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Gangs of London, Series 1, Episode 4

Gangs of London
Series 1
Episode 4
Pigeon stool and stool pigeons

Something that tends to get buried in the discussions I’ve heard around Gangs of London is that it’s a videogame adaptation.

Well… sort of. Technically. Nominally.

If you’ll cast your mind back to the history of the show as expounded in the review of Episode 1, it originated as a pitch from producer Thomas Benski, whose company had obtained the rights to Gangs of London, the third in the Getaway franchise of crime sandbox games, released in 2006 for the Playstation Portable.

This factoid baffled me when I first heard it four years ago, and it still does. I haven’t played Gangs of London (and, honestly, I would be astonished if any of the core creative staff on the show have, either), but I have taken a quick look at a longplay on YouTube. The game is, bluntly, not a prestigious license for a production company to have access to. The Getaway games were third-tier knockoffs of PS2-era Grand Theft Auto to begin with, and by the time you get to the cheap spinoff released for a portable console, you’re well and truly into the domain of shovelware; the kind of game destined to clutter up the shelves of musty-smelling second-hand retailers and be otherwise forgotten. The idea that Pulse Films was shopping around the prospect of multiple films based on it, tying up a decade or more of investment in an IP confined to one obscure, handheld game, released 14 years ago on a defunct platform… frankly, it makes me wonder what the fuck Benski could possibly have been thinking.

How does Gangs of London the game inform Gangs of London the TV show? Almost not at all, I’d venture, beyond the fact that there are Gangs and they are, quelle surprise, in London. Any acknowledgment of the show’s heritage is buried deep in the end credits of a given episode, the ““Gangs of London” is a trademark of Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe used under licence” disclaimer appearing briefly, long after the “Next Episode” prompt will have triggered for any self-respecting streaming service. The show’s narrative content and characters derive not at all from the game’s, though there are incidental parts that make me suspect someone on Pulse Films’ staff at least glanced at the IP they’d licensed. The gang war in the game, for instance, is initiated by a character having his racing pigeons assassinated; there’s a character in Episode 4 of the show who is brought to heel by threats against his racing pigeons. Coincidence? Maybe? Maybe not?

The show’s narrative content and characters derive not at all from the game’s, though there are incidental parts that make me suspect someone on Pulse Films’ staff at least glanced at the IP they’d licensed.

Who cares. But even if Gangs of London, the TV show exists wholly independently of Gangs of London, the game, there is a sense that the show is similar in its tone and cadence to that of a mission-based, Grand Theft Auto-styled crime sandbox. A series of challenges, the player character being shuttled between questgivers progressively higher on the underworld totem pole, their tasks rising in challenge and stakes.

That’s certainly how it feels for Elliot in Episode 4. After his fight with Cole at the crescendo of Episode 3, Elliot is under scrutiny from both Ed and Sean; he appears to value human life just a little bit too much for the hardcore gangster he’s presenting himself as. In a fabulously chilling scene, Elliot comes to visit his Dad in his home, a space that should be separate from the double-life he’s leading… only to find Ed sitting in his living room opposite his father, looking like the proverbial cat who ate the canary.

With an implicit threat being made against his father’s life if he doesn’t prove himself to Ed’s satisfaction, Elliot is tasked with following orders from Mark (Adrian Bower), the same tough-guy Wallace lieutenant who slugged him in the stomach back in Episode 1. Mark, suspicious of Elliot’s loyalties from the start, keeps his charge on a short leash as he tracks down a group of young thieves with the profound bad sense to knock over a jewellery store under Wallace protection. Bower, in a small but impactful role, gives Mark a sense of genuine, looming threat as he tasks Elliot with increasingly extreme acts of violence; taking sadistic satisfaction in Elliot’s obvious discomfort at, e.g., breaking a pleading young man’s knee with a claw hammer.

Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù is expectedly terrific in this episode; you can see the calculations flickering in Elliot’s eyes, trying desperately to figure out what atrocities he can commit and still live with himself in the course of his undercover investigation, while still projecting a tough-guy facade. This is the episode when we start to get a fuller picture of what drives Elliot; in a heartfelt conversation with Shannon, we learn about the wife and son he lost in a car accident years before. There’s a sense that not a lot has gone right in life for Elliot; that between his dad, his wife, and his child, he’s seen a lot of people he loves subjected to a lot of arbitrary injustice from an indifferent universe, and that his investigation of the Wallaces is his attempt to impose some fairness on a world that’s never been fair to him. The interrogation scene in the dilapidated school gym that the thieves are using for their hideout is an instance where Gangs of London’s predilection towards ultraviolence is put to work in service of characterisation, and the tension of an ethical dilemma, rather than spectacle. It’s really good stuff.

