Spoiler Note: If you haven’t yet watched this show, whose fourth season is now on HBO Max, note that this post contains major plot spoilers for the third season of Gomorrah.
Here’s a strange conundrum: Imagine you have one of the best, most compelling characters in the history of crime TV—Ciro DiMarzio, l’Immortale—and the best thing for your show is to kill him off. Do you have the courage to do it?
If you’re Gomorrah, the Italian mafia drama whose fourth season began streaming on HBO this past week, the answer is yes. Developed by Roberto Saviano, whose 2006 nonfiction book of the same name was written after he investigated and infiltrated the Italian syndicate known as the Camorra, the show began life as a gritty, unvarnished look at life in the crime-ridden slums of Naples. It was more of a character study than the truly dire 2008 movie adapted from the book; from the start the relationship between Ciro and Gennaro Savastano drew you in, but its strength was in the keen attention to the details of the world. It had all the credibility of The Wire, but was more elegant because it allowed you to see that world, and all its complex workings, with no filter. Where The Wire had its characters explain everything to you, Gomorrah trusted that you’d pick it up.
What happened by Season 3 is something that happens to a lot of shows that find themselves with two or three really transcendent characters; they begin to suffer under the weight of them. The story of Genny (weak son of a mafia boss who develops into a brutal mastermind) and his friend Ciro (brilliant but low-born climber with the ruthlessness and luck needed to thrive in that dark world) was so good that it began to burden the narrative. And what happens when you expose your main characters to incredible danger over and over, but there’s a sense in the back of the viewer’s mind that they can’t die? Well, as I’ve written before, it’s the same thing that happens to a show like Sons of Anarchy or Breaking Bad—you ratchet up the stakes desperately, but it begins to ring hollow because there’s no real sense of consequence.
Season 3 of Gomorrah was still entertaining, but the dizzying quality of the story suffered as it descended into hyperactive plot swerves, rather than unfolding organically as a natural byproduct of their specific criminal landscape. As I wrote at the time, “I think there’s no escaping it… and at times the bleak realism that is the essential harmony to the plot’s melody falters in the face of careening plot twists that exist for their own sake.”
Well, there was one way to escape it: You kill Ciro, or you kill Genny.
Saying it is one thing, but doing it is quite another, and I consider it a major feather in the cap of Saviano and his team that they actually pulled the literal/metaphorical trigger. It was necessary, but also frightening, because what happens when you enter Season 4 without the spectacular character that made you in the first place?
The answer, in this case, is that you go back to your roots, and you do so with such brilliance that it’s like watching a star athlete come back from injury and immediately reach their former heights.
As the season begins, we find Patriziz taking over the Secondigliano drug trade while Gennaro, rattled by his near-death experience and being forced to murder his friend, makes peace with his rivals and tells them they’ll never see him again. He’s not retiring, though; on the contrary, his aim is to use his money to build a major international airport in Italy, and to reap the profits. The season, in its early stages, flits back and forth between this quest, complete with a detailed look at the underworld of international business, and Patrizia’s more earthy quest to maintain control of the streets that Genny left to her.
The moment I understood that Gomorrah had found its old form came in the second episode, when Genny, in his effort to acquire land for the building of the airport, encounters a reluctant seller who won’t budge despite escalating offers that dwarf what his land is actually worth. Ironically, while his impatient partner demands strong-arm tactics to secure this piece of crucial property, it’s Genny who tries to get to the bottom of the situation with a more nuanced approach. The business partner assumes he’s lost his edge, and takes matters into his own hands, but the conclusion of the affair demonstrates that he was very, very wrong, and provides one of those quintessential gut-punch endings which made the first two seasons of Gomorrah so effective.
It is not a surprise that, given a clean slate, the writers and directors have recaptured the original magic. What issurprising is that the slate was wiped clean to begin with, in ways that must have been objectionable to any number of parties involved with the show. (Note: If it turns out Ciro didn’t actually die, despite a scene early on that seems to confirm this, I fully deserve the mockery that is bound to come my way. In fact, I welcome it.) The legacy of the fourth season will be the extreme artistic courage it took to undo the spell of the Ciro-Genny pairing, and the facility with which they navigated the brave new world in its absence. That’s the sign of a show with true vision, and it opens up every possibility: the story of two brothers who get caught in the web of Secondigliano crime; a boss who has lost her family and her identity; a reborn Gennaro with bigger plans than ever. And more than that, a heightened focus on what made Saviano’s work so essential from the start: A truer, less romanticized view of the deleterious effects this culture, and these people, have on their world.
Gomorrah is currently streaming on HBO Max.
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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