As deeply uncomfortable and traumatic as ever, The Virtues is at its best when it provides no clear answers or motives in its protagonist’s descent into the past.
This The Virtues Episode 3 recap contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
The most compelling thing about The Virtues — and there are plenty of things competing for this title — is its lack of direction; how unclear it is what, exactly, Joseph (Stephen Graham) is hoping to achieve by combing through the wreckage of his past. With his ex-girlfriend taking his son abroad, he finds himself in the home of his estranged sister, Anna (Helen Behan), working for the building business of her husband, Michael (Frank Laverty), and almost dared to remember his traumatic childhood by a fellow workman, Craigy (Mark O’Halloran). But that elusive question of why remains unanswered. What does Joe have to gain — or lose — from putting himself through this?
There are ghosts in Joe’s past, most of them knocking around in the now-abandoned boys’ home where he spent a portion of his childhood. We can guess at what kind of things happened to him there; his fractured, vaguely ethereal memories make it as clear as it needs to be. Craigy claims to remember him from those days, but Craigy is a clearly unstable and flagrantly suspicious man who is open about having had a breakdown and indecently exposed himself to what he claims was an old couple. Joe’s defensiveness around him is our defensiveness, too, but the curiosity surrounding it all is also something we share. We want to know what happened even if watching Joe confront it might be deeply unpleasant for all involved.
But, again, is Joe’s intention to confront anything at all? Or is he just looking for somewhere else to escape? His attempts to find answers in the bottom of bottles don’t turn up much, only more mistakes. And the presence of Michael’s “hot mess” sister Dinah (Niamh Algar) isn’t helping either; she’s as traumatized as Joe is, just perhaps a (slight) bit better at hiding it.
As ever, the writing and direction of Shane Meadows shine through in The Virtues episode 3, along with the sublime performance of Stephen Graham, perfectly modulated as a man who knows his vices but can’t find a good enough reason to give them up. Right on the edge of trauma and calamity all the time, The Virtues isn’t fun television, but it’s undeniably riveting, and an exquisitely constructed (and seemingly neverending) spiral into despair.