Kelvin Holland

Gangs of London Series Review: Butchery, Betrayal, and Grief—A Journey through London’s Underworld

Project Info

  • Written by Kelvin Holland
  • Category Writing, Movie & Series Reviews

Butchery, Betrayal and Grief—A Journey through London’s Underworld

Warning: The following review contains graphic descriptions of violence.

The camera shows London’s vast skyline at twilight rotated 180 degrees. Thousands of lights twinkle from the windows and rooftops of hundreds of towers and skyscrapers that point down into an upside-down sky filled with dark clouds. At first, the scene is pleasing, even soothing until you realize you are looking from the point of view of a young man who is dangling from a rope tied to his ankle. The young man screams and begs for his life to a dark figure who stands above him, pouring gasoline on him. The camera zooms in on the dark figure. Enter Sean Wallace (Joe Cole), the son of Finn Wallace (Colm Meany) London’s most powerful crime boss who has been recently murdered. Today is his father’s funeral. “What else can I do?” Sean responds in an emotionally broken voice before dropping a lit match on the screaming young man. Then the camera lets you watch him burn and fall slowly. This is episode one, scene one.

Be advised that the AMC Network and Sky Studio’s series Gangs of London is not your typical gangster show; it is disturbing and dangerous. It has a TV-MA rating for its “…intense violence, and subject matter related to mental health and suicide,” deservedly so. The violence is not the usual stylized pugilistic acrobatics and ballistic ballets. It is raw and horrific. Even the characters who are the perpetrators of the violence often flinch and psychologically retch at their handiwork. But it is not GOL’s depiction of violence that makes it dangerous, but rather its ambition. It defies the genre and bucks its conventions. GOL challenges the viewer’s assumptions and expectations.

If you are like most fans of the gangster genre then you probably love the swagger and slang of the gangster protagonist, be it Edward G. Robinson’s fast-talking “my gun’s gonna speak its peace” mobster Rico from the 1931 classic movie Little Caesar or James Gandolfini’s Jersey suburban “Bada-Bing Bada-Boom’ mob boss Tony Soprano of The Sopranos. You won’t find much swagger or one-liners to re-enact with your friends in this show. If you are a fan of crime dramas with ingenious plots (e.g., Netflix’s Spanish production of Money Heist) or subplots that take deep dives into the daily minutia of the criminal world, you won’t find that here either. You are better off watching another AMC crime drama, Breaking Bad. It is a brilliant show, but after watching the complete series, you may feel you have earned certification as a Meth Cook Assistant Lab Tech.

GOL doesn’t hook the viewer with facile bravado or labyrinthine capers but rather with rich and diverse characters who elicit a visceral response, in other words, punch you in the gut. At its core, GOL is a series about grief, sacrifice, family, and individuation: the human condition. It explores what people do, rightly or wrongly, in the name of love. GOL’s exciting intertwined subplots and action scenes are just a pretext to ask the characters, and by extension, its viewers, the question, “is there anything you wouldn’t do for your family?”

On the surface, the premise is simple. Sean Wallace inherits control of London’s consortium of crime bosses who represent many of the ethnic and immigrant minority communities of the UK: Albanians, Kurds, Pakistanis, and others. GOL paints a criminal underworld that undergirds the “on-the-level” legit world of commerce. The sundry storefronts of Kurdish groceries, Albanian bakeries, and Chinese restaurants to the multibillion-dollar corporate juggernaut, Wallace Real Estate & Finance, are just fronts and window dressing for the real shadow criminal economy. When Sean calls a halt to all business until his father’s killer is found, the consortium is plunged into a violent disarray that pours out into London’s alleys and main streets.

But beneath the surface, GOL is a creative spin on the ancient Greek and Elizabethan revenge tragedies, complete with apparitions, soliloquies, butchery, foreshadowing, and madness. Garth Evans and Mike Flannery, the creators of GOL, season one, are deft storytellers who never lose sight of their ultimate goal, which is to illuminate and traverse the interior landscapes and the defining fault lines that compel the story’s diverse and rich characters.

One of the ways that Evans and Flannery accomplish this is with fantastic writing that connects the viewer to the characters. See below how Evans and Flannery craft Ed Dumani’s (Lucian Msamati) eulogy for Finn Wallace into exposition that ensouls the characters at the same time that it ensnares the viewer’s attention and sympathies.

No Blacks. No Irish. A city of closed doors brought us together. United us. That’s how Finn and I started working together. Finn came over as a 12-year-old immigrant. We met as young teenagers on the streets of London. “You and me. We’re just the same.” That’s what he said to me. “Illegitimate bastard children of the great British Empire.” We made an agreement–by the time we were done, there would not be one single door in this city we could not get behind.

Msamati’s performance imbues the speech with genuine emotion and affection that is palpable. GOL absorbs the viewer into London’s criminal underworld and the psychological and mythic underworld of its own making.

Sean Wallace is an intrepid and resolute Hamlet, but he gets no more satisfaction than the original, perhaps even less. Only after Sean has slaughtered dozens of people to find his father’s killer that he discovers how his father has betrayed his whole family and violated the only honor code: Never kill children.

Elliot Finch (Sope Dirisu) is by far the most dangerous of all of Sean Wallace’s enemies because he is the most hidden. Elliot is the inverse of Sean. Sean’s white. Elliot is black. Sean is a crime boss who’s losing control. Elliot is a cop finally making headway after being undercover for two years. Sean is haunted by his father’s expectation of him to be a “king.” Elliot was raised by the axiom that “a pawn can never be king.”

But this is not just another high body count movie about men who Jung-fu shadowbox their Pops.  If Sean is Hamlet, then Marian Wallace (the incredible Michelle Fairley) is Mother Macbeth. Marian is not just a dutiful mother and wife with no agency. She can traffick guns, steal heroin, pull an enemy’s fingernails out with pliers, and do it “backward and in heels.” Marian is fierce, ambitious, and emotionally nuanced. She is not just an incidental nurturer; she’s a contender. Marian also must reckon with betrayal, grief, and the consequences of her actions.

There are so many more astounding performances: Brian Vernel as Billy Wallace, Narges Rashidi as Lale, Orli Shuka (deserves an award for his second season performance) as Luan Dushaj, just to name a few.

GOL is an enthrallingly nerve-raw and action-filled series. GOL uses great writing, stunning performances, and masterful editing to play Three-card Monte with the viewer’s expectations. In doing so, it compels viewers to question their assumptions about the characters in the story as well as their assumptions about their own world. That’s what makes GOL so dangerous: it is art.