We’re finally let into Mark Cobden’s (Sean Bean) life pre-prison, and just like his daily slops, it’s not pretty. Banging down the door of his family home, he’s absolutely leathered, yelling “Let me in, woman!” He wakes in a cold sweat: it’s day 382 of his four-year-stretch. There’s further agonising flashbacks to come this episode - letting us into the psyche of Mark, and the abhorrent and humiliating B-roll of memories he’s forced to grapple with on a daily basis while in jail.
Guard Eric McNally (Stephen Graham) has reached his tipping point. Forced to smuggle in black market goods to his prison - and to see the horrifying effect of the drugs ripple through his wing - to protect his own son in prison; and jailed gangland boss Jackson (Brian McCardie) has upped the stakes yet again. This time he’s expected to smuggle in a switch-blade knife, certain to end in death or serious injury to the inmates. He tells Jackson no dice - that he will end up on a murder charge as he brought it into the prison. It could even be Eric at the end of the offending blade. “Okay,” Jackson says ominously, in clear-cut signs that it’s anything but. Peep at the teeny-tiny mobile phone he’s also brought in - this is actually the item that’s going to cause all sorts of chaos later on.
Back in the church support group and there’s more truths being uncovered: Brendan (Jonathan Harden) reveals that he’s been in prison since the age of 13, when he killed his best friend. In some of the series’ most brutal lines, he admits: “I did something and he didn’t want to be my friend anymore, so I killed him. I killed him with a brick...I heard his ma screaming”. You can practically see all the air leaving the room. One of the kids asks what exactly he did to make his friend react the way he did, but he doesn’t answer. Just like The Sixth Sense, Mark realises that he’s not the only one haunted by hallucinations of dead people.
The micro-phone pops up in Mark’s cell - obviously handed straight over to Daniel (Jack McMullen), Jackson’s lackey, for safe-keeping - and Mark, perhaps unwisely, discusses the problem with Kav, who he’s been teaching reading. Mark tells Daniel to get rid of it. “Okay,” says Brendan in exactly the same manner as Jackson. That phone’s clearly staying put.
Poor deluded David thinks that he’s getting the royal treatment in prison as he didn’t grass about his beating, but mum Sonia (Hannah Walters) has some home truths for him: “They’re shitbags”, and that they’re only being nice because Daddy is supplying them with their drugs. David warns Eric that if he’s caught, as a prison guard, he’ll have to do “five years with the nonces”. There’s no way Eric’s getting out of this predicament unscathed, is there?
Things go from bad to worse for Mark. All hopes of settling into a life of humdrum existence and managing to keep his head down from any of the rife violence disappear when he learns that his dad has died. The good news? As a well-behaved prisoner, he’ll be able to attend the funeral on day release. The bad news? That pesky phone has reared its head again.
Mark is so close to leaving the prison - and passing through the rigamarole it takes simply to open a garage door - when Eric gets word of the bust, and Mark’s no longer allowed to go to his dad’s send off. Did Kav grass him up? It’s almost irrelevant as when Eric tells him what’s gone down on the cell block, Mark admits: “I thought he’d got rid of it”. Doh - landing himself further in the shit.
Good thing lovely nun Marie Louise (Siobhan Finnegan) is on hand to provide a 21st Century solution to the problem: she’ll email over Mark’s speech, and the family will send back an order of service so they can run through it virtually from jail. In touching scenes, they both live-track the event, with little painful asides as Mark realises that his actions have meant he is unable to say goodbye in person to his parent. He reads the speech, but also gets some home truths from his mother’s speech which ends up being about Mark. Not about the shame he brought on his family, like he first thinks, but how proud he was of Mark once he stepped up and confessed his crime, and with the humility he accepted his time in prison. She perceptively points out: “he sees every day in prison as one more day of atonement”.
Also seeking atonement is Brendan, who’s in another appeal for his parole, but he’s not willing to reveal why he killed his teenage friend. He’s told that his friend’s parents both died of grief, and he’s called a murderer. Eventually, Brendan cracks and simply tells the brother: “I told him that I loved him”. The revelation floors us - we did not see that coming, but it also raises the important point: who is served by this man being in prison for 25 years?
