“You’re clocked in”
It’s taken me a while to ruminate on the final episode of This Is England ’90 (and the last episode ever!). The feature-length ‘Winter’ gave the audience plenty of stuff to chew on. From Kelly’s wilful estrangement, to Combo’s redemptive job and inevitable confrontation with Milky, to the wedding of Lol and Woody (and everything in between), the episode was stuffed to the gills with stories and characters. Almost perfectly plotted, with incredible acting from all involved, ‘Winter’ was a suitably bittersweet but brilliant ending for the characters that we’ve grown to love. There was even a happy ending, but an ending inhibited by the demons of the past and present.
Where to begin? ‘Winter’ covered so much that to even scrape the surface would be difficult. Maybe Shaun’s story? At the beginning, he’s presented with an expensive camera by his mum. We don’t see much of Shaun during the episode, but it’s the quality, not quantity, isn’t it? He’s grown from confused boy to angry young adult, and here he seemed like a responsible adult. At a college lecture, the tutor talks about capturing the ‘decisive moment’ in photography. A picture that isn’t edited or cropped, just the simple and pure picture that defines something. That’s a great description of Shane Meadow’s approach to ‘This Is England’; much of the dialogue seems improvised. He trusts his performers to be given a broad set of instructions and act on their own instincts when following them. Let’s be honest, it’s created some of the greatest British drama of the 21st century.
Shaun has been the pivot around which the rest of the characters have revolved. He’s responsible for us knowing Woody, Milky, Combo etc. But he has taken a back foot to those characters, which one of the few questionable decisions of ‘This Is England ’90.’ Sure, he attacked Smell’s boyfriend in the first episode, and had a heart-to-heart with a witch in the second episode. In ‘Winter,’ he happens to bump into Gadget, who’s looking for Kelly (more of that later on). Coincidence? Definitely! But it showed that Shaun is willing to follow his friends to the end. At Lol and Woody’s wedding, accompanied by his new girlfriend Juliette (who looks like she’s fallen through time from the ‘60s), he apologises to Smell’s boyfriend. It’s a sign of maturity for Shaun: we’ve seen him grow up over ten years, and now he is finally a man, ready and willing to own to his past mistakes.
“It wasn’t even about the colour of your skin. I was just jealous.”
Shaun’s apology was accepted. In light of Woody’s comments about forgiveness being very important, the other major apology came from Combo. In last week’s episode, he said that not only did he want forgiveness, but he wanted to forgive those who had wronged him. In an act of redemption, in ‘Winter’ he started to work with disadvantaged children. His game of football with them is a happy moment that we all know won’t last. And sure enough, on his way for a bacon butty during his break, he bumps into Milky (just one thing about that scene: how long had Milky been waiting there? How did he know that Combo would walk past that spot?!?!?). And things go downhill from there…
It’s a testament to Meadows’ writing and Stephen Graham’s acting abilities that we feel sorry for Combo. Considering that he was a loathsome racist who beat Milky almost to death, his character has been rehabilitated by his actions (taking the fall for Lol) and his acting. Combo is a picture of remorse and self-loathing. Biting his nails, staring into the distance; this is a man who needs forgiveness. Milky takes him for a long drive, mainly in silence. It’s a drive brimming with tension and terror. It’s hard to look away from the screen. Finally, they arrive at the café. Combo says that his actions were “despicable…[were] evil.” He says “I’m sorry.” I breathed a sigh of relief, hoping that Milky would accept the apology. However, a gang of men walked through the door…
Combo says to Milky “I forgive ya” before walking away with Milky’s family. Milky’s excuse that he made a promise in the hospital (recovering from Combo’s attack) seemed pathetic. He wasn’t man enough to admit that he wanted revenge. He could have stopped his family taking away Combo. But he didn’t. Cue another long drive that again brimming with tension and terror. In a cruel twist, Milky’s family hand him over to two white men (former members of the National Front?) who drag Combo away, kicking and screaming. “I don’t wanna die,” Combo screams, before we cut away and leave Combo to his fate. We never see his murder, but that’s all we can assume happened. Some people just can’t have happy endings…It reminded me of the last episode of The Sopranos. Instead of seeing Tony being shot, seeing him being punished for his crimes, the screen cuts to the credits. We’ve seen Combo in prison, sure, but we never see what happens to him in the abandoned industrial warehouse (a great symbol of British decline, by the way). All we have left is the mystery.
