We pick up with thirtysomething ex-con Miri Matteson (played by Daisy Haggard, co-creator of this comedy-drama with Laura Solon) for the second series of Back to Life (BBC Three/iPlayer) just a few weeks on from when we left her. She is now six weeks into life as a free woman – bar her mandatory meetings with her probation officer, Janice (Jo Martin, still lethally brilliant in a part that has been beefed up this go-round, surely in recognition of everything she did the first time) – and things are … OK. Miri is keeping her Tamagotchi alive, is taking driving lessons, is about to start a trial run as a supermarket employee and is still friends-with-benefits with neighbour Billy (Adeel Akhtar). The benefits are basically food-based (or, as Janice puts it, “You haven’t even seen his cocky yet”). After last series’ ice-cream cones, they move on in the first episode of the new to a sandwich lunch on the freezing Hythe shoreline. But the oh-so-gradual evolution of this, the daftest, tenderest relationship on television, is what makes it such a pure and painful delight. It manages to crush and swell the heart all at once.
On the other hand, Miri is still trying to come to terms with the revelations about her best friend Mandy’s (Christine Bottomley) involvement in the crime for which Miri served 18 years in prison, and her mother’s adulterous affair with Miri’s ex-boyfriend Dom (Jamie Michie); all while learning how to use the internet and smartphones, and restoring a bank account she hasn’t used for two decades.
“And things could get worse,” says Janice. “Or they could get better,” says Miri. “No,” says Janice.
As ever, Janice is right. The spine of the second series is formed by the return to Hythe of Lara’s parents (Lara being the childhood friend Miri was jailed for killing). Lara’s mother, Norah (Lizzy McInnerny, turning in an extraordinary, soul-destroying performance, despite having only a handful of lines in the whole six-episode run) approaches Miri in the supermarket to ascertain the truth about her daughter’s murder. It becomes clear that she has run away from her husband, John (“He had me put on Valium. I was mad, apparently”), and, after he finds her, that she is as cowed by him as she is by her enduring loss. Adrian Edmondson as John delivers a perfect depiction of a truly terrifying bully, feeding always on the suffering he causes. The prevalence and particularity of male violence towards women is a subject threaded through the show, from John’s coercive control and implied threats to Janice’s evoking of the whole shadow kingdom. “Ninety per cent of the women I deal with have been fucked up by a man,” she tells Miri. “And men get away with it. Honest to God, if I didn’t love cocky so much I would never have sex with men again. Just to punish them. This is a quality pum-pum, Miri.” Back to Life’s ability to move you from tears to laughter within a line, let alone a scene, remains undiminished.
The main theme, however, is forgiveness. Should the parents of a murdered child ever be expected to muster such grace? Can Miri forgive Mandy? Can she and her father, Oscar (Richard Durden), forgive her mother Caroline (Geraldine James) her treachery? Oscar thinks he has, but his descent into passive-aggression suggests otherwise. Should Caroline work for the forgiveness of her social group, the vicious Christian ladies of Hythe revelling in her downfall – or are there those whose own sins disqualify them from consideration?
Back to Life is back on its near-perfect original form. Having watched the whole season, there are moments, perhaps, when the humour becomes slightly broader-brush than we saw in the first season. But that is to quibble – especially when it contains moments such as Caroline watching Oscar put the recycling out and murmuring: “I wonder if he’ll notice I didn’t rinse the tomato tin?” just as he turns to shout imperiously: “Caroline!” Haggard and Solon have expanded their world without losing sight of the terrible event around which it turns. They have added more wonderful, acutely drawn characters (Billy’s mother – played by Meera Syal – is exactly the mother Billy must have), but also created space to take in others’ grief and explore its ramifications down the years. The show has lost none of its delicacy or nuance, nor have its makers disturbed its heart and soul – in fact, they have only added to it. All this, and extra Janice too. Quality pum-pum all round.