Two kids from the muddy outskirts of London, hired through a burner phone, travel to a dilapidated apartment building under the pretense of killing a pedophile. But there’s something they don’t know until it’s too late: The man they’ve been hired to kill is Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney). For 20 years, Finn has sat at the head of the underworld table. His assassination at the hands of two nobodies not only creates a power vacuum among the city’s many gangland factions, but angers his temperamental son Sean (Joe Cole) to seek justice. In creators Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery’s visceral AMC show “Gangs of London”—five of the nine hour-long episodes were screened for review—a saga of criminal intrigue mixes ruthless action sequences with even more ruthless crime lords.
By its very name, “Gangs of London” draws comparisons to Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.” But the two are only comparable in the sense that, like any other gangster flick, the show depicts a new generation trying to carve out what’s theirs while defending their father’s sins. In that spirit, while “The Godfather” begins with a wedding, “Gangs of London” opens with a funeral. Sean, unlike the peacemaking Don Corleone, is mercilessly working to consolidate even more power. The Wallaces control everything. Their name can literally be found painted across the city skyline, as they’ve taken the expected tradition of mobsters owning construction companies to new heights by erecting skyscrapers and using the large building projects as money laundering shells.
As Sean’s confidant and business partner, Alex (Paapa Essiedu) explains, “Everything is a shell.” For instance, a woman like the Kurdish militant Lale (Narges Rashidi) can own a convenience store and use its bowels as a nerve center for her men to smuggle cash by stuffing it into Fruit Loop boxes. In fact, “Gangs of London” is a globetrotting series, leaping across the map from Turkey to Nigeria, with every location holding a secret concerning the ulterior motives of each gangster.
In a world teeming with betrayal, Sean trusts very few people beyond his family, which includes a sister (Valene Kane) estranged from their quick and lethal mother Marian (Michelle Fairley), and a wayward brother Billy (Brian Vernel)—who much like the dynamic between Fredo and Michael Corleone—who desperately wants to prove to his brother that he can help. In conjunction with the Wallaces is the Dumani family. While the aforementioned Alex runs the business side, his wary father Ed (Lucian Msamati) once acted as a confidant to Finn, and now not only monitors the Wallaces, but Alex’s interior designing sister Shannon (Pippa Bennett-Warner) too. Due to Finn’s assassination, the bonds once holding these families together begin to fray from distrust, backstabbing, and the unsettling secrets Finn himself held from everybody.
This is the world that Elliot (Sope Dirisu)—an undercover cop trying to break into Sean’s inner-circle—walks into. A bruiser who cares for his disabled ex-boxing father, Elliot punches his way up the underworld ladder. First by helping Sean to uncover Finn’s murderer, then by quelling the many gangland factions, big and small, rising against the Wallaces. In fact, whether it’s Lale, the Albanian mafia chief—who Sean most suspects of murdering his dad—Luan (Orli Shuka) or the Pakistani heroin kingpin Asif (Asif Raza Mir), each episode opens with a new crime boss taking their swing. In a stream of exhilarating action sequences where hand-to-hand combat matches stylistic camerawork (the showrunners haven’t met a canted angle they didn’t like), Elliot brawls against assassins and henchmen alike. “Gangs of London” is a gruesome crime series where every cracking bone is heard and every ounce of blood is spilled.
And yet the show always returns to the theme of youth maneuvering against experience. Elliot doesn’t want to be his punch-drunk father, Asif’s son is distancing himself from corruption by ironically running for mayor, and Alex finds his father’s apathetic tactics outdated. But it’s Sean trying to prove the most to his enemies, his mother, and the ghost of his dad. As one character observes, “A boy like him would burn cities just to convince the world he’s a man.” And Sean, who does burn everything in his wake, since he was a child, has worked to prove himself a man.
In a flashback scene that summarizes the entire series, Finn hands his two pre-teen sons rifles and leads them into the woods. They come upon a steel bucket planted upside down in the ground. When Finn lifts the pail, he reveals the bloody head of a man. He orders Sean to finish the job and murder the buried enemy. The lesson: kill or be killed. And though later in life everyone fears the violently impulsive Sean, a young man visually defined by his sometimes pitch-black eyes, the new mob leader still struggles to kill. The instinct toward mercy undoes many of these characters as much as any of their murderous acts. They have no choice. They must kill. Such conclusions would undo most series, but this one doesn’t really believe that no choice exists. Instead, “Gangs of London” is a bold continuation of the mafia movie tradition, yet like the inexperienced figures at its center, the show carves its own enthralling path.
Five episodes screened for review.