Written for Den of Geek.com
Truly difficult television is a hard concept to get a handle on. Like an intelligent lyric in a pop song it’s not so much a bad idea as one that takes the medium in an unfamiliar direction. Sure, there are plenty of maudlin documentaries or shocking scenes in soaps, but these are often conveniently distanced or suitably fictional for our armchair viewing pleasure. They aren’t necessarily the kind of thing we’d call ‘hard to watch’.
This Is England ’86, on the other hand, is most definitely hard to watch- at least, it has been of late.
Fittingly, since the final scene of the penultimate episode derailed both the narrative of the series and all discussion about it, the final episode flies off in somewhat of a tangent. The episode starts with Woody planning a second, more successful wedding to win Lol back, Milky reconciling his betrayal of his best friend and Shaun trying to find sympathy for the violent father-figure who changed the path of his life forever, but this is largely left frustratingly without closure as the true drive of the narrative is Lol’s confrontation with her father, made all the more imminent by Trev’s horrific news.
’86 is a series that has clearly changed direction. Instead of the ensemble teen series prior episodes have lead us to expect, this episode we’re faced with a heavy, high-stakes drama where life and death really feels like it’s hanging in the balance, particularly in the key scene that spans practically the entire episode. If this sounds like a description of gripping, dare we say ‘worthy’ television that’s because it is. This episode has the potential to make you leap from the sofa with nervous energy, weep bittersweet tears or curse the name of Shane Meadows for putting us through another hard-hitting scene (or the hat-trick in the case of this reviewer) and can therefore comfortably be called an example of great television by most people’s measure of these things.
The question that returns from last episode is not whether the result of Meadows’ boundary-pushing is a success but rather whether it had any place in the series he started making with episode one. It would have been obtuse to continue with knockabout plot lines such as the mysterious parentage of Trudy’s son after last episode’s finale, but it’s difficult to feel that the last episode of this series concludes in any satisfying way anything except that one particular scene.
The episode in isolation is TV drama at its finest. You may need to prepare yourself before viewing (both mentally in anticipation of some unpleasant scenes and physically with a good stress ball to get you through them) but the reward is drama that is as noteworthy and high quality as any you’re likely to see on Channel 4 in the near future.
How to view the series as a whole in light of it or even consolidate the episode as part of a wider narrative remains a debate well worth having, but with Meadows already proposing how a second series could see Shaun negotiating the drug culture of the early 90s it seems this isn’t the last time Meadows will make us grip the sofa tensely during our evening’s entertainment. Just remember for future reference the following advice: just because a series features the music, fashions and good old hi-jinks of your parents’ youths does not mean it will make a comfortable evening’s viewing when watched with your mother…