuffed out by the Old Testament desire for revenge.
That’s not to say it was all in vain. Combo’s Catholicism and rehabilitation required him to confess and seek forgiveness for his sins, which he did. Stephen Graham’s character didn’t go to his death ‘not shriving time allowed’, he went, initially at least, with acceptance and forgiveness.
And since the original film, when Shane Meadows showed a pre-beating Milky smile at Combo before the first kick landed, This Is England has venerated the grace of acceptance. “I wanted Milky to smile back when even he knows he’s past the point of no return,” Meadows told Film4 in this 2006 interview. “And I wanted to find the beauty in that.”
Meadows also found beauty in the moment Combo accepted his fate, however much screaming went on afterwards. In that remote café, Combo forgave Milky, wished for the same in return, and acquiesced to his executioners. His fate had been decided years earlier around Milky’s hospital bed, the brutal attack spliced into Winter a ‘decisive moment’ for both of them.
This Is England’s ability to balance tragedy and comedy while not detracting from either has always been remarkable. Winter slotted together grief and farce like perfectly aligned cogs driving the episode to its satisfying conclusion. The wedding planning nonsense knitted teeth with Kelly’s teary expulsion from the flat and the arguments that created. The joy and silliness of the wedding—Woody’s high-five, Lol’s fluffy slippers, Shaun and his mum, and glorious cameos by Smell, Meggy (blink and you’ll have missed him) and Trudy—locked in with Milky’s regret and Kelly’s emotional return. It all moved in sync, a beautifully whirring clockwork of a TV drama.
Meadows may have put the mechanism in place, but the performances he drew from his cast made it go. Stephen Graham and Andrew Shim’s scenes together this week were utterly compelling. It’s the best the latter has ever been on the series.
Chanel Cresswell as Kelly showed powerful range in two opposing scenes: her park bench explosion at Gadge and teary, intimate confession to Lol. If This Is England had just one new start to offer its characters, it’s only right that it went to Kelly instead of Combo. Giving both of them a happy ending would have felt like fan service, and wouldn’t have had anything like the emotional power of this episode.
Now that This Is England has finished, it’s leaving behind a gap. Not for TV designed to prompt nostalgia—between reboots and costume shows, we can’t move for that—but for drama driven by empathy and political conscience.
Watching Evelyn’s tour of that community centre, with its concrete offers of second chances and everyday support, we’re reminded of real-life library closures and swingeing cuts to public services. Watching Lol go through hell, we’re shown the debilitation of abuse, depression and mental illness. Watching Combo’s rehabilitation, we’re asked to see the person inside the violence and to believe that people can change if the world is prepared to let them.
Compassion is the word for it. This Is England treated its characters—thugs, clowns, oddballs and survivors—with compassion, and encouraged us to feel the same way about them. As Woody might say, it’s underrated. And it will be sorely missed.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Autumn, here.
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