The consensus of opinion, as far as I can tell, is that Alex Wheatle, the fourth episode of Small Axe, is also the weakest, granting an exceptionally high lower bound for "weakness". I don't agree, but it's not hard to understand why somebody might come to that conclusion: the 67-minute story (written and directed, as always, by Steve McQueen, this time with Alastair Siddons returning from Mangrove) gives itself very little room to do anything other than sketch out some ideas swirling around Alex Wheatle (Sheyi Cole), who would, after the events of this film, become a celebrated writer and children's novelist - a fact that has nothing really to do with the plot, though the concluding title card suggests that it did, and I think this might also have something to do with why this entry has gotten a slightly cooler reception (I suspect that the degree to which Wheatle's future success informs Alex Wheatle is substantially inflected by whether you had heard of him prior to watching the episode, as I had not).

He was also involved in a major riot in Brixton in April 1981, at the age of 18, and this does have everything to do with the plot. It is the structural center of everything else that happens, and indeed it is already in the past when we first meet Alex, a scrawny youth arriving at prison to serve out his sentence for his involvement in the riot. His cellmate is a much older, burlier Rastafarian named Simeon (Robbie Gee), in the middle of a hunger strike that has left his digestive system in a pretty horrible state, meaning that the small space is filled with noises and smells just as unavoidable as the man's enormous personality, and after a few days of this, Alex snaps and attacks his cellmate. Because he is outweighed by something like a 3-1 ratio, this ends quickly, decisively, and not in his favor, and then Simeon does something extraordinary: he restrains the flailing Alex in a hold that looks more like a protective hug than a chokehold, and urges the young man to share his story. Gee's performance (which is wonderful, and it's a pity that the tiny film's fragmentary storytelling doesn't end up giving him more time to work with it) makes this a warm moment of support and kindness, and Cole's shocked reaction to it makes it clear that these are not things he is used to getting from other people, and with that we're off into a kaleidoscope of flashbacks that show how Alex grew up from a cowering child (Asad-Shareef Muhammad), abandoned by his unknown Jamaican immigrant parents to a cruel children's home where he's the only Black inmate, to becoming enough of a part of the Brixton West Indian community that he's able to take part in those fateful protests.

It's a character study, then, though a character study that is by necessity incomplete and hazy. The central crisis of Alex Wheatle has nothing to do with the Brixton uprising - Mangrove already has a protest-turned-riot covered for Small Axe, anyway - but with Alex, who never knew his parents and has no real heritage to speak of, just a constant confused present, working to construct an identity that is nurturing and true to his feelings. It is a work in progress, and by the time the 67 minutes are up, he's closer than when he started, but still finding his way. This is, I think, much more artistically satisfying than any more pat, concrete conclusion would have been (which is part of why I have no use at all for that "and then he became a bestselling author and MBE" clarification at the end), even if it is much less conventionally satisfying as a narrative.

Cole is extremely good at playing two parallel versions of Alex at all times: the nerdy English kid who hasn't belonged anywhere for his entire childhood and adolescence, and the accretion of external signifiers of Afro-Caribbean culture that he adopts a little bit too self-consciously. He is an enthusiastic student of the people who adopt and guide him in his new community, especially the patient, good-natured Dennis Isaacs (Jonathan Jules), but not always an adept one; his very over-thought way of incorporating slang and uncertainly putting on a Jamaican accent match with his clumsy way of carrying his body and wearing clothes. But the point of this is never to mock Alex for not fitting in, but to celebrate him for discovering, piecemeal, what feels right to him, and incorporating it into his life in a way that works organically. The earnest, wide-open energy Cole brings to all of this makes Alex impossibly likable, an eager kid who has found something to love and believe in for the first time, underscoring the importance of community bonding that has threaded all throughout Small Axe, but never felt so nice as it feels in this episode.

The structure of the episode as a whole latches onto this idea of an incomplete identity-in-progress, and runs with it. It is a fractured, difficult piece, surely the most structurally challenging thing McQueen has directed (which isn't actually a very high bar to clear), but its ellipses and incomplete shards of scenes and character beats fit so nicely within Alex's own attempt to define himself that I found it all very stimulating and empathetic, rather than frustrating. And this extends to the style as much as to the writing: there are very obvious stylistic divisions between the prison framework narrative (which, unsurprisingly, is at times a dead ringer for McQueen's last prison-set project, Hunger), its gloom and its yellowed monochrome, and the softer white lighting of the Brixton streets. But even within that large-scale division, McQueen and co-editor Chris Dickens and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner find small ways of suggesting the different "phases" of Alex's development: different angles are used, with different amounts of lighting, and sometimes very different approaches to camera movement, which is generally slower and smoother the more that Alex feels like he belongs someplace.

That last thing is hardly the most innovative or surprising way to use style, but Alex Wheatle is doing quite enough to keep us working with its patchwork narrative; it doesn't have to crush us with equally challenging style. Either way, the energetic messiness of the style and storytelling give this a great deal of vitality that gets us into Alex's head so well that I'm not at all looking to complain. Especially since this is the first episode of Small Axe that's first and foremost an individual character study: the series' overall focus on the strength and precarity of London's West Indian population is the background that informs the shape and stakes of that character study, but it's smart to keep expanding the different routes into the series' overall themes, and to my mind, Alex Wheatle is an awfully effective twist on the approaches the anthology has thus far taken.