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Top Boy Ends Its Gripping Crime Saga With a Bang

Who comes out on top in the series finale?
  • Kane "Kano" Robinson and Ashley Walters decide once and for all who's the Top Boy (Photo: Netflix)
    Kane "Kano" Robinson and Ashley Walters decide once and for all who's the Top Boy (Photo: Netflix)

    It’s still wild to think that we have Drake to thank for the revival of Top Boy, Ronan Bennett’s engrossing crime saga that draws to a close on September 7. Like so many of us, the Grammy-winning rapper got caught up in a show, only to find out it had been canceled — in this case, Channel 4 dropped Top Boy, which starred Ashley Walters and Kane Robinson, in 2014 after two four-episode seasons. But, unlike the vast majority of the TV-viewing public, Drake had the influence to set a revival in motion, bringing back many original cast members and drawing a slew of new talents like Micheal Ward (Small Axe: Lovers Rock, Empire of Light) and Simbiatu Ajikawo (aka Little Simz).

    The revival premiered on Netflix in 2019, garnering a new (and broader) audience, but Top Boy retained its grit — not just in the sense of its unflinching portrayal of life in the inner London borough of Hackney, but the determination of its characters to not simply be swallowed up by the bleakness of their environment. These characters include deeply flawed people like Dushane Hill (Walters) and Gerard “Sully” Sullivan (Robinson, a grime MC who also goes by Kano), whose choices often harm even their loved ones. They also include people like Mandy (NoLay), who was incarcerated when the series began and goes on to push her friends, like Jaq (Jasmine Jobson), to take accountability for their actions in Season 3*. But whether they’re “good” or “bad” people, or somewhere in between, every one of them makes some effort, however small or deplorable, to rail against a world that’s alternately indifferent and cruel.

    [*Technically, the final season is the fifth season of the show. But after Netflix revived the show, the two Channel 4 seasons were renamed Top Boy: Summerhouse.]

    Over the course of five seasons and 12 years, Bennett and his cast have taken viewers on a riveting journey, one that ends with all the devastation that’s been hinted at since the series began. As Dushane’s former lawyer (and ex-lover) Rhianna Parkes (Lorraine Burroughs) told him in Season 1 of Summerhouse, the life of a drug dealer, no matter how powerful or ambitious they are, typically ends in one of two ways: “You either die or you go down.” Top Boy’s featured plenty of reversals of fortune, as the power dynamic between Dushane and Sully shifted with each season finale (sometimes, in a single episode). But that seesaw reaches a standstill in Season 3; someone finally comes out on top (albeit briefly).

    [The rest of this feature dives into plot points from Top Boy Season 3.]

    Dushane and Sully, Top Boy’s Cain and Abel

    Because of its sprawling cast and storytelling, Top Boy has been compared to The Wire, which also passionately explored what happens to people when institutions fail them. It’s a fair comparison to make, though Bennett remained primarily concerned with the effects, rather than explicitly tracing a line back to the causes. With the final six-episode season, he does confront systemic inequities in a much more direct manner, picking up the previous seasons’ storyline about gentrification in Hackney, and showing the continuing fallout of the Windrush scandal. New threats are introduced — Barry Keoghan looms over the first half of the season as an Irish gangster who wants to cut someone, either Dushane or Sully, out of the equation — as well as new hopes, in the form of young love and Stefan’s (Araloyin Oshunremi) realization that he doesn’t have to follow in his brother’s, let alone Sully’s, footsteps.

    But Top Boy is and always has been Dushane and Sully’s show, even when a charismatic interloper like Jamie Tovell (Ward) entered the picture. Friends since childhood, Dushane and Sully initially set out to conquer the world (that is, the Summerhouse drug trade) together. At the start of the series, they were holding down just a section of that territory with Dris (Shone Romulus) and chafing under Lee Greene’s (Cyrus Desir) command. But the cracks in their partnership were already evident; Dushane was the strategic one, while Sully was more impulsive — he racked up a body count in Summerhouse almost by accident. Sully’s brashness proved to be his undoing; by the end of (the first) Season 1, he was deemed a liability by Bobby Raikes (Geoff Bell) and even Dushane.

    Dushane chose his friend over his supplier; he used Sully’s gun — which could implicate him in at least one murder, that of the well-meaning Leon (Nicholas Pinnock) — to shoot Raikes in the head and make it look like he died by suicide. But that loyalty came at a price: Dushane then relegated Sully to the sidelines of the trade, from which the newly minted antagonist emerged in Season 2 of Summerhouse with a huge chip on his shoulder. With friends like these, who needs enemies like the Albanians, who muscled in on the Summerhouse gang? Still, their bond wasn’t completely broken yet. Despite Dushane relying on Dris and pondering a move into a more legitimate business, and Sully trying to strike out on his own with Mike (Peaky Blinders’ Paul Anderson), they soon found themselves working together again.

    By the third overall season and the first to be produced by Netflix, though, Dushane and Sully were once again on the outs. The passage of time was slowed on the show; instead of the eight years that lapsed in real life, the events of Top Boy Season 1 took place roughly six years after Sully walked away from Dushane at the end of Summerhouse. Going his own way had led Sully in and out of prison, while Dushane, who initially fled from the Albanians’ retribution, had settled into life in Jamaica. The past came calling for them both, and they once again found their lives intertwined. They even had a common enemy: Jamie, who displayed both Dushane’s savviness and Sully’s ruthlessness. The leader of the ZTs drove a wedge between the former friends, even after he was killed by Sully, who grew frustrated by Dushane’s respect for the ambitious “yout,” in the Season 2 finale.

