• Spoiler warning: plot points up to and including episode five of Gangs of London are discussed in detail
Have you been watching Gangs of London? Sky Atlantic’s lurid underworld drama explores the messy fallout created when the capital’s No1 gangster is assassinated in a neglected tower block. Finn Wallace (Colm Meany) was an Irish hood who had muscled his way to the top of the most exalted racket of them all: London property development. His abrupt death disrupts the delicate boardroom detente that exists between the city’s jostling crime factions.
The street-level results of these executive power moves are bone-crunching fistfights, chaotic shootouts and some exceptionally nasty business involving machetes. Imagine Succession with more aggression or Game of Thrones styled by GQ (the casting of Thrones veteran Michelle Fairley as the Wallace family matriarch does not feel like an accident). The result is a heightened, headlong drama that crackles with pulpy energy: Normal People for Jean-Claude Van Damme fans.
Created by Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery – the writer/director and cinematographer of The Raid franchise of whiplash-inducing action films – Gangs of London was released as a bingeable box set last month but the extended opening episode was apparently enough to crystallise opinions. Some reviewers were impressed by a frenzied all-out brawl in an old-fashioned boozer that involved the wince-inducing use of a dart as an improvised shiv. Others simply recoiled from the impressively staged but unashamedly over-the-top violence.
If you’ve been rationing your intake to Sky Atlantic’s weekly Thursday night broadcasts however, this week’s fifth episode is a notable outlier, leaving behind all the key London players and their lethal realpolitik and making a break for the Welsh countryside. Such detours have become a common gimmick in dramas released as box sets, particularly in Netflix series. Slotting in an unexpected side story or flashback episode is a way of breaking up the main narrative, a little breather that provides a helpful point of orientation during a binge.
Episode five of Gangs of London is the opposite of a breather. It is essentially a standalone mini-movie, an expertly choreographed masterclass of cranked-up tension and cathartic release that threatens to overshadow the rest of the series. (There’s even a cute dog.) It picks up a dangling plot thread from earlier in the story: the fate of Darren (Aled ap Steffan), the Welsh traveller kid who was manipulated into shooting Wallace in the first place. Darren’s burly father Kinney (Mark Lewis-Jones) brought that information to the Wallace family and petitioned them to spare his son’s life. Instead, Wallace foot-soldiers promptly razed Kinney’s traveller camp in a machine-gun assault that left no Calor gas cylinder unexploded.
The traumatised Darren has been stashed in a remote Welsh safehouse with Kinney’s loyal lieutenant Mal (Richard Harrington, from the acclaimed Hinterland), awaiting a boat that can spirit the boy away. His injured father survived that brutal camp attack but witnesses a mysterious third party sifting through the wreckage and picking up clues to Darren’s location. From that moment, it is a race to see who can get to the safehouse first.
So it starts out as a pacy fugitive-on-the-run story, with the gut-shot Kinney performing some improvised field surgery and hijacking a Land Rover from a distraught farmer in such single-minded fashion that you are left in no doubt that this growling heavy will do anything to protect his son. At the halfway point, there is a serene god’s-eye-view of the bleak Welsh countryside, as a special forces team in hiking snoods and fancy tactical gear ominously marches in V formation toward the safehouse, while the desperate Kinney scrambles ahead of them.
The next 20 minutes is a relentless action sequence, an escalating siege that can stand alongside any Game of Thrones castle sacking. Seeing the well-drilled tactics of the initially impassive mercenary squad collide with Kinney and Mal’s desperate improvisations – assault rifles and C4 breaching charges versus fireside pokers and molotov cocktails – is exhausting but exhilarating. Handheld camerawork gives the assault a bracing immediacy, while one stomach-lurching but ingenious shot mimics the feeling of dropping into a war zone.
The unremitting gunfire might seem gratuitous but it does not shy away from showing the damage even a single bullet can wreak, leaving a sobering stack of broken bodies. Amid all the bedlam, there also remains the emotional core of Kinney bundling his resentful son toward the slimmest chance of safety.
It is one of only two Gangs of London episodes directed by co-creator Evans, who could presumably have had his pick of the bunch. He has clearly poured everything into it, bringing all the action expertise he gleaned from shooting The Raid movies in Indonesia back to his homeland of Wales. It is, literally, a blast. Through sheer ear-ringing impact alone, there is unlikely to be a more visceral episode of TV broadcast this year – if ever.
Gangs of London, Thursdays, 9pm, Sky Atlantic. Season one is available on Sky and Now TV.