‘Guilt’ Review: When the Lights Go Out in Edinburgh

Contains spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2 of “Guilt.”

“Guilt,” a pioneering series in Scottish television — it was the first drama commissioned by the newly formed BBC Scotland channel in 2019 — has built an audience well beyond its borders. A melancholy tale of family dysfunction presented as a complicated crime thriller, it combines British regionalism with peak TV-style poker-faced comedy in a way that has made it a critical darling around the world.

Created and written by Neil Forsyth, “Guilt” has arrived in dense, lively four-episode bursts; the third and final season has its American premiere on PBS’s “Masterpiece” beginning Sunday. Each installment has been organized around a psycho-philosophical theme: first guilt, then revenge in Season 2, and now, as Forsyth described it in a BBC interview, redemption.

But the pleasure of the show does not come from diagraming its moral lessons (unless that’s your thing), or from unwinding Forsyth’s sometimes maddeningly convoluted plots, which entangle sons and daughters of Edinburgh’s rough-and-tumble Leith district with the city’s gangsters, cops and politicians.

What makes “Guilt” worthwhile is Forsyth’s knack for creating characters who work their way into our affections, less by their actions than by their unconscious, soul-deep responses to life in the grim confines of Leith and the promise of something better in Edinburgh’s more comfortable precincts.

At the center of the web are Max and Jake McCall (Mark Bonnar and the marvelous Jamie Sives), brothers with very little use for each other who become bound in a seemingly endless cycle of lies, danger and recrimination. It begins in the opening minutes of Season 1 when Jake, with Max in the car’s passenger seat, accidentally runs into an old man, killing him. Jake, a gentle soul with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music (he could have wandered in from a Nick Hornby novel), wants to call the police; Max, a rapacious lawyer with a near-sociopathic lack of empathy, says no.

This is the original sin for which the brothers are still paying. Covering up their hit-and-run homicide embroils them with the Lynches, a married pair of quietly vicious gangsters whom Max and Jake are both on the run from, and scheming to take down, across the show’s three seasons. While the brothers work together for survival, they are also at each other’s throats, taking turns ruefully betraying each other, leading to imprisonment, exile and worse.

Sives brings a natural soulfulness to Jake while also making his cold double crosses of his brother believable; Bonnar is just as capable given the inverse challenge, conveying Max’s venality, vanity and desperation for success (pegged to being abandoned as a child) while also making credible his rare flashes of sympathy.

But even more crucial to the show’s effect are the amusingly vivid characters who surround the brothers: Kenny (Emun Elliott), the formerly alcoholic, surprisingly capable investigator who serves as the show’s wobbly moral center; Stevie (Henry Pettigrew), the hilariously jumpy corrupt cop; Teddy (Greg McHugh), who fully communicates his ability to dispense extreme violence while rarely actually dispensing it; Sheila (Ellie Haddington), the deadpan black widow; and Maggie Lynch, the show’s motherly, ruthless big bad, with Phyllis Logan of “Downton Abbey” playing wonderfully against type.

(Even incidental characters have distinctive moments. In the new season, Anita Vettesse, as the girlfriend of a man who gets thrown from a great height, gets to deliver this memorable couplet: “There’s nobody better at keeping their head down than me. It’s probably my biggest talent, if I’m honest with you.”)

The first season of “Guilt” was a self-contained triumph. It offered a cleverly satirical structure — as Jake and Max’s cover-up rippled out, one character after another found his lot improved, or his aspirations stoked, in confounding ways — and a satisfying ending that sent Jake out of the country and Max, accepting that he had been sold out by his brother, off to prison.

The second season, in which Max was released and pursued his improbable campaign of revenge against the Lynches, was over-plotted and overwritten, full of action-halting speeches about life and Leith. And it suffered from the absence of Jake for more than half the season — Max’s fervor was not nearly as moving or entertaining without his brother there to react to it.

The brothers are together from the start of Season 3, which puts them at the lowest, most perilous point they have reached so far. And it is largely a return to form, a suitable send-off for the battling McCalls. Kenny, Teddy, Stevie and Sheila all return, and join Max, Jake, an honest cop (Isaura Barbé-Brown) and Kenny’s no-nonsense niece (Amelia Isaac Jones), in a coalition of the somewhat willing, to take on Maggie Lynch one last time. Forsyth has fully assimilated the lessons of the Coen brothers and the history of the caper film, and with an ending that lets in more sentiment than the show has previously allowed, he gives Jake and Max slivers of their Scottish dreams.

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