Guest Post TV Review

Gangs of London, Season 1, Episode 8

Gangs of London
Season 1
Episode 8
All in all, it's just another brick in the Wall(ace)

There’s a scene early in Episode 8 of Gangs of London which finds Sean Wallace at his lowest ebb.

After the catastrophic confrontation with the Dumanis at the end of Episode 7, and now firmly in the Investors’ crosshairs, he and Marian are hiding out in an old tower block, planning their next move. The space is derelict, cluttered with litter and graffiti and decaying furniture. They hear a noise from an adjacent flat, and Sean goes to investigate, pistol drawn.

It was just pigeons making the sound; the apartment next door is uninhabited, same as all the others in this tower block that the Wallace organisation once operated. On a table, Sean finds a letter addressed to the previous occupants: an eviction notice. Across the living room wall are spray-painted some very rude sentiments about the Wallace family.

Sean takes a long look in a broken mirror, contemplating his reflection, very symbolically crisscrossed with jagged cracks. His father’s voice resounds in his ears; snippets of Finn’s dialogue from flashbacks in earlier episodes play on the soundtrack, all reverb-y and haunting. Sean screams, and punches a hole in the drywall. He briefly holds the barrel of the gun under his chin, trying to work up the nerve to pull the trigger.

This is our protagonist’s dark night of the soul. He’s surrounded by enemies. The Dumanis, the friends he trusted most, have betrayed him. After being confronted with the truth – that the father he’s striven to emulate and avenge had no faith in him – his very identity is shattered.

Why, then, was my reaction upon watching this scene to smirk, and think: “This is so fucking goofy”?

This scene in Episode 8 helped me to clarify and resolve my biggest problem with Gangs of London, and with the latter half of Season 1 in particular. In a nutshell: I do not like Sean Wallace. I think that, as a character, he’s both poorly conceived and poorly realised.

In a nutshell: I do not like Sean Wallace. I think that, as a character, he’s both poorly conceived and poorly realised.

Part of the issue is Joe Cole. The London-born actor playing the heir to the Wallace dynasty has basically two modes. Either he’s affecting a sort of louche, entitled swagger, like an Eton-educated James Dean, or he’s going all-in on shrieking, overemotional histrionics. There’s not a lot of middle ground.

I struggled throughout Season 1 to understand how seriously I was supposed to take Sean, as a viewer. On the one hand: he’s a failson. He’s expressly a disappointment to Finn; in every flashback sequence we see of Finn when he was alive, it’s to a moment when either Alex or Billy was favoured as his choice to take over his organisation. The implication is that Sean doesn’t have the temperament or the competence to step up and manage Finn’s empire, which has made him all the more reckless and desperate to prove himself in the wake of his father’s assassination. He occurs as an overgrown schoolchild, running around in expensive, tailored clothes his daddy’s money paid for, playacting at being a ruthless gangster. (In a lot of ways, he reminds me of Kendall Roy from Succession, another prestige drama airing concurrently with this one.) Way back in Episode 1, during the funeral, Luan summed him up quite pithily: “A boy like him would burn cities just to convince the world he’s a man.”

But at the same time, the show pushes back against this characterisation of Sean as a pathetic, delusional figure. He has moments where he seems distinctly competent; most notably in Episode 3, where he handily outsmarts and outmanoeuvres Lale, reducing the hardened Kurdish freedom fighter to a blubbering mess at his mercy. Ever since that scene, I find myself second-guessing every scene where Sean appears. Is he meant to be absurd? Or, is it a failing of the show that I find him absurd?

(Parenthetically: a lot of people apparently think that Joe Cole is hot? Look at the comment section of this YouTube video, or this one, and you’ll find countless comments thirsting after him. I fully realise that I’m speaking here in my capacity as a straight dude, but… really? Him?? With the beady, shrew-like eyes, and the sallow skin, and the scraggly facial hair? De gustibus non est disputandum, I guess.)

But it’s more than just presentation, or performance. I don’t think that Sean Wallace, as written, has a well-described arc.

My problems with Sean can be traced back to the show’s characterisation of Finn. As of Episode 7, we know the truth about the Wallace patriarch. He intended to abandon his company; to leave his children and his wife in favour of a nubile Albanian girl young enough to be his granddaughter; to defraud his business partners out of billions so that he could live out his adolescent sexual fantasies on a private island.

After all of the mystery around his death has been wrapped up, the picture that Gangs of London provides us of Finn Wallace is of a despicable, faithless coward. Bluntly: he deserved to be shot in the head, and he’s unworthy of being emulated or avenged.

After all of the mystery around his death has been wrapped up, the picture that Gangs of London provides us of Finn Wallace is of a despicable, faithless coward.

I think the writers realised this, and they tried to make this scene – Sean’s quasi-suicide attempt, and his renewed sense of resolve that follows – a reckoning with Finn’s legacy. But it doesn’t land, because there’s no sense in the scenes that follow that Finn’s failures as a husband, as a father, and as a gang boss, have meaningfully altered Sean’s trajectory.

