John Rebus is back, baby! This time, it's on the BBC, with screenwriter Gregory Burke bringing together characters and elements from across Ian Rankin's novels for a new spin on the troubled Scottish detective.

Outlander's Richard Rankin is playing the title role, here in his early 40s, with the action unfolding in present-day Edinburgh, where you are seemingly never more than six feet away from a gangster, as the well-known saying goes.

Nasty b**tards are 10 a penny in the six-part reboot, in which the grisly underbelly of Edinburgh is laid bare.

In the opening scene, DS Rebus attempts to suffocate his arch-antagonist Cafferty in the back of an ambulance after the gangster purposely rams his mentor George Blantyre off the road, leaving him paralysed.

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That's swiftly followed by Rebus's brother Michael carrying out not one but two armed robberies, the second of which prompts the arrival of a couple of Ulster paramilitaries. Just another day in paradise, eh?

And lest we forget the Tarantino-esque throat-slashing of Jimmy McJagger at the hospital, and the blowtorching of Shaun Strang as if he's a Tesco Finest crème brûlée.

But while the series is a crime thriller – there's certainly no denying that – it's simultaneously so much more.

Richard Rankin as John Rebus in Rebus. He is wearing a t-shirt and dark jacket and staring straight at the camera, with Edinburgh Castle out of focus in the background.
Richard Rankin as John Rebus. BBC/Viaplay /Eleventh Hour/Mark Mainz

At the forefront of the narrative is the relationship between two brothers, with Burke building upon Michael's role in the novels as a means of exploring complex family dynamics.

There is love there, even though their first encounter ends with the detective striking Michael, who collapses onto a coffee table following a snarling back and forth between the pair, the weight of which buckles beneath the sudden impact.

Rebus repeatedly strives to protect his brother, keeping key information about his criminal dealings to himself in the hope that he can covertly iron out any creases without alerting his boss DI Templar.

When Michael points a gun at Cafferty as revenge for the death of his former army comrade Andy, Rebus implores him not to pull the trigger because doing so would "ruin" his life.

But their brotherhood is stifled by layers of unspoken resentment, some of which can be attributed to good old-fashioned sibling rivalry, which sounds juvenile, but can so often extend beyond childhood.

When they look at one another, they identify what the other doesn't have.

The male ego and the shame that comes with failing to achieve the traditional markers of manhood, such as providing for your family, another key theme, also fans the flames.

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Michael moves back to a dilapidated estate in Fife, which is where the brothers were raised, after his business collapses due to the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis. He takes up delivery work, but his finances continue to spiral, his low wages unable to cut it as the red refuses to turn black. And when he's fired after failing to reach his daily targets, which are laughably unattainable, he needs a solution, and fast.

The failure of the state to protect its citizens clearly weighs heavy on Burke, who uses Rebus as a Trojan horse to spotlight how our current systems are wilfully failing so many people. How does one fall into a life of crime? All too easily, as Michael's arc demonstrates. The correlation between poverty and criminality is undeniable.

We see that in Michael's teenage sons, who shoplift some noodles after sensing that money is tight. It's a minor detail, and one their dad laughs off, but the expression on his wife Chrissie's face is one of despair, which says it all.

Rebus, by contrast, doesn't want for money, his police salary paying as much as he needs to live a comfortable live in Edinburgh city centre, the castle on his doorstop.

But unlike Michael, the detective lives alone. His ex-wife Rhona has since re-married and is expecting another baby, carrying her further away from him. And Michael's comments about her new husband Lockie fathering his daughter Sammy also sting - hence the broken coffee table.

Lockie's extreme wealth, as a fund manager, also raises interesting questions about class and identity. Will Sammy, who's set to gain so much (a hefty trust find) lose part of herself in the process?

Yet, Michael's marriage, despite the challenges placed before him and Chrissie, however desperate things get, never feels at risk of collapse. If anything, hardship brings them closer together.

Michael standing in his kitchen
Brian Ferguson as Michael Rebus. Eleventh Hour Films/Mark Mainz

Burke also has a lot to say about our army personnel, namely the lack of support they receive from the state when transitioning back into civilian life.

Michael is struggling to make ends meet, while Andy is living rough. And both of them, alongside Neil and Cammy, also army veterans, become embroiled in the plot to steal from Cafferty. Yes, they have the collective skillset to make it work, which makes saying yes easier than it would do otherwise. But it's more than that, as Michael explains to Rebus before he takes a shot at the gangster.

"That day when I robbed those boys, the drug dealers in the flat, I felt alive again," he admits. "I knew what I was for."

In the army, Michael had a purpose. He felt that he mattered, that he had something of value to contribute to a cause, alongside his brothers in arms. But all that fell away when he was thrust back into every day life, leaving Michael unsure of himself and unsteady on his feet.

Accustomed to a lifetime of not opening up and talking about the concerns and complaints plaguing him into the small hours, Michael is only able to be honest about what's really fuelling his behaviour when he has a gun in his hand.

This isn't Burke wanting to kickstart a moral debate about the role of the army and the ethics of what it means to serve. This is a drama about people and how, without a safety net in place, we're all capable of falling through the cracks.

Rebus still showing Michael and John standing by a wall looking intrigued
Rebus. Eleventh Hour Films/Mark Mainz

We see that in Rebus, who is always teetering on the edge. Violence and drink offer him an easy out when he's unable or unwilling to express himself. And that push and pull between being the man he desperately wants to be, for his ex-wife and his daughter, and the darker recesses of his character, lends the drama a more intimate type of tension alongside the ongoing gang warfare.

He's now in therapy, fighting against his impulsivity and self-sabotage, but that's easier said than done with Cafferty on the scene, their Batman-Joker-style relationship a thorn in Rebus's side.

Can a leopard ever change its spots? Rebus does shows signs of change, Burke's writing not without hope. But the road to recovery is long, the route indirect.

As much as Rebus is a lean-in-to-avoid-missing-a-moment crime thriller, it's just as concerned with the nuts and bolts of the human condition, which gives the writing real heft and takes it far beyond how the show has been marketed.

This is a story about family, whatever form that may take, and whatever the demands our family, chosen or otherwise, place on us.

It's about the state of modern society and the people who have been left behind to rot, a self-serving government and capitalist greed combining in devastating fashion.

It's about the corrosive, far-reaching hand of toxic masculinity, a weapon of choice for some, but so often to their own detriment too.

Above all else, Rebus is about the choices that we make and what those decisions reveal about who we are.

There's no shortage of gangland peacocking here, with twists and turns aplenty, but Burke has a lot on his mind - and you bet he's going to say it.

Rebus launches on Friday 17th May. All episodes will be available on BBC iPlayer from 6am, with episode one airing on BBC Scotland on Friday 17th May at 10pm and on BBC One on Saturday 18th May.


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