Does Top Boy Take The Cake?
For those who haven’t watched the show it would seem like I’m making an extremely bold assertion. To say that Top Boy belongs in a category with primetime British television shows like; Peaky Blinders, The Crown, Doctor Who, Sherlock etc… would in most cases be treason. This is not the case with the former Channel Four and now Netflix hit series.
There are always arguments to be made on which show is the best, what adds the most value and entertainment, but for me there is no debate that Top Boy belongs up there as the most culturally impactful drama. From the surface, people would commonly make the mistake that the show contains nothing more than gangs, violence, and drugs. Yes, it is also about the aforementioned, but it represents much more than that. It depicts a realism of this lifestyle as opposed to necessarily a glorification. You see the mostly run down council estates and the lack of respect the people that live there receive, and it does make you feel sick to your stomach.
I will touch on some of what makes this show so socially important, but first I want to touch on some of the story arc and of course my thoughts on the final series.
How The Tale Began
Two boys who grew up in the gritty streets of Hackney wanted to escape the block and live a dream life where money would no longer an issue. The pair would go by the names of Sully and Dushane. Their rise to the top wasn’t instant however, they started off on the corners doing the dirty work for the big bosses and fighting off rival gangs. These feuds and inter-complex dynamics would all of course be underpinned by who could sell the most ‘food’ aka drugs.
At first, they didn’t realise their potential of how far they were willing to go to get to the top of the chain. As things got more serious, the pair would develop more cunning and ruthless methods that would prove necessary in their business.
There are also a lot of character developments along the way making them adapt to preserve their survival and progression. Not only this, but the backdrops of personal struggles against the climate of their never-ending pressure business is what makes this binge worthy.
The Social Relevance
On a fateful day in June of 2017, my school friends and I could see the smokes coming from the distance of Grenfell tower. Our school was in Hammersmith not too far from Ladbroke Grove (where Grenfell is located). That was one truly disturbing day, hearing about the fire. Now, with this in mind Top Boy filmed a few scenes in the earlier series way back in 2011 and 2013 respectively at some football pitches in Grove called Westway Sports Centre, I’ve even played there myself. In the aftermath Westway played a major part in helping the victims of the incident. It has always been a local hub for residents in what is largely an underprivileged area and has always acted as a positive source of light in the community. Showcasing Westway on screen is what makes Top Boy so authentic, filming in areas that represent real life.
Top Boy also touches on a multitude of issues like; immigration, social services, absence of parental figures, domestic abuse and hate crimes.
One of the storylines that stood out to me was that of Jamie’s, who looks after his younger brothers Steff and Aaron after their parents died. I think giving us this backstory makes us empathise with his character and his motivations for dealing. Jamie is dealt with the burden of parenthood at 22 years old while having to block out the grief of losing his own parents. Most of the time when we hear about drug dealers, all we know is that simple fact; that they’re drug dealers. Never are we told why; it’s just put to us in a blanketed way of ‘that’s the bad guy’. Seeing it from a different perspective allows us to appreciate that while maybe some of the actions they take are morally dubious, they aren’t doing it from a place of malice intentions. A big reason why Heat (1995) is my favourite film of all time is because there is no such thing as a clearly defined good and bad guy but almost this middle floating ground without judgement. Many of us can claim to come up with solutions, but put in Jamie’s situation, where he’s under pressure to provide and options seeming few and far, ask yourselves, how would you provide for two other humans in your position? I guarantee you may find it tough to answer that one, whatever the solution is.
In stark contrast in the earlier seasons, we see the imperative nature of a character such as Leon, who is a clear role model for Ra’nell and tries to show him how to conduct himself. So, to flip it on its head Top Boy doesn’t just out and out promote the lifestyle of selling drugs, as Leon acts as a figurehead that tries to keep Ra’nell away from that path.
The show also has on multiple occasions highlighted the lack of respect given to migrants by higher authorities. People that have worked for years on end and lived most of their lives here and are simply treated like they can be discarded because a piece of paper says they aren’t legal. In season 3, Amma who is a nurse is told she is no longer allowed to work in the country, and I found this ludicrous because ultimately, she represented a force for positivity. Paperwork of applications for citizenship often go ignored for years showing how broken the system is in the UK. When I was volunteering for my local MP, I’d seen this brought up in constituent meetings and it would just break your heart. All they want is to be acknowledged that they will work earnestly and not cause troubles, yet they’re treated like criminals, as if they’ve done something wrong. A similar occurrence happens in season 5 where because Kieron was born in Rwanda, despite living his whole life in the UK, the authorities try to deport him. I’m certain this is a linked commentary to the Windrush scandal, whereby children of the Windrush generation were wrongfully detained and threatened to be kicked out of the country. The show acts as a voice for change as these unlawful detentions can rip families apart in the process. It is a real-life threat which authorities show no remorse for.