Are we meant to understand that, by going to war against the Dumanis and the Investors, this is Sean proving himself worthy as a badass antihero? Are we expected to want him to step up as the Wallace patriarch, like Marian is pushing him to? Or, are we meant to understand him as a blinkered idiot, whose slavish devotion to the idea of his father as a great man is leading him to needless suffering and self-destruction?

Either way, Sean doesn’t work as a tragic, Byronic protagonist. The show has never really posited a vision of what a self-actualised Sean Wallace might look like; what kind of person he might be if not for his circumstances. The flashback in Episode 2, when he failed to shoot the bucket, suggests that there was once a boy with a gentler disposition. But, again, our introduction to Sean – his literal first scene in the show – presented him burning a man alive. If the tragedy of Sean Wallace is his abandonment of mercy and compassion, then that tragedy took place offscreen.

At the same time, Sean has elements that humanise him: his relationships, mostly. He’s protective of his siblings and his mother. He’s chummy with Alex. He’s authentically friendly to Elliot after he earns his trust in Episode 4. Cole’s performance characterises Sean as a physically affectionate person with people he likes; he claps his friends on the shoulder, and rests in his mother’s lap, and touches his forehead to his brother’s in a moment of vulnerability. He’s visibly capable of empathy and love, even if their scope is limited to his inner circle.

But these humanising elements are never held in tension with his requirement to act ruthlessly. If his adoption of his father’s mantle had required him to sell out Marian, or Billy, or Jacqueline: then Gangs of London might have been on to something. Or, perhaps he could learn that Elliot is a cop, and experience some inner conflict over killing the man who took a bullet to protect him.

Those hypotheticals I dreamed up don’t happen. As is, Sean Wallace isn’t a compellingly tragic figure, because the conditions that lead to his downfall don’t require him to be transformed. In his journey through Season 1, there’s no part of himself that he relinquishes. The Sean we encounter in Episode 9 is temperamentally, and physically, and philosophically, pretty much the same Sean who we met in Episode 1.

As is, Sean Wallace isn’t a compellingly tragic figure, because the conditions that lead to his downfall don’t require him to be transformed.

I gave Episode 7 some flak for being boring; for being a transitional episode without any memorable scenes. Fair’s fair: Episode 8 doesn’t have that problem. Though the scenes that I find memorable in this episode are, perhaps, memorable for the wrong reasons. Here they are, in descending order of my problems with them:

  • Floriana pushes Leif’s mum down the stairs of her basement prison, and escapes into the streets of London, carrying Finn’s newborn baby. Cool! Actually good stuff! An interesting wild card to add at this stage of the story.

  • Elliot’s position is more tenuous than ever. Anthony (David Avery), the UC assigned to follow him and Shannon, has been captured by Marian’s militia. Elliot, facing the threat of arrest from his superiors in the police for his professional malfeasance, has to scramble desperately to find him.He tracks Anthony down to an abandoned warehouse, in the process of being brutally tortured. He manages to kill both of Anthony’s interrogators before his identity can be exposed, though Anthony himself dies in the process, from a terminal case of drill-to-the-spinal-column.It’s a bit of an odd choice to have the possibility of Elliot’s exposure hinge on a minor character whom the audience has no connection with (I even had to look up his name to be reminded of it). I’d have thought the intuitive choice would be for Vicky to be the one who’s captured, making the moment more emotionally resonant.Still, this plotline is effective at making us feel just how far out on a limb Elliot is at this point. Of Gangs of London’s two lead characters, Elliot is the one whose crisis of identity is far more sharply drawn and sympathetic (to say nothing of being depicted by a far more charismatic actor). His heartfelt rendezvous with Shannon at the end of the episode helps bring his arc into focus. His obsessive undercover work, all the unnecessary risks he’s taken in service of a vague, elusive notion of justice, have been primarily an effort to fill the void in his life left by the death of his wife and son. With Shannon and Danny in his life, he has a better, less self-destructive way to feel whole again… even as it jeopardises his own safety and that of the people around him.

    It’s blunt, heavy-handed character stuff, but it works. And, in the absence of the action, tension, and intrigue of the first 5 episodes, late Season 1 needs its character work to do the heavy lifting.

Of Gangs of London’s two lead characters, Elliot is the one whose crisis of identity is far more sharply drawn and sympathetic

  • Well, in fairness, there are a couple of action beats in Episode 8. The first comes when Leif and his team raid the Wallace’s empty townhouse, they encounter a couple of Irish militia men who stuck around, for some reason. Leif dispatches them both by shotgun in a sequence that lasts just a few seconds. It’s brief; choppily shot and edited; and serves no plot function whatsoever. It really feels like a scene that was included specifically because the producers were getting antsy that the show had gone too long without any gnarly headshots.

