“People have been saying bad things about you for years…” That’s Dushane’s mum speaking about her son, a young man who rose over two seasons to become Top Boy on the Summerhouse estate in London’s Hackney – or, at least, get close to being top boy.
Created by Ronan Bennett, the Channel 4 drama follows the climb of two young drug dealers – Dushane (Ashley Walters) and Sully (Kano) – and the gangs that form around them, hold them up and pull them down. It’s the kind of story that perhaps feels slightly out of step with 2019, where efforts to slowly but surely correct years of underrepresentation has given us more diverse voices and narratives, from Sky One’s excellent Bulletproof (starring Ashley Waters and Noel Clarke as two policeman) and BBC One’s family drama Dark Money to Netflix’s musical Been So Long. But Top Boy nonetheless remains a slick piece of TV with gripping plot lines, gritty visuals and tangible moral stakes.
Pitched as Britain’s answer to The Wire, it’s a patient, low-key drama that roots itself in the day-to-day lives of its characters, and the violent consequences of their actions. Walters is excellent as Dushane, who has grown up on the Summerhouse estate and is determined to achieve something that matters, which means making his way up a ladder of crime and retribution; throughout, he shows compassion to those who are loyal, and concern for the young kids caught up in the web of their circumstances, even as he ruthlessly pushes aside those in his way, or against him. Kano, too, finds tragedy and heart in Sully’s journey, which pits him against his cousin but gives him a chance to stick up for young local boy Jason.
They’re supported by a strong cast, from the always-brilliant Nicholas Pinnock as kindly father figure Leon to the young Ra’Nell (a sensational Malcolm Kamulete), whose mother is in hospital, and Ra’Nell’s friend, Gem (Giacomo Mancini), whose susceptibility inevitability brings Ra’Nell onto the wrong side of Hackney’s streets. Both get diminished roles in Season 2, making way for Lorraine Burroughs (Fast Girls) as solicitor Rhianna Parkes, who doesn’t act in a very logical way when it comes to Dushane.
But if the focus is very much on the male cast members, the underlying questions of ambition versus desperation and obligation, and of respect versus authority, remain compelling ones to consider, explored with complex depth by Bennett and filmed by directors such as Yann Demange with inky shadows and bright pricks of tower block lights. It’s an absorbing, well-acted portrait of one aspect of life in London – watch out for cast members including Benedict Wong as the threatening Vincent and an up-and-coming Letitia Wright as a young dealer. Building to a heart-wrenching climax in both Season 1 and 2, it’s no wonder that Drake was impressed enough to to bring the show back for a third season on Netflix.
Top Boy: Season 1 to 3 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Need a quick catch-up before the new episodes of Top Boy? Read on our for a spoiler-filled recap of Season 1 and 2:
Top Boy: Season 1 and 2 Recap
Dushane and Sully are two drug dealers in Hackney running things in the Summerhouse tower block. Tensions, though, are brewing between them and rival drug leader Kamale, also roping middle-man Bobby (Geoff Bell) and his sidekick Lee (Cyrus Desir) into the conflict. With Bobby robbed by Kamale repeatedly, and Dushane’s brother attacking Lee, things heat up even further as Dushane kidnaps Kamale’s cousin, only for Sully to accidentally kill him.
Tracking down Kamale, they work out – after some torture – where their money is hidden, but encounter Lee there, revealing him as their snitch. They kill Lee, causing trouble with Bobby, and kill Kamale too, which puts the cops on their tails.
Meanwhile, we meet Ra’Nell, whose mother is committed to a hospital for mental illness. He’s told to keep on the straight and narrow, but his mate, Gem (Giacomo Mancini), is drawn into working for Dushane.
And finally, there’s Heather (Kierston Wareing), a pregnant resident of Summerhouse who’s agreed to look after a cannabis farm belonging to the intimidating Vincent (Benedict Wong). Ra’Nell helps Heather, leading him to miss a visit with his mum, while Gem becomes friendly with Chantelle (Letitia Wright), a young dealer.
Gem is hunted down by Sully, who thinks he’s their snitch, and Leon, a friend of Lisa, steps in to tell Sully to leave the two young boys alone. Ra’Nell, though, complicates matters by trying to sell Vincent’s marijuana to Dushane and Sully, and so Sully tracks Ra’Nell down to steal the drugs while Heather is in labour. Leon intervenes and is shot by Sully, who escapes.
Bobby then asks Dushane to kill Sully but he kills Bobby instead, before leaving Ra’Nell alone.
Season 2 sees the police find Kamale’s body, but Sully has split from Dushane, instead partnering up with Mike (Paul Anderson).
Gem, meanwhile, is helping out Vincent and accidentally kills his weed farm, leading to Vincent bullying Gem. He hires him to run tasks and errands under the threat of retribution for the loss of the weed. Ultimately, Gem’s dad steps in to stop Vincent and stabs Vincent in the leg.
Sully and Mike are hired to take out Jermaine, Sully’s cousin. They kidnap him but he keeps escaping. Jermaine’s brother discovers what’s happened and approaches Dushane to help him take out Sully and Mike. Dushane, though, persuades him not to, and Jermaine’s brother instead kills Mike.
Dushane is in bigger trouble than that, though, when his runner, Michael, is arrested for stealing trainers and ends up telling the cops about Dushane and Kamale’s murder. That leads Dushane to be brought in for questioning, which introduces him to his solicitor, with whom he begins a romantic relationship. She tries to help him get rich through a real estate project, but pressure from the police get tighter, with Dushane’s girlfriend then taken into custody. Dushane has her son kidnapped to keep her quiet, which prompts his solicitor to walk away from him.
All the while, tensions are growing between Dushane and a new rival gang of Albanians. When Sully learns that Dushane saved his life, he teams up with his old friend to take down the Albanians. They raid their warehouse, but the Albanians strike back at Dushane’s home. He realises this when he returns home to find Michael, who was kept prisoner in Dushane’s flat, being threatened by the Albanians. Michael shouts to warn him from the balcony, only for the Albanians to drop him off the edge to fall to his death. Dushane escapes, the cost of becoming Summersouth’s Top Boy weightier and more shocking than ever.