Save Me was a visceral character drama about people driven to extremes

Save Me was a visceral character drama about people driven to extremes (Sky)

This article contains significant spoilers for Save Me.

Save Me was a visceral and unrelenting piece of character drama, one that continually pushes its characters to their limits and beyond. Indeed, Save Me can perhaps be best summed up as a show about people driven to personal extremes, and the difficult acts that become necessary as a result.

The series follows Nelson ‘Nelly’ Rowe (Lennie James), a man whose life is turned upside down when his estranged daughter Jody mysteriously disappears. Immediately, comparisons to a particular tradition of crime dramas spring to mind; on paper, it feels as though Save Me shares similarities with programmes like Broadchurch or Kiri, centred as they all are around a child that’s missing or dead. However, Save Me neatly elucidates and overcomes a problem that thus far has seemed endemic to the genre: structured, as these programmes are, around a child that’s always defined by their absence, at times it feels like the characters are responding to the idea of the child moreso than anything else. There’s a distance there, inherently positioning the child at a remove – how much do you ever know Danny Latimer? Save Me cleverly takes what can be a failing of the genre and builds it into the premise, presenting the series from the perspective of a character who was only ever dimly aware of his daughter anyway. Not only does it remove this potential flaw, it elevates it; the father-daughter relationship at the heart of Save Me genuinely feels like a new addition to the genre, a clear demonstration that there’s still new stories to tell.

Describing the series as ‘dark’ or ‘gritty’ feels inadequate, if only because of how ubiquitous such descriptions have become. Save Me is much more distinct than that, a far more idiosyncratic and specific piece than simply ‘gritty’ suggests. Certainly, it deals with dark subject matter; it gradually becomes clear that Jody is being trafficked, and Nelly takes it upon himself to delve into that world, attempting to find her. There’s a deftness to this, a real skill in how Save Me interrogates its lead, and it becomes a genuinely compelling character study of a man pushing himself to lengths he didn’t realise he was capable of. It’d perhaps be more accurate to describe the series as ‘visceral’ – because of quite how evocative and raw it was, laying open the depths of its characters as it does.

Lennie James as Nelly and Suranne Jones as Claire in Save Me (Sky)

It’s merits consideration as to what these extremes look like, of course. In turn, then, it’s a scene from the last episode that’s worth highlighting, mainly because it’s indicative of quite how powerful Save Me can be – one that doesn’t feature Nelly in fact, but rather Claire (Suranne Jones), his estranged partner and Jody’s mother.

She too is pushed to extremes across the course of Save Me; it’s never more apparent than when she visits Luke (Alexander Arnold), hoping to convince him to reveal Jody’s whereabouts. Before their confrontation, the camera lingers on a knife on the table, and immediately a vision of the scene to come forms: Claire will grab the knife, threaten Luke, and take control. It’s Chekhov’s knife. We’ve seen this before, we know what’s going to happen. But the gun never fires – or rather, the knife is never used. The scene simply continues. Luke demands sex in exchange for information, and Clare acquiesces. It’s an intensely uncomfortable moment, captured perfectly by director Nick Murphy; what’s notable, though, is how the dynamic shifts. Claire’s vulnerability and desperation quickly hardens into determination, and she does in fact take control. Suranne Jones shines here; it wouldn’t be exactly right to say she gives her best performance of the series in this moment, but rather, it’s here where she gives a performance you couldn’t quite imagine in any other programme, because you couldn’t quite imagine this happening in any other programme.

What’s galling, though, is that it doesn’t make a difference. Jody isn’t there, and the series ends without her being found. Arguably, it’s unsatisfying, a conscious rejection of a neat conclusion; if one was being cynical, you can attribute it to a desire to set up a second season. But it’s actually something subtler and more interesting than that, given it’s not simply that Jody isn’t found – Nelly finds another girl, Grace. It reframes the extremes Nelly and Claire went to as a crucible – not a means to an end on their own terms, but a trial, almost in preparation for something more.

It’s underscored by the closing shot of the series: Nelly, at the pub, surrounded by the other regulars, mirroring how the series began. On the surface, it looks like nothing has changed – but Save Me uses that cyclical structure to underscore just how much is different now. That final image of Nelly belies a certain sense of purpose that wasn’t quite there at the beginning, a newfound determination wrought by the extremes he went to to find Jody.

Now, finally, he’s ready to save her.

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