Just as it feels like the episode is veering to a close, there’s a hand grenade thrown in: Mark’s been invited to speak as an inmate in a crime and punishment conference. Here’s the kicker: he’ll be allowed to attend without a chaperone. It takes approximately 30 seconds for Jackson to get wind of this on the prison grapevine, and wouldn’t you know it, he’s back whispering in Mark’s ear about that favour he owes him. Elephants never forget - and neither does this grey old jailbird either.
He wants Mark to stop off and pick up an anonymous item, which Mark says he can’t do. “Do you or do you not owe me one?” Jackson reminds him menacingly. He’s got no choice. Everything he’s worked so hard for could all be lost - ending up with more prison time - because of a deal he made to escape violence earlier on in his sentence.
At the conference - sweating bullets, and not just because he’s speaking as a convict in front of a crowd - we finally get taken back to the night of Mark’s crime. It’s all rather tragically simple - he knocks back vodkas in the pub, then decides to drive home. However, when he hits a man on a bike, he bolts, leaving the scene and heads home to his wife and son. He makes it through a stilted dinner before he confesses to his wife “ I just killed someone, a cyclist. I drove into him”. The rest - including the grieving widow, hurling abuse at him at his trial - as we know, is history.
Mark ditches Jackson’s deal, and in possibly the most deathly pallor of the entire series, walks back into prison knowing he’s done the right thing, but could end up sacrificing his life for being honourable. Almost instantaneously, a couple of snooker balls go missing, and it’s only bloody Jackson throwing them into a sock with a prison minion to beat all hell out of Mark. But it’s Kav to the rescue! Was he feeling guilty for shopping Mark about the phone earlier? Or just a good samaritan? Whatever the reason, Mark’s selflessness in helping another inmate has ended up saving his life.
There’s also a grim inevitability to Eric’s story. There’s no fireworks, or epic showdown when he’s nabbed, just a sheepish looking prison warden asking him to come into her office for a “random search”. The warden worked it out when Eric’s son was revealed to have been treated really well. “I’m really sorry,” Eric says. He’s left with one phone call - echoing Mark’s at the beginning of the series - so has to break the news to his wife. In heartbreaking scenes, Sonia is now left without a son and without a husband, thanks to the prison industrial complex.
It’s day 730 and Mark’s finally getting out. Poor old Daniel’s well and truly hooked on the gear and also admits “I still see him” - the man he killed. He’s trapped in the same purgatory as Mark. Has he any chance of resolution or salvation? In Craigmore prison, or any prison, it’s unlikely.
Mark and Eric are finally placed in the same holding cell together - this time on a level, as their positions are almost switched. Mark’s served two years (the gallows humour of Eric: “Time flies when you’re having fun, eh?”) and is getting out. But there’s no gloating or sense of revenge from Mark - he knows Eric is a man who’s got himself into an impossible situation. The futility of his predicament is highlighted again when Eric’s in court - what could he have done differently to protect his son? The answer is nothing. Eric comes clean about the blackmail he was forced into, but says that he won’t be able to name the people who made them do it - he gets four years, exactly the same sentence as Mark.
Some unspecified time in the future, Mark meets the widow of the man he killed, in the hope of amends. He might have only served two years, but the cyclist’s death has meant a life sentence for all involved - not just those held in prison walls. Mark is seeking atonement, but he hasn’t forgiven himself. Neither has the widow. Although she’s agreed to meet with him, she tells him: “I’ve tried to forgive you but I can’t...But I’ll keep trying, maybe one day”. That’s all Mark can hope for, that the passing of time can ease the burden on his victim’s family, and whether he’ll eventually be able to absolve himself.
Prison diary notes
We finally find out what was in Mark’s note to the widow - “I’m so sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry” ad infinitum. Really? That was the letter that Eric said was “really good” reads like Bart Simpson writing lines on a blackboard?
The gorgeous setting for that final emotive scene was filmed in the glass pavilion of Southport pier. Fact fans: it’s the UK’s oldest iron pier and its second longest.
The takeaway that the creator, Jimmy McGovern - who teaches writing workshops in prison - hopes we’ll leave the series with is that the prison system in the UK urgently needs a reform: “Time says something that should be said about the British penal system - it’s not good, I’m afraid. It needs looking at.” Here’s hoping his series begins to make that change.
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