Another problem that the show dealt with extremely well was domestic abuse, picturing it as not just attempts to physically harm a partner, but it can also take the form of mental domination. This can be by making a partner feel trapped and scared of the consequences if they oppose their partner. I think this uneasiness catches the audience’s attention to put themselves in the abused position and how suffocating it is.
Hate crime is another major issue highlighted in Top Boy, whether it be because you’re gay or a refugee. I think the severity and nature of what happened can often go ignored, as hate crimes aren’t necessarily front and centre of information we’re given when following the news. Top Boy sends a clear message that these stories are heard, no matter who you are, you should never be discriminated against in such unjust affairs.
The Final Bow (MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THOSE WHO HAVENT WATCHED)
Okay now that I’m talking to the people that watched the show, there is so much to unpack. Firstly, I won’t lie that ending of season 2 submerging into season 3 was crazy, killing off Jamie was something I never saw coming. I loved Jamie as a character, so it was tough, but Sully’s reasoning made sense. Given the fact that Jamie, had already taken shots at Sully and was “cosying up with Juan”, he was always going to be a danger to the Summerhouse crew regardless of if he was playing on their side for the time being.
Coming off the back of that, I was expecting season 3 to let off fireworks and to be honest it didn’t match the standard it had previously built for me.
Jaq’s whole storyline made no sense for me in the last episodes, her sudden epiphany that drugs are ruining people’s lives because Lauryn died was so ignorant in my view. I get it, they tried to send a message that what they do is messed up and she has a realisation, but it’s come so late in her arc it makes no sense. After two and half seasons, you’re telling me you were oblivious to the repercussions of your actions. Furthermore, stealing from Sully like that was extremely idiotic on her part and it didn’t fit in line with who we knew Jaq to be. Yes, she could be impulsive at times but would never make decisions to throw herself and people she cares about in jeopardy, she was usually bailing people like Lauryn out.
Another thing that bugged me was the length of involvement with the Irish mob, they were there as a threat to Sully and the writers could’ve really built up that position a little bit more. Killing them off as quickly as they did and making us care so little for them was also poorly done in my estimations.
Not being funny but Dushane literally became a side character in parts, always being told to pay money for something, getting annoyed and then ending up paying anyway. Similarly, to Jaq we’re used to seeing Dushane as the bold and strong character, the one who makes calculated risks and knows the pond he’s dipping his toes in. I mean come on he really killed another man and didn’t bother to clean the prints properly, what kind of plot is that. To say I was disappointed with the way his character was deployed would be an understatement. There was a bit of nice dialogue between him and Sully before his death, but again this story seemed rushed and would’ve preferred there to be more care in the death of the main character of the show.
Now it’s not all gloom, I do think a redeeming quality of this series was seeing Steff grow up from once an innocent boy to spending more time with Jamie’s gang. We see he’s not as scared as he was in season 3 or 4. Confronting Sully on what he did to his brother as well was powerful and, in the end, seeing him overcome that burden was critical.
On the ending I am a sucker for mysteries and piecing together the meaning of things, everyone online is convinced that the killer is Jaq not only because of the apparent swagger the mysterious murderer walks away with but also Sully threatened to end her life. I’m not fully sold its Jaq, she did kill a rival gang member in season 2 when Sully was kidnapped, but she still doesn’t strike me as a natural cold-blooded murderer so I wouldn’t think it would be in her.
If it’s the Irish mob, I couldn’t care less and don’t think as I said above that would be a meaningful candidate for the killer. Some people think it could’ve been Si who also wanted to get revenge on Sully for killing Jamie and humiliating him at a later date. Again, I don’t think Si would have had the guts to kill Sully.
So, who killed Sully then? I kind of like to think that it’s none of the enemies that Sully has made, but rather a new player on the block who establishes themself, thus recycling the system of Top Boy in a natural way. This likely is not the answer and I guess we’ll have to wait many years before someone finally spills the tea.
Top Boy came to the public attention as just a show about roadmen but ended as the most significant cultural showing in British television in a war against social inequalities. The show has produced some of the best acting performances and are truly a credit to the country, from the likes of Kano delivering one of the best characters we’ve seen in Sully to the rise of young stars like Michael Ward. I can’t wait to see what the cast gets up to next, it’s safe to say with their talents spread out we’re bound for more quality content. The acknowledgment not just in the UK but now abroad with everyone trying to imitate the slang we have is a testament to the heights Top Boy has reached. All good stories must however come to an end and the stories of Sully and Dushane will surely be missed.