  • The second action beat comes when Luan confronts Mosi and his crew, and this whole sequence is just straight-up baffling. As best that I can parse it: Luan made an arrangement with Chinese gangster Jin Li (Lobo Chan) to meet with Mosi under false pretences, and lead Luan to him. Jin Li, it transpires, is a double agent, and has warned Mosi in advance that Luan is coming to kill him.Luan, upon arriving at the hotel room where Mosi is holed up, is held with a machete to his throat, and is made to watch as Jin Li is hacked to pieces in the ensuite bathroom (I can only infer that Mosi doesn’t like traitors, even when those traitors are betraying in his favour). Quaking in fear on seeing the gruesome fate that Mosi has prepared for him……Luan suddenly overpowers the man holding him and kills the four Nigerians with his bare hands. He saves Mosi for last, who he holds against the wall, and gouges out his eyes with his thumbs, like it’s a quick-time-event in God of War. This all takes less than a minute of screentime.This is all utterly bizarre. Jin Li is a minor character who’s appeared in the show before, but the viewer has no prior awareness of how he’s involved with Luan or Mosi, and no precedent to understand his relationship with either of them before his betrayal, counter-betrayal, and violent death in the space of one scene. It honestly creates the impression that there are scenes missing; like the show meant to lay the groundwork for Luan’s gambit, but couldn’t fit them in, so it just skipped to the resolution.

    As for Luan’s HULK SMASH!!! routine… what can I even say? It comes out of nowhere; we’ve never, at any point in the last seven episodes, been given any reason to think that Luan knows how to fight, let alone that he has the kind of superhuman prowess necessary to single-handedly overwhelm four armed men. If anything, both the writing and Orli Shuka’s performance have consistently characterised Luan as squeamish and fearful; he’s a gangster who wants to distance himself from the inherent violence of his business; keep his hands clean as much as possible.

    How is this not the most anticlimactic resolution to the Mosi plotline imaginable? Luan’s debt to Mosi was a major motivating factor of the action throughout Season 1. It’s why he retrieved Jack from the site of Finn’s assassination. It’s why he confronted Ed with the photos of the family he had killed in Albania. So many of the gears in this story were set to turning because Luan needed to extract the money the Wallaces owed him to pay Mosi: the Satanic figure with whom he made a Faustian bargain.

    And, after all that, it turns out he could have just beaten Mosi to death the whole time. Problem solved.

    I don’t know what I’m supposed to call this, except “terrible screenwriting.”

This is the kind of iconography that would get thrown out of a Zack Snyder movie for being too brazen and shameless.

  • Episode 8 saves its biggest, boldest gesture for its last scene, however. Alex is working late in the Wallace organisation’s penthouse, labouring to recover the money that Finn posthumously stole. Sean calls him on his mobile, and guides him to look out the window. They can both see the newly inaugurated “Belvedere Tower,” the latest addition to the Wallace organisation’s portfolio against the London skyline.“The people who killed my father,” Sean says, “who tried to kill me. From where I’m standing now, I can’t see them. But I can see what they own.”Whereupon Lale – promised vengeance against Asif by Sean as a quid pro quo – detonates a bomb in the Belvedere Tower’s basement, reducing the whole structure to rubble.This whole sequence is wild. It’s actually pretty entertaining for just how corny and absurd it becomes. In super-slow motion, the camera cuts from an extreme close-up of Sean’s eyes closing, to Alex’s eyes opening. There’s an honest-to-God cut from a CGI shot of the fireball disintegrating the skyscraper’s support columns, to an HFR shot of a single tear dripping from Sean’s eyelashes.

    Oh: and did I mention that the whole thing is scored with Luciano Pavarotti singing the crescendo of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma?

    I’ve described Gangs of London as “operatic” before, but this is the show embracing that label in the most literal, risible way. This is the kind of iconography that would get thrown out of a Zack Snyder movie for being too brazen and shameless. At this point, we’re so far from the grit and the immediacy of the handheld camerawork in Episode 1 that it scarcely feels like the same show. Aesthetically, this is closer to, like, a music video, or a perfume advert.

    Even in the wacky universe of Gangs of London, this moment is so heightened – such a hyperbolic escalation – that it ruptures our suspension of disbelief. The whole show, I’ll remind you, was set in motion because one moderately influential Irish gangster was killed. Now, we’ve witnessed a skyscraper being blown up in central London by the leader of a Middle Eastern insurgent cell. By rights, the ramifications of this moment ought to dwarf everything that’s come before it.

    And yet, the show will proceed to treat it as a primarily symbolic act; a shot across the bow in the war between the Wallaces and the Investors. In its final moments, Episode 8 really feels like a show jumping the rails in real-time; it feels like Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery and Thomas Benski, having begun the series as a heightened, maximalist genre riff, left themselves nowhere to go except into realms of pure silliness.

    Or, possibly, Xavier Gens is a bad director, and it’s all his fault. That’s also an explanation I’m willing to accept.

Is It Good?

Not Very Good (3/8)
More Gangs of London reviews

Andrew is a 2012 graduate of the University of Dundee, with an MA in English and Politics. He spent a lot of time at Uni watching decadently nerdy movies with his pals, and decided that would be his identity moving forward. He awards an extra point on The Goods ranking scale to any film featuring robots or martial arts. He also dabbles in writing fiction, which is assuredly lousy with robots and martial arts.

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