Save Me Too review: Darkly gripping
Ivan Radford | On 08, Apr 2020
Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1 of Save Me. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review of Season 1 here.
“This is not the end of it,” declares Nelly (Lennie James) in the second season of Save Me. Written by and starring James, the show was a riveting blow to your heart and gut when it first premiered back in 2018. It introduced us to Nelly, a lowlife chancer who found himself with a shot at redemption and purpose when he discovered the daughter he barely knew had been abducted – and he was a suspect.
What ensued was a gripping, desperate push from this man on the outside to put himself in the middle of the investigation and claw his way to the truth. “Save Me” was the call that rang in his head, driving him on to find closure. “Save Me Too” takes its title from the fact that, to date, Nelly has rescued one young woman from the dark underworld of sex trafficking, but still not found his daughter – and also from the gnawing truth that, whether he succeeds or not, he needs just as much saving as she does.
It’s a cracking premise, rooted in a superbly realised character, and James sinks his teeth into every last inch of him. He doesn’t just play Nelly; he inhabits him, and a large part of Save Me and Save Me Too’s appeal is just watching him at work. We already knew from The Walking Dead that he could intensely portray a broken man, but Nelly springs off the screen with countless tiny details all adding to his sympathetic, earnest sincerity. It’s there in the way he glares angrily, avoids eye contact awkwardly or, when trying to get something out of someone, quietly sizes up how to manipulate them while smiling with irresistible charm.
We pick things up 17 months after Season 1, as Nelly’s gaping hole in his life is getting bigger – despite his attempts to fill it by helping out Grace (Olive Gray), the woman he rescued at the end of Season 1. Positioning himself as a friend, father figure and fellow avenger, he’s at once a terrible role model and the best thing for her.
If that’s where Save Me shines, where it excels is how equally well realised every other character is on screen. The show’s first season brought its community of eccentrics, outcasts and other dubious types to life with an immersive attention to detail, and going back into their world is a seamless step, with each relationship immediately convincing. Even characters who don’t get much screen time still ring with authenticity, not that Save Me Too is in the business of short-changing anyone – it speaks volumes that cast members postponed other projects to ensure they were available to reprise their roles.
Suranne Jones remains completely magnetic as Claire, Jody’s mother, who is as traumatised by her disappearance as Nelly, but also willing to contemplate the possibility that she’s already gone. But she, her husband Barry and Nelly are unavoidably brought back together by the trial of Gideon (Adrian Edmondson), who is accused of sexually exploiting Grace. Amid all of this, it’s testament to how well balanced Save Me’s ensemble is that there’s still room to introduce Lesley Manville as Gideon’s wife, Jennifer. Her scenes with Nelly are as thought-provoking as they are heart-wrenching, with both of them wanting and needing to talk about what they’ve gone through, and both of them finding it impossible and painful to do so – Nelly positions himself as the wizened, weary expert of trauma, but is no closer to closure than anyone else on screen, using their conversations to extract possible information about Jody’s kidnappers rather than find catharsis.
That kind of weighty conversation is par for the course for Save Me Too, which takes the harrowing darkness of Season 1 and normalises it. Here, the abuse, grief and nasty secrets aren’t just a source of gripping revelations; they’re also the routine in which all of these people are entrenched. Stephen Graham gets less screen time as Melon, but in many ways remains the most disturbingly interesting character, as he and Bernie try to deal with his past thoughts in a way that’s both considerate and unsettling – how many other shows on TV today dare to tackle these kind of issues from every angle you least expect?
There aren’t easy answers to any of these things and often, the show finds its strength in the way it just captures the difficult of not knowing. For Nelly’s girlfriend Zita, it’s not being sure about him and not being sure about trusting Grace. For Nelly’s mate Goz, it’s not knowing the kind of danger that Nelly is dragging him into, and not knowing whether Nelly is aware of the collateral damage he wreaks or not.
And, at the heart of it all, there’s Nelly, who doesn’t know whether Jody will ever be found, doesn’t know, if she is, what he would even do, and doesn’t know whether redemption ever will be possible. He hurtles through everyone else’s lives with an apology for how he’s hurt them, but with an expectation that they will also automatically forgive him – but if Jody is ever found, what excuse does he have then to keep going the way he has been?
Save Me Too builds that uncertainty to an unbearable level, boiling it down to one achingly simple, unavoidable dilemma: what if Nelly had to choose between saving Grace and his quest to save Jody? Because while the end of Season 1 offered Nelly a taste of redemption of sorts, his rescue of Grace only paved the way for a whole new world of thorny recovery and awkward support, a new and immediately tangible challenge to commit and see something through.
Beautifully performed, grippingly told and wonderfully authentic, Save Me’s sequel is a mature, complex and organic extension of its impeccable first season. “This is not the end of it,” declares Nelly. When the end credits roll on the final episode, you’ll certainly hope it isn’t.
Save Me and Save Me Too is available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also watch on-demand on NOW TV, for £8.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial. (An Entertainment Pass auto-renews at £8.99 a month until 1st September 2020, £9.99 thereafter unless cancelled.)