The Line of Duty star is predictably great as she wrestles with the grief of her daughter’s murder in a top-notch conspiracy drama
Vicky McClure as Stella Tomlinson and Dorothy Atkinson as Jessie Cole in Without Sin.Photograph: ITV
Without Sin (ITVX) is a heavyweight thriller cut from the same cloth as Happy Valley and Save Me, so fans of deep-rooted trauma and grief rejoice, if that’s the sort of thing you do. Either way, this Nottingham-based four-parter is a very strong entry to the genre, taut and solid and compelling, and it does not outstay its welcome.
The ever watchable Vicky McClure stars as Stella, a cabby grieving for her teenage daughter Maisy, who was murdered several years earlier. As you might expect, Stella’s life has been utterly transformed by the tragedy. She has split up with her husband, Paul (Sherwood’s Perry Fitzpatrick), who is in a new relationship and who has been able to at least offer the illusion of moving forward. She has cut herself off from her social life, smokes too much weed, and gave up the office job she loved to spend long nights driving around the city dealing with drunken and difficult customers. She is in stasis, unable to do much more than simply get through the hours.
Fellow This Is England alumnus Johnny Harris plays Charles Stone, a drug dealer who grew up on the same estate as Stella, who became the muscle for a local gang, and who is now in prison for Maisy’s murder. Charles is hard to read and prone to violent outbursts. He requests to be part of a restorative justice programme, in which a mediator reaches out to Stella and Paul for a meeting, with the idea that Charles will atone for his sins and that somewhere, somehow, Stella and Paul may get the answers they need to process what has happened to their family.
Perry Fitzpatrick as Paul Tomlinson, Vicky McClure as Stella Tomlinson and Andrea Lowe as Bobbi Carter in Without Sin. Photograph: ITV
It does not play out like that. The initial meeting in prison is the spark for a thickly knotted conspiracy of sorts that slowly unravels into a dense mystery, in which nobody can be taken at their word. It does an excellent job of keeping you guessing as to everyone’s motives and levels of guilt. There is a mess of half-truths to untangle, among family, friends, organised criminals, small-time crooks, lost kids and hopeless adults. Everyone is hiding something, and it’s all just waiting to come out of the shadows.
The title points towards the idea that nobody is entirely innocent. When it comes to the drug trade, Without Sin makes its point about middle-class hypocrisy very well, without laying it on too thick. It has a strong grasp of the politics of small working-class communities, in which no secret lasts for long, because someone always knows someone who’s been talking about it. It also hints at complicated feelings around social mobility. Stella is from the estate, but she and Paul lived in a big, fancy house, and once drove a Range Rover. Some of the characters have a foot in each world, and it isn’t always comfortable for them. These are small details, but they give it a richness beyond the traditional whodunnit-type structure that it hangs on.
When it comes to the mystery of Maisy, it twists and turns. In Nottingham, Stella becomes obsessed with finding out the truth of what happened to her daughter, while in prison, Charles is dealing with his psychological issues, as well as the politics of the criminal underworld and even the politics of his own cell. Each of the four episodes finishes on a proper cliffhanger, and by the time it all comes out in the wash in the finale, there have been more than enough dead ends and red herrings to keep us hooked. It just about avoids the occasional ITV drama curse of having a run of solid episodes then throwing it all away on an implausible, far-fetched ending.
McClure is predictably great as Stella, who seems to operate at a level of numb clinging-on, until the meeting with Charles pushes her into action. Harris is similarly fantastic, never quite revealing what side he is going to come out on. He can be kind, and he can snap. Nobody here earns our full sympathy, and parents, in particular, have a lot to answer for.
This isn’t the kind of drama that whacks you with bombshell after bombshell, but instead slowly brings everything to the boil, nudging the temperature up and up. The steady, melancholic pace seems a fitting tone for the drudgery of grief. This might not be your first stop for festive cheer, but if you’re up for a top-notch wallow in a miserable guessing game, this is it.