Jimmy McGovern’s Time has been a tough but compelling and extremely engrossing watch for two episodes, charting as it has two men’s stint inside an unforgiving prison: Mark Cobden, a prisoner who killed a man after driving home one night drunk, and Eric McNally, a prison guard forced into illegal activities to protect his son.
Throughout the two episodes we’ve seen the two men’s trajectories converge and then go off in separate directions, and throughout the the drama it has constantly thrown up moral dilemmas proving that good men can do bad things and suffer the consequences of their actions.
The final episode was as harrowing and as heartbreaking as you would imagine it to be, but because of the superior writing and acting, and the way we have invested so heavily in these characters, it also offered so much to think about, and moments and situations that will stay with you for a long time.
Despite now being a relative veteran on his wing, Mark still faced agonising decisions and moments that not only threatened his release but also his life.
There was heartbreak when he learned his father had died and, because cellmate Daniel had received and hidden a burner in their cell – which was found – Mark wasn’t allowed to attend his father’s funeral. The way this was played out was pure thriller – the intercutting between the search of the cell with Mark in the car waiting for the gates to open putting us on the edge of our seats.
However, thanks to kind chaplain Marie-Louise, Mark was able to simulate his dad’s funeral in the prison chapel. He read out his speech, Marie-Louise went through the service step-by-step, and Mark felt every ripple of grief and guilt as if he was there in the church on the outside with his family. It was a truly remarkable, emotional scene, made even more emotional by the context in which it was staged – the prison is such a hard, unforgiving place that any act of kindness or contrition or show of vulnerability is amplified considerably.
And these moments, in the face of such a brutal backdrop, kept on coming and made your heart ache. Daniel, Mark’s cellmate, was at the drugs because of the guilt he faced for killing another man, while another prisoner, Brendan, finally admitted the reason his victim spurned him was because he had told him that he loved him. These prisoners build up such a hard, seemingly impenetrable shell that underneath is a maelstrom of feelings, of guilt, of self-hatred, of rage … of everything.
There was a final trial for Mark to endure before his release. He had been selected by Marie-Louise and the warden to speak at a crime and punishment conference on the outside. This meant travelling on his own independently to the venue, and back again. Jackson Jones pounced on the opportunity, and ordered Mark to pick up a package to bring back with him. When he didn’t – because he had determined to live a good life from there on in – Mark took a pool ball in a sock to the face for his trouble.
Mark made it by the skin of his teeth, but others weren’t so lucky. Daniel and Brendan still remained, with the ghosts and the memories swirling around their heads.
And Eric was caught.
As Mark was leaving, Eric was going out for sentence. His anxiety was palpable, the guard now on-guard. He was sentenced to four years.
It was an interesting juxtaposition between the man who had been freed and the man whose incarceration was just beginning. Not just that but two good men, at different and differing parts of their lives.
Mark managed to meet and build bridges with his victim’s widow on the outside a year after his release, but even though we didn’t see Eric, you can be pretty sure he was suffering inside.
Two men, two good men who did terrible things. For Time to explore these extraordinary complex nuances of character so compellingly was a remarkable achievement. Normally we get crime dramas – especially prison dramas – that fall into a rigid pattern of two-dimensional characterisation and familiar paradigms. Here we got extraordinarily three-dimensional characters thrust into very difficult situations who each had their demons to acknowledge and cope with. We also got a significant study of crime, punishment and morality – what it means to commit a crime and how it can completely alter your personality and the course of your life. Some inmates, like Mark and Daniel, desperately atonement, but what came through loud and clear was that the terribleness of committing such crimes never, ever leaves you.
Sean Bean and Stephen Graham were outstanding in the lead roles, but each member of the supporting cast was also terrific, bringing a naturalness to each of their characters.
As I said earlier, Time had elements of thriller and yet nothing felt forced or for thriller’s sake. Ultimately though, Time was an exploration of humanity, in all its messy, heartbreaking and unfair ways. This one will stay with me for a while.
READ MORE: OUR EPISODE ONE REVIEW
READ MORE: OUR EPISODE TWO REVIEW
Time was on BBC One in the UK and iPlayer