A character describes the complicated process of a financial transfer to another character in ITV’s latest crime drama miniseries, Payback. The person to whom it is being explained wonders if the process is too confusing. The word he specifically uses is “convoluted”. I would describe the plot of Payback with the same words, but I would preface it by adding a “needlessly” before it. I admit that I don’t exactly understand the nitty-gritty of finance, but I am sure that’s the case for most of the viewers other than people working in that field. The thing is, Payback has a lot of money-related matters going on in its narrative, and it throws around quite a lot of jargon, which kind of goes over your head. It would have been alright if all these were actually important to understand the main plot, but as you keep watching the series, you realize that it simply doesn’t matter.
Payback is a whodunit, and it has received the kind of treatment these nifty little British dramas usually receive. It comes from the mind of acclaimed English writer Jed Mercurio, famous for shows like Bodyguard and Line of Duty, both superior to his latest offering. Debbi O’Malley gets the creator and writer credit for Payback, with Mercurio backing her as an executive producer. Here’s how it goes here: Jared, an accountant with a mostly picture-perfect life—a loving wife, two adorable kids, and a hefty bank balance—is killed by random goons on the street. However, it gets revealed soon enough that Jared was actually breaking bad. What was he doing? Real shifty stuff like setting up fake accounts and doing colorful stuff like money laundering for a certain Callum Morris. This guy is obviously bad news, as he happens to be a vicious crime boss who has the cover of a noble businessman. And as always happens in a situation like this, the police have never been able to connect Morris with any bloodshed whatsoever, while perfectly knowing that it is Morris who is behind every terrible thing. Now that Lexie also happens to be an accountant, Morris demands Lexie fix the mess that was made by her dead husband. The police see an opportunity here, and they jump the gun, and they also zero in on Lexie as the catalyst who would bring Morris down.
I thought the story was intriguing enough to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. However, what baffles me here is the creative choice of sprinkling all that difficult-to-get financial stuff throughout the series. Like I have already said, it doesn’t serve any purpose. Another thing that hurts Payback is randomly introducing story arcs like enticing treats but not giving the audience anything substantial in terms of payoff. For example, I kept wondering if the au pair, who looks after Jared and Lexie’s kids, was up to something throughout the whole series. This is a camouflaging storytelling technique that doesn’t really work out here. Then there is this random inclusion of Lexie’s mother in the narrative at an extremely chaotic moment. One might argue that it is done to move around another particular plot point, where two groups of police are having a conflict amongst them regarding Lexie and Morris, but this could have been done in a different way as well, other than by introducing a random character.
The screenplay here is really faulty, and the editing does not help things at all. A story that should have been wrapped up by four episodes getting stretched to six is never a good thing, but that’s exactly what happens in Payback. But there is still salvation. It is quite strange that Payback feels like a very different show in its latter half. It keeps dragging and dragging after introducing the audience to a really cool mystery, which doesn’t really make any sense. Especially the way the show suddenly shifts gears and becomes this riveting thriller later on. My understanding here is that the people behind the show might have thought about doing something out of the box. This particular genre has been overdone to the point that churning out something strikingly original is quite a herculean task. Because everything always falls under tropes. People keep lying for better or worse; they do unexpected things, and you always find out things that you wouldn’t expect in your wildest dreams. But the thing is, people will always watch well executed shows. And you definitely don’t need to unnecessarily tweak it. People would always eat pizza, but they probably wouldn’t if it randomly became unfamiliar.
That being said, Payback still works despite all its flaws. And a giant share of the credit for that should be given to the ensemble cast. The acting in the show is downright phenomenal. Morven Christie, whom you might have seen in shows like The A World (2016–2020) and The Replacement (2017), absolutely nails it here as Lexie. She maintains a state between grieving and also plotting her way out, and Christie sells the part really well. Peter Mullan has all the charm in the world and could probably play a psychopathic mob boss in his sleep, so naturally Morris is a role where he very much excels. Christie and Mullan are the main characters here, but the supporting cast around them is excellent as well. Derek Riddell is always reliable when it comes to playing questionable characters, so DCI Guthrie is right up his alley. Eileen Duffy as the nanny, Andi Osho as a detective hellbent on bringing Jared’s murderer to justice, and Jack Greenlees as Morris’ nephew Aaron are very impressive. But the pick of the bunch among the supporting performances has to be Steven Mackintosh, who dons the hat of Morris’ right-hand man, Malcolm, aka Malky. The actors are the reason why you continue to watch this show even when it is not rewarding you.
I liked how Payback ended with a climax that actually makes sense and doesn’t just exist for the sake of a twist. In fact, the show, despite not being particularly focused on human emotions, which also doesn’t allow you to invest in its characters, actually ends on a very humane note. After all the murder and mayhem, this was kind of necessary.