There’s a sense that not a lot has gone right in life for Elliot; that between his dad, his wife, and his child, he’s seen a lot of people he loves subjected to a lot of arbitrary injustice from an indifferent universe, and that his investigation of the Wallaces is his attempt to impose some fairness on a world that’s never been fair to him.

Although, Episode 4 most certainly features violent spectacle. Elliot fails Mark’s test, but before Mark has the chance to act on his suspicions, he’s called away to back up Sean in an exchange with Luan in a Chinatown alleyway. Luan is one of the more mercurial, ambivalent figures in the show; the head of the Albanian syndicate who seems to be in urgent danger to his own life and that of his family. A covert meeting with Ed reveals that he was responsible for the massacre of a family in Albania on Finn’s behalf, in exchange for the forgiveness of his debts to the Wallaces. Now that Finn is dead, this under-the-table arrangement has been jeopardised for him, which in turn makes him a target for another creditor, the Nigerian gangster Mosi (Richard Pepple, who characterises Mosi as brutal even by the standards of this series).

Luan is prepared to disclose the details of the Wallace organisation’s obligation to him, which would probably shed light on the details of Finn’s assassination… but, his meeting with Sean is interrupted by an unseen sniper at the far end of the alley, who turns the scene into a massacre. Just before he can whisper the revelation that Elliot is an undercover cop in Sean’s ear, Mark has the top of his head messily blown off by a 7.62x51mm round. The blood spurting from the stump terminating at his lower jaw coats Sean’s stricken, uncomprehending face; a terrific trailer shot if ever there was one.

The blood spurting from the stump terminating at [Mark’s] lower jaw coats Sean’s stricken, uncomprehending face; a terrific trailer shot if ever there was one.

In the course of these write-ups, I fear that I’ve been too dismissive of Corin Hardy as a director. His direction is a lot less showy than Gareth Evans’s, it’s true, but the simple, sturdy assemblage of scenes in an hour of TV like Gangs of London, Episode 4 shouldn’t be underestimated. Evans stepped in to direct the action climaxes of Episodes 2 and 3, but by his own admission, he felt that he was robbing his collaborators of the opportunity to put their spin on the setpieces. And fair enough; the action highlights of Episodes 2 and 3 are intense and thrilling, but they also feel a bit disconnected from the drama preceding them, like an intrusion of OTT Asian action cinema into a British crime show. The sniper attack at the crescendo of Episode 4 is all Hardy, and it feels more fundamentally integrated with the rest of the episode; Sean being made to feel vulnerable for the first time, and Elliot’s loyalty being tested, converge elegantly when Elliot takes a bullet to save Sean’s life.

Editor Johnny Rayner deserves a lot of credit, too: it’s no small task to wrangle this many disparate narrative threads into a shape where they all push towards a single point over the course of one hour. With Episode 4, we’re almost halfway into Gangs of London’s first season, and the plot is just about at its most diffuse and tangled. The viewer is confronted with elements from Asif and his son’s mayoral campaign, to Lale’s fledgling alliance with Sean, to Ed and Alex’s meeting with Jevan (Ray Panthaki) at a black-tie event on a country estate. We’re arriving at a point now where the overarching mysteries of Gangs of London are starting to come into focus; a savvy and attentive viewer can probably start to assemble the pieces of who killed Finn, and why.

Over and above its functionality as a whodunnit, though, Episode 4 of Gangs of London does a great job of dramatising a situation where things fall apart, and the centre cannot hold.

Over and above its functionality as a whodunnit, though, Episode 4 of Gangs of London does a great job of dramatising a situation where things fall apart, and the centre cannot hold. A Wallace family dinner party acts as the centrepiece of the episode; something Sean put together as a way to reconcile with the Dumanis and his estranged sister Jacqueline (Valene Kane). What initially seems to be working as a way to mend bridges and scab old wounds is disrupted horrifically when Elliot is carried in with a bullet wound. In a bravura tracking shot that takes up the last few minutes of the episode, we witness the second attempt on Sean Wallace’s life that evening, by an assassin embedded in the catering staff, just barely averted thanks to Alex making use of the concealed pistol Shannon disapproved of him having back in Episode 1. The episode’s ending is a gonzo cliffhanger, leaving us with a sense that the Wallaces are doomed as old grudges come home to roost.

Episode 4 is the last one that Corin Hardy would helm for a while, and it caps off a run of three consistently superb hours of TV.

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)
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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