Netflix’s Top Boy Season 2 remains as complex, authentic, and nuanced as ever, delivering its biggest, best outing yet without sacrificing what made it great in the first place.
This review of Netflix’s Top Boy Season 2 is spoiler-free.
Depending on who you ask, Top Boy is on either its second or its fourth season. After two successful four-episode outings on British TV, the show – a gritty, authentic English answer to The Wire – was canned in 2014. But thanks to Drake, of all people, it was renewed by Netflix, the old seasons were rebranded as Top Boy: Summerhouse and the impressive crime drama was given a new lease of life. This new outing is the second to be financed by Netflix’s bottomless pockets, and you can tell – it’s as handsomely, stylishly shot and presented as any show about London drug dealers killing and maiming each other could possibly be.
But the secret to the show’s continued success is that despite all the money and attention being thrown its way, it never lost its earnest sense of self. A complex, nuanced, and well-observed portrait of the English capital’s seedy underbelly, it’s less a glamourization of the criminal lifestyle and more an unpacking of the context within which such a lifestyle seems like the only attainable one. It’s as much about gentrification, poverty, class, family, friendship, belonging, and acceptance as it is about guns, gangs, and class-A drugs, though it’s certainly about all of those things too.
In these eight new episodes, the plot of Top Boy Season 2 encircles a criminal empire in jeopardy while also breaking off into related subplots about the brutish development of a housing estate and a terrifying case of domestic violence. It leaps from London to Spain and Morocco then back again, detailing a complex web of criminality that includes at least one deeply sympathetic figure in every location. The whole show’s like that. You don’t know how to feel about anyone because nobody is sure how to feel about themselves; the most ruthless gangsters in the country are also the most attentive spouses, doting brothers, and emotionally vulnerable parents.
To detail the plot too much would be to spoil it. Suffice it to say, we’re following on from the end of the previous season, with Dushane (Ashley Walters) having facilitated Jamie’s (Michael Ward) release from prison in exchange for his services in helping to manage giant shipments of drugs from Morocco via Spain. While that’s going on, there’s trouble closer to home, with characters both old and new facing personal predicaments that tie back into the overarching narrative in often surprising and clever ways. Sully (Kane “Kano” Robinson) has sequestered himself away on a canal boat, while Jaq (Jasmine Jobson) has taken on much more of a leadership role. And while Dushane isn’t exactly going legit, he does plan to take a step back from the streets and funnel his dirty money into more ostensibly legitimate endeavors while building a life for himself, Shelley (Little Simz), and her daughter, Tish.
Some of this manifests in the expected ways, as shootouts and testy business negotiations. But a lot of it becomes nuanced character drama as flawed men and women attempt to navigate their lives and relationships against the backdrop of an impoverished London hacked to pieces by self-interest. Often, as with earlier seasons, the drama is framed in the perspective of children; Jamie’s youngest brother, Stef (Araloyin Oshunremi), fulfills a similar role to Ra’Nell in the first two seasons, providing a child’s-eye-view of the ruthless environment that both protects and endangers him in equal measure. But Top Boy Season 2 also promotes women to the forefront of the drama, with Jaq and Shelley particularly taking on expanded, welcome roles.
As ever, Kane Robinson and Michael Ward deliver the strongest performances as the most complex and sympathetic characters. Robinson’s Sully is particularly riveting here, communicating more through his behavior, tics, and expression than he does through words, though when he does speak it’s in the same purposeful, authentic way that everyone else does. Top Boy’s writing remains its most essential element, even with the obvious uptick in production and cinematography afforded by Netflix’s budget and resources. It might have gone global now, but this is a show about London that speaks in its slang and cadence, values its citizens, and deeply understands its culture. It’s masterful stuff.