Maybe by coincidence, but more likely because I can only handle one at a time, I’ve had a steady stream of organized crime dramas to watch in succession. Having finished up the last season of Peaky Blinders and completed my Boardwalk Empire rewatch, I felt somewhat without. But then Gangs of London answered a call I didn’t even know I had made.
In the modern cosmopolitan city, London’s various gangs are jarred when the head of the leading gang, Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney), is unexpectedly killed. His son, Sean Wallace (Joe Cole) being thrust from heir to leader sets off a chain reaction of lost money, distrust, lack of faith, and a whole bunch of carnage. Twists and turns are plentiful but natural, as the viewer takes a trip through navigating the mess they call ‘organized crime,’ revealing tidbits to the audience in such a way that makes for clever dramatic irony and suspense.
By being one part The Departed, one part Guy Ritchie movie, and splashed with the blood of a thousand The Raids, Gangs of London ends up scratching multiple itches simultaneously. It’s what happens if you let a British creator (Gareth Evans, who wrote and directed two of the nine episodes), famous for bloody fight scenes, tackle your common “sad gang leader” story reminiscent of Sons of Anarchy, The Sopranos and Peaky Blinders (and a bit of Arrested Development, if were being completely real). But there’s a stunning difference between Gangs of London and its cohorts that isn’t just the well-shot and bloody action scenes; this one is story-driven. The aforementioned successful crime shows focus on the character; how the life of crime affects the sad boy gang leaders, and their transformations as a result of their tribulations. Gangs of London is not, as it initially suggests, about Sean Wallace, nor is it even about Elliot Finch (Sope Dirisu), it’s about the dirty deeds that Sean’s name is attached to.
Much like British crime dramas we know from Ritchie and Matthew Vaughan, this story isn’t about our lead, in fact, it barely spends any time with him. It’s about the disastrous consequences of multiple characters’ intersecting issues. Often, episodic television gives us more character driven stories because they have the time to. With seasons of a show, characters have time to develop, their behaviour becoming predictable, then they’re shoved into unpredictable situations. For better or for worse, Gangs of London takes the film approach, letting us learn just enough about the characters to see their behaviour as consistent. Better, because this twist on the norm keeps you on your toes and allows the kind of convoluted long running story you might otherwise only get from a rapidly released film trilogy like Pusher. The “for worse” element of that is we don’t get enough from some of the characters to be sufficiently jarred by their behaviour. Sean Wallace is underdeveloped until the exact moment it begins to matter. His mother, Marian Wallace (Michelle Fairley), should have been the most compelling, but her fall happens so quickly, there’s no shock value. Some of the biggest reveals roll right off of you because you don’t have enough rapport with those affected by it to care. The acting is so strong, that each character is compelling enough, their motivations immediately clear. But that makes it even more of a burn when you don’t spend any time with them.
It’s impossible to talk about the show without mentioning the action sequences. From the first episode, you’ll gather that they show is not too shy to showcase carnage. Maybe I’ve compared this to enough other media, but the mob carnage feels a lot like the slasher parts of crime drama giant, Gangster No. 1. Knowing who is at the helm, this makes a lot of sense. Gareth Evans, famous for the action sequences jammed into The Raid, Xavier Gens, who directed Hitman and some lesser known horror films, and Corin Hardy, whose most recent feature is The Nun are the driving forces behind the series. There are a few scenes that will be talked about like the best of Netflix’s comic book shows, particularly in episodes five and six. Particularly, episode five could stand solo as a carnage laden short that’ll make you want to shake the blood and tears off yourself.
Toxic families at the helm of controversial empires have always been exciting fodder for television. Our ethics and loyalties are tested when we find ourselves rooting for characters who we’d otherwise bolt from, praising their sense of family, or sometimes just their sense of style. By taking this common and well-loved recipe, but choosing story over character, and painting it red, Gangs of London provides a refreshing new take on the genre that evokes elements of our favourite films.