“Stop being a drama queen”
There was some comedy relief in between the fraught drama. After all, we needed some respite from the Combo/Milky situation. There was also the very heated argument between Harv and Gadget over Kelly’s fate. Harvey told Kelly to get out of his flat after catching her ‘chasing the dragon,’ so to speak. Gadget comes back with ingredients for a chilli to find out that Kelly’s gone. The two friends almost come to blows, in a scene that’s been brewing for a few episodes. It’s intense, nail-biting stuff. Not as bad as Combo’s fate, but close enough. If there’s anything that comes between two male friends, it’s a girl. Harv has no feelings for Kelly, but Gadget does, and Harvey twists the knife when he says that Kelly with sleep with anyone, but not Gadget. Gadget’s subsequent finding of Kelly sees him in tears and Kelly mocking him relentlessly before walking off with a stranger.
Fortunately, you can always rely on Lol and Woody to provide some laughs. The wedding planning scene, although turning to violence at the end, was a scene full of cringeworthy comedy. You had Woody’s ex-girlfriend with a sketchbook full of wedding ideas, Woody;s mum and dad trying to plan the whole wedding, and Lol’s mum steadily getting angrier and angrier with proceedings. It’s a class war taking place in a living room. Voices are raised, and the comedy lessens. But still, it’s a delightful break from the other stories.
“I didn’t want savin'”
I initially thought that Combo’s fate would be saved until the last moments of the episode. Come on, this is ‘This Is England,’ there has to be a depressing ending! However, the wedding was saved for last, and it was simply beautiful. To have Lol and Woody exchanging vows (and Woody high-fiving the priest) was a lovely scene. The reception is even better. Yes, we’ve seen our crew dance enough in ‘This Is England ’90,’ especially the dull, drawn out raves of ‘Spring’ and ‘Summer.’ But to see Gadget and Harvey as friends again reunited, to see Shaun happy with his new girlfriend, to see a few old faces (Smell, Jennifer, Harrison), was a fitting end to the series. After a long period of estrangement, Kelly had a tearful reunion with Lol. Played to perfection by the actresses, this scene was the final piece of the puzzle. It led to Kelly hugging everyone else at the reception. We’ve seen Kelly in a dark place, and it was great to see her finding the light of her friends and family again. The only elephant in the room was silent Milky, brooding on his revenge. Lol confronts him in the snooker room about Combo (where they met, apparently), but he refuses to admit to being involved with Combo’s disappearance.
Phew…that lasted longer than I expected! Like I said before, there was plenty to cover. To end something that’s lasted ten years is difficult to achieve, but Meadows pulled it off almost flawlessly. Everything came together exquisitely; the acting, the direction, the dialogue, the scenery…From Combo’s fate in a disused warehouse, to Shaun taking Juliette for a photography session around abandoned flats, to Lol and Woody’s reception in a miner’s club, this was definitely England. A broken down, crippled England, but and England that keeps buggering on, no matter what’s thrown at it. The various splices of reality with fiction, such as Combo’s introduction to his job combined with real scenes of National Front demonstrations, told us that the past will always come back to haunt us. Forgiveness may be important, but more often than not it’s forgotten. However, Meadows left us with a bittersweet ending. Lol and Woody finally got married, and everyone seemed happy…apart from Milky, thinking about his unwillingness to forgive. It all left me emotionally drained…and I have yet to recover!
Shane Meadows has given us a franchise that has defined the present generation and the generation it depicts. From 1983 to 1990, we’ve seen the characters of This Is England grow up. We’ve seen them through happy times, and more often than not, depressing times. But we’ve grown to love them as they’ve grown up. We’ve learned hard lessons from their stories. We’ve grown up with them. It’s sad to see them go, but everything that has a beginning…has an end. I won’t hate Meadows too much if he decides to bring them back. But his created the perfect ending for his characters. And in doing so, created one of the best British TV events of the 21st century.
VERDICT: 10/10. A very rare full score! An intelligent, beautiful, brilliant ending to a story that’s spanned almost a decade. Bittersweet, bold, and never less than gripping, there was hardly a fault in sight. Goodbye, This Is England…you won’t be forgotten!
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(Click here for my review of This Is England ’90: ‘Autumn’)