    Try as they might to forge separate paths, Dushane and Sully remained locked in competition, each determined not to let the other beat him. But where Dushane showed a more single-minded ambition, to amass enough money and power to never have to worry about either again, Sully was driven as much by his feelings of betrayal as his desire for power. He resented having to team up with Dushane again after their first split; the fact that his former friend had to come to his rescue on multiple occasions didn’t help matters. All of these tensions boil over in the final season of Top Boy, as Dushane and Sully settle their rivalry once and for all.

    The king of Summerhouse is dead, long live the king

    Well, “long” might be a stretch. After eliminating Dushane’s “retirement plan,” Sully threatens to eliminate Dushane in the Season 3 premiere, unless the latter agrees to become a silent partner. Dushane accepts his new, limited role; last season, he showed signs of a heart problem, but more importantly, he’s tried for years to achieve greater stability via a “legitimate” business. Shelley’s nail salon chain promises just that, but that dream also slips through his fingers — Lithe (Michelle Newell) and Lizzie (Lisa Dwan) run off with the 15 million pounds he put into the Summerhouse redevelopment, leaving him to start over. From the bottom. Again.

    The reversals of fortune come fast and furious from here. Sully cooks up a plan to cast off their Irish overlords — who, despite being played by Keoghan and Brian Gleeson, don’t make much of an impression, but such is the reality of being a late-hour antagonist — and Dushane backs him, only to end up on the lam for killing Jeffrey (Shaun Dingwall). They grow increasingly desperate, much more so than they were in the early Summerhouse days; because even though they’re once again fighting to survive, they’re now fighting against each other as well.

    As their relationship breaks down, civil unrest takes over the world of Top Boy. The residents of Summerhouse, led by Mandy, aren’t going quietly from their homes, and certainly not at the behest of gentrifiers and bureaucrats, who treat them as nothing more than obstacles. But while it’s galvanizing to watch marginalized groups, including Black people, immigrants, queer people, take a stand, the end of the saga of Dushane and Sully is almost pitiful. 

    Dushane robs Sully’s stash to buy his escape to Turkey, beating up Jaq, who’s in Sully’s crosshairs for having stolen the stash first, in the process. Sully pursues him through the Summerhouse uprising, giving the order to shoot Dushane on sight. But he’s the one who shoots Dushane while the latter attempts to climb a gate, having already flung the bag with the kilos over. Their final exchange is wrenching, what’s left of their bond crumbling as they accuse each other and eventually forgive one another. Dushane dies on the street — not so much a deposed ruler as he is just another person bleeding out.

    Sully lives to fight another day, but there’s still a reckoning coming. It’s not at the hands of Stefan, who, having observed that the path to vengeance he’s been walking has left him more alone than ever, tells Sully he’s “not worth” losing a chance at a life far from all of this. Sully makes his way to his car, chuckling slightly in amazement as he fastens his seatbelt, before a passerby shoots him in the head through the car window. Roll credits.

    A top boy’s future is always hazy

    Season 3 may have been slightly overstuffed with new villains and predicaments that didn’t all pay off, but the series finale “If We Are Not Monsters” strips the show back down to its compelling basics. Throughout the series, Dushane and Sully watched as multiple top boys — Raikes, Lee, Modie (Dave), Sugar (Gilbert Chen — were toppled and quickly replaced. They took turns learning that it’s not just lonely at the top, it’s impossible to build anything there; all you can do is defend your spot until it’s your turn to be taken down.

    But that sense of inevitability is captured even more guttingly in the destruction of so many young lives throughout the series — devastation that Sully and Dushane contributed to, intentionally or not. Michael (Xavien Russell), Ats (Keiyon Cook), and Jason (Ricky Cooks) all had their lives cut short after runs-in with the warring Summerhouse leaders. Bennett never used flashbacks to fill in the blanks of Dushane and Sully’s childhoods, the events that turned them into who they were. Instead, he made the past unfold concurrently with the present by having doomed figures like Ats and Michael effectively haunt the proceedings before they even died.

    As he listens to Dushane draw his final breaths, a teary Sully says "If we are not monsters, we're food… and I could never be food. How do you think we survived all this time?" It’s a powerful statement, one that seems to set him apart from Dushane, who generally tried to find a way to limit the bloodshed, or at least, deploy it strategically. In the show's final moments alone, Sully ordered Kieron’s (Joshua Blissett) death, killed multiple men, and thought about taking Jaq out. He became a monster to make it through the last nine years, including that final night. But his time at the top was even shorter than Dushane’s, because the world is so much more monstrous than any one person could ever be. The series ends on an ambiguous note — who killed Sully? — that leaves the door open for future seasons or revivals, but it’s no mystery how the life of a top boy will end.

    Top Boy Seasons 1 through 3, along with Top Boy: Summerhouse Seasons 1 and 2, are streaming on Netflix.

    Danette Chavez is the Editor-in-Chief of Primetimer and its biggest fan of puns.

    TOPICS: Top Boy