This Is England 88 (‘88’ from now on) ended on a high note. The third and final episode was a vast improvement on the first two (some earlier thoughts on episode one here.
Joe Gilgun had a tough task, having to add drama and sadness to Woody after playing him mostly for comic relief. His emotional encounter with Milky worked well, but his response to the news of Lol’s suicide attempt was laughably off. Then he completely redeemed himself in the final scene, with Woody breaking the tension of an uncomfortable situation by injecting humour. Woody is the show telling you that people can’t change. He tries to stay angry at people (Lol, Milky) but his heart is just too big. He was reluctant to follow the path that many men are afraid of: one of a comfortable, mature, routine existence. With a managerial position looming and a posh girlfriend, he struggled to accept responsible adulthood. By the end of the series he was making progress but looked far from satisfied with the direction he’s facing.
And perhaps this resistance was mirrored in Shaun. Why did he pursue Faye? Purely to get his end away? The exhilaration of cheating on Smell? I never expected Shaun to be so remorseful when Smell caught him cheating, and it was bold for the show to end without any further confrontation between the two.
And that’s the great thing about both 86 and 88: the lack of cliches. What could have been a contrived tale of urban youths always felt fresh and new. The dark moments were rarely contrived or predictable. We expected Shaun would be the star, it was Lol. The humour was abrupt and unexpected. A lesser director than Shane Meadows would’ve force-fed us the contrast between the sad situations the characters were in and the general happiness of Christmas. The last episode succeeded by not, say, juxtaposing footage of Woody in tears with shots of a Christmas tree. Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne were confident in telling these stories and didn’t feel the need to slam every point home.
Both series’ have a strange lived-in, alive feel that the film didn’t manage. Woody, worryingly, feels real to me, as if I could turn a corner and bump into him. Shaun’s the grumpy teenager I could’ve been if I hadn’t been such a delightful child. Shane Meadows has something special here. I’m glad he decided to expand this universe, and I trust that he won’t spoil it.
The comic stylings of Gadget were sadly under-utilised. I’d like to see more of him, and hopefully Flip and the biker gang, next time around. Harvey still doesn’t seem to fit in the with the rest of the show. Michael Socha seems too cool and handsome for the rest of the squad, he looks a bit like Donnie Darko’s taken a wrong turn.
It remains that the first two episodes of 88 were relatively lacking. 86 was great from the get-go, whereas 88 needed a strong finale to redeem itself. Yet even the weakest episode was better than most everything else on TV.