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Netflix’s ‘Top Boy’ Is a Show About Greed, and Not Just the Materialistic Kind

On the gripping British crime drama, which is back for a third season thanks to Drake, everyone wants something they don’t have

Netflix/Ringer illustration

By the grace of a higher power, editing didn’t deprive us of “Sup Mate,” a Young Thug and Future collaboration from So Much Fun, Thug’s debut album, which you’ve probably heard. If not, it’s just as frivolous as it sounds—the two trade zany boasts and hot-air provocations in faux-British accents, punctuating just about every line with “mate.” When Future says he has a 50-round Draco, I imagine Kano—the seasoned and, it must be said, handsome grime rapper who plays Sully on the British crime drama Top Boy—flicking his pocket knife open and snapping it closed in the corner with a big, toothy grin. At one point, during Series 2, Sully has a laugh at a trap rapper’s expense: “Blud, I been on the roads my entire life and I ain’t never seen no AK-47.” Top Boy went off the air in 2013, and now owing to Drake, who purchased the rights to the show in 2017, Series 3 is out on Netflix on Friday.

Sometimes it takes a show two or five episodes to settle into itself; when Top Boy first aired eight years ago on the U.K.’s Channel 4, it immediately offered a very specific and enthralling point of view. In the opening moments you see a small corner of London through the window of a council high rise—it’s early morning, pigeons scatter off of blanched rooftops above and car alarms sound below as the city prickles to life. The London Eye is little more than a hubcap on the horizon, a world away from Summerhouse, the fictional estate where Top Boy takes place. There are hair salons and five-a-side pitches and convenience stores and restaurants with pictures of the food on the menu just like anywhere else in London. But in Summerhouse things are grayer, life moves faster, and the stakes feel higher.

Top Boy, if you super, super simplify it, is a show that follows a pattern: There’s a plan, the plan goes wrong, and by one or all of luck, savvy, and the obfuscation or complete abandonment of core principles, there’s an uneasy resolution. At times, the show is about British decline, or mental illness, or the pratfalls that come along with mixing friendship with business. (Which, along with its colorfully and thoughtfully constructed characters and, you know, the drug trafficking, is why it draws a lot of comparisons to The Wire.) But really, Top Boy is about greed, and not just the materialistic kind.

Dushane (Ashley Walters) plays the stoic-but-not-that-stoic antihero—he would be the leader of the Summerhouse Gang, if such a gang, the one that pumps narcotics onto the streets, were a thing that existed, wink, wink. Dushane’s hothead no. 2, Sully, is just the plain, traditional kind of greedy—he’d rather steal than pay an agreed-upon price, he wants all of his respect and money up front, etc. Dushane, too, wants cars, clothes, and for people to tremble at his name; but Dushane also wants to be in the right, and to be loved as well. On top of that he wants to be a hood pope figure to the lame, the sick, and the weary; a friend to single mothers, a mentor to their sons. It’s a lot of plates to spin at once, and with each new season, at least one crashes loudly, tragically, to the ground.

Everyone wants something they don’t have—take Heather, who’s extremely pregnant, and wants a flat in a nicer part of town, and resorts to growing her first, and hopefully last, cannabis crop. Take Vincent, who wants the crop, and the farm, and cheap labor, and passive income. Take Dris (Shone Romulus), Dushane’s secondary muscle, who has a frigid disposition but above all seems to want peace of mind, and to provide for his family. He has no other choice but to take extreme risks to keep a roof over their heads.

Top Boy rarely makes hard judgments about its characters one way or the other. Rather, it presents you a stark reality to make sense of. The show is less concerned with what’s right or wrong than it is with what’s true, and how that truth feels. Dushane, on several occasions, is forced to confront who he is, at the expense of who he imagines himself to be—Ashley Walters does a great job of acting around this; he can hide a lot of menace and mischief in a smirk, and endless internal conflict in a blank stare. My favorite Sympathy For The Devil Moment, though, happens in Series 1, after Dris carries out a mission, and goes to the club to sulk about it. There’s a slow pan across the party, clubgoers bathed in purple neon light, dancing, sweating, and not having a dark night of the soul. It’s amazing how palpable Dris’s loneliness is in that moment. Also, during that scene, Giggs is doing a club performance.

That’s another thing that’s great about Top Boy—the music. Brian Eno does the original score, but you also might hear the likes of Ghetts or Mic Righteous or even Terry Callier woven into the sounds of the city in any given scene. The Series 3 cast announcement teased roles for recognizable U.K. artists like Little Simz and Dave. A more recent trailer, which fleshes out that Dushane and Sully are six years older, beleaguered, and set for another grueling climb to the top, has a gritty Shy FX song in it. Drake may even use the show as a Trojan horse for new music; Top Boy has an actual, for-streaming soundtrack now.

“Sup Mate” arrived a little too late to make the cut, and maybe wouldn’t have fit the spirit of the show. Later in the song, after Future “truckers the truck,” but before he gets too high to say anything but “woo, woo, woo,” he says his gun is “featherweight.” That’s also funny, considering how big a deal it is when anyone on Top Boy has a gun—figuratively, legally, it always seems to weigh a ton.

As to who or what the Top Boy is? If you have to ask, well, you’re almost definitely not it.