What is the purpose of violence in TV? Or, better question: how is it used?
There are a number of good answers, even when we confine the question to the crime genre. Some shows use it to communicate a desolate realism, as in Gomorra or Top Boy or The Wire. In those cases, the violence is either sickening or necessary; sometimes both at once. Others, like The Sopranos, manage to do all that and incorporate a dark humor, which represents a delicate balancing act that only the best can pull off. Some film directors, like Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie or Chad Stehelski (of the John Wick franchise) clearly fetishize violence and go whole hog on death and maiming. Regardless of how you feel about that, those men (it’s usually men) are wise enough not to angle for any kind of realism. When they indulge, they really indulge, and you’re not supposed to mistake it for anything approximating real life. At peak frenzy, the most you can do is laugh, and there’s a reason that you mostly see this in movies rather than TV; it’s not sustainable at any great length.
What makes the Sky Atlantic/AMC+ series Gangs of London so frustrating, and so embarrassing, is that it strives for a Gomorra-like bleakness, with hints of the under-appreciated Franco-British series The Last Panthers, while simultaneously delving into the grotesque ultra-violence that serves no real purpose and completely annihilates any investment in the story. And Gangs seems, at times, like an okay story. The drama centers on a London crime family whose patriarch has just been murdered, and is now led by the hot-headed eldest son who is ravenous for revenge, all while the worried advisors try to preserve their tenuous city-wide conglomerate so the drugs and money can flow unimpeded. Not bad, as far as plot skeletons go. But after a promising first half hour, the writers basically give up any pretense of constructing a good narrative, and the show slips into sanguinary dreck.
The really offensive part here isn’t the violence. It doesn’t take long to understand that rather than using it to illustrate a point about the nature of the world, as the truly great shows do, the creators just seem to get off on the ugly depictions. That’s why I used the word “fetish” in the title—there is something almost sexual about their need to constantly outdo themselves in the mutilation department, and if you’re titillated by that kind of thing, this might be up your alley. If not, it grows tired and redundant very fast. (It’s no coincidence, I think, that there are very few actual sex scenes in the show; these people get their kicks a different way.) But, as mentioned above, other artists have used this kind of thing to great effect. No, what makes Gangs of London so offensive isn’t the physical terror; it’s the fact that they keep trying to convince you that they’re telling a coherent story, that they know anything about this world, and that they’re capable of depicting people in anything but gross, two-dimensional archetypes. If you’re going to make torture porn, just admit that it’s torture porn.
The first episode begins with Sean Wallace, the heir to his father Finn’s empire, stringing up some kid over a bridge and burning him alive. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this visual or the plot device, until you learn that the kid’s crime was witnessing someone sit in a car, and it turned out that the partner of the person sitting in the car was a hired gun who, a few minutes later, murdered Finn Wallace. Your first thought might be, well, it’s kind of weird that they’d torture and kill someone so dramatically when he really had nothing to do with anything and gave them all the information he could. Start thinking like that, though, and you’ll drive yourself crazy, because beneath a thin veneer of coherence absolutely nothing about the plot makes sense.
To wit: One of the main characters is Ed Dumani, the man behind the throne, sensible and calculating, whose driving ambition is to ensure the business doesn’t spin off the rails during the time of transition. And then, suddenly, he’s leading a machine gun massacre on a traveller encampment. If that sounds like a joke, I assure you it’s not, and you’ve probably already guessed that the travellers are only bit players, slotted in place so they could be slaughtered. But if you want jokes, the really funny part comes the next day when Ed says to Sean, “I failed you last night.” It’s in those moments where you can tell that the writers realize that they’ve violated every law of character motivation, and instead of ripping up the script and trying again, they keep those bad decisions in place and then try to justify them post-hoc with a single line.
Sometimes, they don’t even even try. Asif, a Pakistani kingpin, is shown overseeing the execution by bolt pistol (a device used to much better effect in No Country For Old Men) of workers who he questions about a stolen delivery, and it’s clear that almost none of them have a clue what he’s talking about. In the fourth episode, we’re introduced to someone in Africa (apologies, but at that point I had stopped paying attention to specifics) who, in the course of a business conversation with an Albanian, has his workers pour cement over a begging captive. To prove a point? Just for fun? Who knows? In a flashback, we see Finn forcing a young Sean to murder a begging man buried to his shoulders in the forest in order to teach him a lesson about their way of life.
(As a side note, this show loves begging. A good tenth of every episode is just people, anonymous or important, begging in the face of death. After a while, I started to wonder if the violence was not the real fetish, but just a way to set up the begging.)
It’s all nonsense. Speaking of which, you may have noticed in these character descriptions is diversity. It is a diverse cast, from Pakistanis to Albanians to Africans to Kurds to the Irish, but rest assured that every character is treated with the same superficiality. The diversity is used in the most offensive way possible, with skin color and nationality meant to symbolize certain qualities in a way that blusters into the realm of stereotype. They don’t do well with women, either; the grimmest character of all here is Marian Wallace, Finn’s widow, played by Michelle Fairley of Catelyn Stark fame. Poor Fairley is given absolutely nothing to do here except sit around looking sad and vaguely resolute, to the point that I wondered if their gimmick with her was that she doesn’t talk. (She does, eventually, and just barely.) Nor will you be pleased if you look at it from a class angle—the only people who matter are rich, and the poor exist only to be creatively mutilated by their betters.
It goes without saying that the show is completely agnostic on the moral front. Or perhaps less agnostic, since that implies some thought, and more unaware. There’s no commentary on anything, no attempt even to wonder at the implications of the nihilistic world they’ve created. It’s a thoughtless show, and the fact that it’s been so positively reviewed thus far is flabbergasting. The same is true of the countless comparisons to Peaky Blinders, a show that shares some of the same stylization, but is about 50 times more intelligent even at its most flawed. With Gangs, all you get is thin characters, bad dialogue, and a story that gets worse as it goes on. If mindless violence for the thrill of the spectacle is your thing, then dig in. For everyone else, this is just a whole lot of blood with no heart.
Gangs of London is available on AMC+, and will debut on AMC’s cable network in early 2021. The first three episodes are also available to stream free on Amazon Prime.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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