If you want to know how Nelly (Lennie James) is doing 17 months on from the disappearance of his daughter, Jody, you only need look at his coat. When we first met him in the 2018 drama Save Me, his trademark yellow puffa was fresh on, full of sunshine and hot air. Now, much like Nelly, it is grimy and deflated but still in one piece.
It’s inevitable that the early scenes of Save Me Too (Sky Atlantic) don’t have the paralysing tension of its critically adored predecessor, though that’s not a complaint. At the start of the first series, Nelly was hauled out of bed and into a police station to be told his estranged 13-year-old daughter had gone missing; she had left behind a video in which she told her mother, Claire (Suranne Jones), that she was going to meet her dad. Only it turned out the man she had been talking to online was not Nelly and she was walking into a trap laid by sex traffickers.
The second series delivers a more creeping anxiety as Nelly, who we first see sitting in a car with bloodied hands, focuses his attention on Grace (Olive Gray), the girl he inadvertently rescued at the end of the first series and could be the key to finding Jody. Grace is 14 and hooked on the drugs supplied by Gideon (Adrian Edmondson), a sixtysomething man who she once called her boyfriend. Nelly needs to get to Gideon, who he suspects knows of Jody’s whereabouts, and who was last seen auctioning off girls to the highest bidder. Nelly needs to get to Gideon, who we last saw auctioning off girls to the highest bidder and who he reckons knows Jody’s whereabouts. In order to find him, Nelly approaches Gideon’s wife, Jennifer (Lesley Manville), a woman rendered hollow by the realisation that her marital role was not that of a soulmate but a smokescreen for her husband’s basest urges.
Once again, James is electrifying as Nelly, the flawed and infuriating protagonist who seeks forgiveness for his absence by returning his child safely to her mother. Nelly’s intentions are good and his commitment unexpected, but he is also impulsive, self-interested, a serial screw-up. Where Blanche DuBois famously depended on the kindness of strangers, Nelly depends on the neighbours on his estate for a roof over his head, for the use of a car, for a tenner or a pint. Before to all this, he’d have been the last person you went to in a crisis.
It can be hard to take your eyes off James here, but not to would be to miss some quietly brilliant performances, among them Stephen Graham as Melon, a convicted sex offender who insists he has been rehabilitated, and Alice Feetham as his young wife Bernie, who is now pregnant. At a scan they find out they are having a girl; Melon is delighted but Bernie’s plastered-on smile masks a concern she dare not voice. But it’s the script, written by James, that truly takes the breath away: clever, gripping while never slipping into cliché. The existence of Save Me Too could be seen as superfluous, an unnecessary stringing out of a near-perfect thriller. However, our hero’s failure to find his child first time around is an apt reflection of his character – a well-meaning man who so often falls short. It stands to reason that Nelly would stubbornly keep up the search, a would-be saviour in a tatty polyester coat.