It’s been over a year since Game of Thrones reached its climax and just as the demise of Robert Baratheon saw a swathe of wannabe rulers look to seize control of the Seven Kingdoms, so the show’s absence from our screens has seen a number of new contenders emerge from the shadows, keen to take on the title of TV’s most talked about drama.
If you want something that goes the sword-and-sorcery route, there’s Netflix’s The Witcher, or if you’re looking for more of a pseudo-historical vibe, then The Last Kingdom might be up your street, while HBO is also looking to follow up Thrones with a prequel series, the Targaryen-focused House of the Dragon, which is currently in development.
But another, rather more left-field replacement has also recently joined the fray, and despite appearances it might actually be the best fit for Thrones fans yet – stick with us on this, but Sky Atlantic’s Gangs of London is actually the perfect substitute for the same channel’s epic of Ice and Fire.
It’s true that on the surface the two shows couldn’t seem more different – one is a fantastical tale of magic and dragons set in a fictional faraway kingdom, the other a gritty crime series set in a stylised but still recognisable version of England’s capital. But appearances can be deceiving – look a little deeper and the similarities are actually quite striking.
Despite their drastically different backdrops, Game of Thrones and Gangs of London share a number of key themes. Both series kick into gear following the killing of a powerful and fearsome ruler – in Thrones, that’s Mark Addy’s aforementioned Baratheon, in Gangs, it’s Colm Meaney’s formidable gangster Finn Wallace – which not only sparks a turf war in that character’s immediate “kingdom” but also has wider ramifications across the show’s fictional world.
Both series have their warring clans, families who previously maintained an uneasy alliance under the iron fist of Robert/Finn but are now engaging in all-out war following his demise – for the Starks, the Baratheons, the Lannisters et al, read the Wallaces, the Dunamis and the Afiridis. The households in Gangs of London, like those in Game of Thrones, also suffer from seriously warped family dynamics, with Finn’s tyranny and the psychological impact it’s had on his offspring – his criminal heir Sean (Joe Cole), heroin addict Billy (Brian Vernel) and outsider Jacqueline (Valene Kane) – equatable to Tywin Lannister’s disastrous relationships with his three children.
The politics of power also play a huge part in the two shows, with loyalties constantly shifting from episode-to-episode, new and surprising allegiances being struck and shocking betrayals being uncovered. Trust is a precious commodity in both Thrones’ Westeros and Gangs’ London, with hidden motives, double-dealing and backstabbing abundant: the first season of Gangs sees old friends turn on each other, while enigmatic newcomers with divided loyalties like Elliot Finch (Sope Dirisu) climb the ladder.
As you might expect from two shows about (admittedly very different forms of) warfare, violence looms large in both shows. Gangs of London has been co-created, co-written and co-directed by Gareth Evans, the visionary filmmaker behind the Raid movies, which won raves for their masterful, almost balletic fight sequences. The brawls in his latest effort are no less impressive and no less brutal, with enough gore to satisfy those still longing for another Hardhome or Battle of the Bastards, but there’s often a darkly comic edge to the violence, something else that would often crop up in Game of Thrones.
Just as the savagery in the Seven Kingdoms was often so outrageous as to be almost amusing, so the combat in Gangs’ London similarly plays out in a wildly entertaining and outlandish fashion, with a wry smile and a raised eyebrow – whether it’s heads evaporating into a cloud of red mist as hoodlums are picked off one-by-one by a watching sniper or Elliot’s response to his emerging victorious against a large gang of foes in a pub scrap. “What was it, six of them?” asks Sean. “Eight,” he replies. “But I had a dart, so…”
A sly wit, inventive violence, colourful characters and feuding families – Gangs of London has all the right ingredients to not only become the next TV drama sensation but also to fill that Game of Thrones-shaped hole in both the schedules and fans’ hearts, even if a 21st century Big Smoke is notably lacking in dragons. (So far at least – there’s always season two…)