Shane Meadows takes the directorial chair for the second half of his coming-of-age drama, but is it getting old before its time?
Things are getting serious for Woody and his friends. Since their failed marriage attempt, he and Lol bicker about their flat, his work and everything in between. Meanwhile, Lol’s infidelity with Milky continues but that too is losing its spark as Lol takes her self-loathing out on all those close to her. On the comic-relief side, Gadge wants out of his increasingly oedipal relationship with the matriarchal Trudy, and Smell convinces Shaun to make amends with his mother only for them both to find themselves rekindling the relationship of their youth. As the final World Cup group match against Poland approaches emotions are running high, and it all takes a turn for the worst as Lol’s father shows his ugly side and an unwanted guest-star from the gang’s past makes a reappearance.
Spoiler alert: while there are no spoilers in this article, people in your life will be talking about This Is England ’86. Admittedly, the series is not the most widely-watched of dramas, but what it may lack in viewings figures it will most certainly make up for the breadth of debate around it and the profound desire amongst its viewers to talk about it. People who have watched the third episode of ’86 will be talking about it - they can’t not.
This is of course not necessarily a bad thing. To be responsible for inspiring debate is a great accolade, and one that Shane Meadows has always courted in his envelope-pushing, hard-hitting dramas. The question is not how proficiently or even tastefully the ‘event’ (as it will here-in be referred to) is dealt with – this being a Meadows’ drama it is ruthless in its poignancy and ability to evoke emotion – rather, the issue that will split the opinion of its audience is how unexpectedly unpleasant the episode’s third act was – and whether it had any place in this series.
Given Meadows’ reputation it may have been foolish to expect the happy-go-lucky atmosphere of this sometimes melancholy tale of growing-up to continue indefinitely, but the sudden change of direction is astonishing and raises big questions – both about the direction the series’ finale will (or can) go and also what buttons a TV audience will allow a mini-series starring young actors can push without crossing a line.
To speak (finally) about the less controversial first two acts, Meadows allows longer scenes in this episode which showcases the young stars’ skill in natural dialogue but unfortunately can sometimes lead to the seams to show as the interchanges drag on. Lol is also becoming a problematic protagonist – too difficult to defend in her treatment of others, too damaged to genuinely hate. This series may have been promoted as the first Meadows project to have a female lead as the focal character, but it’s hard not to feel the true hero of this story is diminutive nice guy, Woody, and with the way tensions are building there’s the definite worry that he will go the same way as the series, acting out of character and giving us all a nasty shock.
Soap operas and docudramas have tackled many similarly heavy subjects to that covered in this penultimate episode of ‘86, but these are often through insinuations and allusion rather than graphic depiction, and it will remain to be seen whether the consensus is that Meadows has utilised a level of violence inappropriate for the small screen or has brought much-needed innovation to a medium that has seen little since the time this series is set in. For now it’s only clear that the final episode will be explosive, highly-charged television – for better or for worse.