Revenge is a dish best served by Mark Bonnar in BBC’s second brilliant season of Guilt

Review by C.J. Bunce

It arrived in Scotland and the UK in 2019 before the pandemic, then took its time getting to the States.  In the interim BBC’s series Guilt won top honors in Scotland for its darkly funny and thrilling story from creator Neil Forsyth.  The series stars the amazing, award-winning co-star of Shetland and Unforgotten, Mark Bonnar, and the second season is even better than the first.  Fans of UK television have seen Bonnar as both well-meaning and outright guilty before, but not like his Max McCall in the first season of Guilt.  But the second season should have been titled Revenge.  Max was a reasonably well-adjusted lawyer, scheming and in deep with the local mob, before he went to jail–between seasons.  We meet him again, after two years of thinking about what kind of man he wants to be.  Emun Elliott takes the co-lead spot this season as the put-upon (but improving) investigator Kenny Burns.  The second season of Guilt is now airing on PBS Masterpiece, with the entire eight episodes of its first and second seasons available anytime now on PBS Passport and on PBS DVD.

Do you love a good revenge plot? 

We catch up with Max right as he is leaving jail.  In his mind the only person responsible for his incarceration is the man who took his business away, local mob boss Roy Lynch, who was played last year by Bill Paterson (who took a role with House of Dragons) and is now played superbly by Stuart Bowman (Case Histories, Deadwater Fell).  Max tried to take Roy down last season and it didn’t end well.  This year we meet Roy’s family, including ex-wife Maggie, played by Phyllis Logan (Doctor Who, Bones, Sea of Souls), and daughter Erin, played by Sara Vickers, who appeared with Bonnar in a standout performance in the third season of Shetland.  Erin has tried to live a life free from crime, but like Max, her ne’er-do-well husband returns from rehab and leaves her in a precarious position.  It involves a twist that pulls in a preacher trying to prevent his church from being leveled for a new Leith housing development (under which are plenty of bodies interred by the mob many hope to remain buried).  The preacher, named Sandy, is self-described as “15 stone and I believe in Heaven–bring anyone you like,” and stunningly portrayed by Ian Pirie (Halo, Traces, The Dark Knight, Die Another Day).

Max goes to frenemy Kenny to help begin getting back in business–whatever that may entail.  We find Kenny making the most of AA meetings, even rejecting the advances of a woman who wants to meet him for coffee.  The woman is Yvonne, played by Rochelle Neil (Law & Order: UK, Death in Paradise), who he does happen to fall for and who happens to be a cop who works for last season’s bent copper, Steve Malone, played by Henry Pettigrew (Shetland, Death in Paradise).  One of the things Guilt gets exactly right that many shows featuring lawyer characters get wrong is the actual legal work.  She-Hulk similarly has done it right so far (Daredevil didn’t) and the best of them all will probably always be Law & Order.  Here Max doesn’t have a law license but agrees to work under Kenny, so he can still get work out the door, like divorce filings and wills.  This work serves the plot to keep Max grounded and it stands in contrast with his rich but bent past, which is always trying to pull him back in.  That is, until Max’s cellmate from prison (Scot actor Greg McHugh as Teddy) arrives to seek help finding his brother’s killer.  Per a shaky Max, “he’s the only person in prison I was afraid of”).

The second season isn’t funny like the first as much as it’s so sharply penned.  Has any TV writer used trust circles so effectively in a twisty tale?  Max pulls in Kenny, who pulls in Yvonne, who pulls in a mysterious figure (EastEnders’ Sandy McDade), who pulls in Max, who pulls in Erin, who pulls in Roy, who pulls in Steve… and a few other surprises.  And don’t forget Teddy and Sandy.  Along with a finely woven plot, Neil Forsyth’s riveting story has the year’s most satisfying ending.  Patrick Harkins replaced Robert McKillop as director this season, and both should be considered top-tier players.  As a bonus, a third and final season is already in the works for next year.  

Exquisite writing and performances by Bonnar, Elliott, Bowman, Vickers, Pirie, McHugh, Neil, McDade, Pettigrew, and last but definitely not least, Phyllis Logan put the second season of Guilt in our British TV Top 10, up there with Life on Mars/Ashes to AshesZen, Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, The Hour, and Shetland (but note Season 2 of Van Der Valk is still ahead for this year to compete for the top spot of 2022).  You could stay pretty busy with our full list of top British TV recommendations, including GraceHinterland, GlitchMystery Road, Professor T, and the first season of Sherlock, plus MarchlandsLightfields, State of Play, TracesPicnic at Hanging RockOrdeal by InnocenceUnforgottenThe BayWild Bill, QuirkeRequiem, The GloamingThe OneThe TowerCollateralRoadkill, Stay Close, The Salisbury Poisonings, and A Confession

Other British series across genres that are worth checking out (a few still to be reviewed here) include police procedurals Luther and Case Histories, fun romps like Monarch of the Glen, Para Handy, Viva Blackpool, and As Time Goes By, and “cozy mysteries” Rosemary and Thyme, Father Brown, and Death in Paradise.  One of the best of all British productions is the reboot of All Creatures Great and Small (and the original is good, too).  Of course there’s always Doctor Who for your sci-fi fix (and spin-offs Torchwood and Class), The Watch for your fantasy fix, Truth Seekers and Sea of Souls for your supernatural fix, and Spaced for more sci-fi fun, and we really should add House, MD, for Brit lead Hugh Laurie’s one-of-a-kind performance.  (We’ve also reviewed but don’t heartily recommend so much Dublin MurdersThe ABC MurdersThe Pale HorseThe Silence, The Five, The Missing, Thirteen, or Broadchurch).

A contender for the year’s best drama, catch both seasons of Guilt now on PBS Passport and on DVD.


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