For 12 years and four seasons (two on Channel 4, two on Netflix), London-set crime drama Top Boy has revolved around drug kingpins and childhood best friends Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kane ‘Kano’ Robinson). Over that time we’ve seen them go build an empire, make dodgy business dealings and dole out violence on the streets. But as we enter the fifth (and final) season, the cost of ruling is starting to take its toll.
Season four ended with the shock murder of gang rival turned protege Jamie (Michael Ward) by Sully, which scuppered Dushane’s retirement plans. Season five picks up immediately after, and over six urgent episodes, both world-weary men contemplate the love/hate relationship that’s always been at the heart of Top Boy.
If only they’d heard the dating advice about considering the feelings of others doled out by the no-nonsense Mandy (south London-based MC Nolay), whose daughter Erin (Savanah Graham) is caught up in a teenage romance with Jamie’s brother Stefan (Araloyin Oshunremi). In true Top Boy style, the loved-up kids bond over close family members being murdered by Sully, as well as their dreams of a life outside the Summerhouse Estate. Elsewhere, Jaq (Jasmine Jobson) continues to dominate every scene she’s in, now questioning the impact of a career selling heroin to the vulnerable while Shelley (Little Simz) wants to open a string of new nail salons to provide for her daughter’s future – easier said than done.
Recent seasons have seen the show jet off to Spain and Morocco but this final chapter brings everything back home to east London. It’s not less ambitious though. New antagonist Jonny (Hollywood megastar Barry Keoghan), a flamboyant Irish gangster, provides great entertainment. There are ruthless murders, chaotic shoot-outs and explosive riots, but Top Boy continues to focus on the intimate stories between the blockbuster action. After spending so much time with these characters, the audience feels every blow. If you thought watching a man get beaten to death with a frying pan was tough, this season might be too much for you…
Despite the savagery, there are flickers of hope. In episode one, the Summerhouse community band together to stop one of their own being unfairly deported – a powerful, joyous sequence. The series also explores postnatal depression, trauma and gentrification in a vital way, with these meaningful diversions adding to the show’s gritty yet vibrant feel.
There are flourishes of nostalgia too, but creator Ronan Bennett is more interested in driving everything towards a satisfying conclusion than getting lost in legacy. A recent trailer promised “no loose ends” and despite the sprawling, messy world he’s built over more than a decade, Bennett pulls it off beautifully. Not a second is wasted, with big moments happening right up until the final credits roll. It seems certain that we’ll be talking about Top Boy for years to come.
‘Top Boy’ releases its final season on Netflix on September 7