Warning! The following article contains mild spoilers for season 3 of Top Boy.
Times have changed. The road is different. London looks vaguely familiar to how we left it but there’s something different in the air as Dushane (Ashley Walters) makes his long-awaited return to the streets of Hackney in the third season of Top Boy. Welcome back to one of the most impactful UK dramas of the last decade.
We haven’t seen Dushane since 2013. He and Sully (Kane ‘Kano’ Robinson) had fallen out in the aftermath of the murders he committed in the first series. Dushane had worked his way up through the ranks dealing drugs on the Summerhouse estate, and he and Sully quickly switched from ride-or-die best friends to bitter rivals. They later called a truce when things got dicey on their respective sides and agreed to come together to retrieve drugs that the rival Albanian gang had stolen. But things got messy. Twelve-year-old Michael, a fan favourite who Dushane had taken under his wing, was thrown over the balcony of his block of flats when he tried to warn Dushane that the Albanian gang had turned up at his house.
That scene, six years ago, left viewers reeling. But at the beginning of this new season of Top Boy – now on Netflix with Drake on board as a producer, having moved over from Channel 4 – there’s not much time to mull over the past. Sully is coming to the end of a prison sentence and Dushane, who has been living in Jamaica with a cousin, is back in his hometown after getting into trouble with a kingpin. "Is it safe for you to be back?" Dushane’s mum, Pat, asks. His old estate is unrecognisable; skeletons of the market stalls beside which he and his crew used to operate rankle him almost as much as having to wait an age for a wanky £3.50 artisan coffee. Besides the knowing wink towards the backdrop of encroaching gentrification (you'll snigger at the references for a moment before the reality settles), we know it’s definitely not safe for Dushane to be back. But he doesn’t have much of a choice.
Because despite leaving Jamaica, trouble is still chasing him. Dushane promised that he would shift gear in London but the road he was once in charge of is run by a new generation. Newcomer Jaime (Micheal Ward) is now leading the charge in Hackney, sliding seamlessly between the roles of protective, loving older brother who attends parents' evenings and ambitious gang leader who’s much quicker to pull a gun on the opposition than Dushane was back in his day.
Meanwhile, Sully, still behind bars, has run into an issue with younger guys on the inside. Modie (rapper David ‘Dave’ Omoregie) runs things there. He has weed and pills delivered to his cell by drone, and the prison officers wrapped around his little finger. The day before Sully's release, the two clash in such a way that can only lead to further, terrible consequences.
Also new is Shelley (Little Simz), Dushane’s mother’s carer who does nails on the side. She operates on the periphery of the local gang drama; decidedly uninvolved but friends with people much closer to the action. She’s a welcome addition among the new faces, offering relief from the suffocating threat and violence that lurks around most corners.
Between Dushane’s familiar old school mindset and the draw of the moves the new kids are making, Top Boy season 3 lands in a way that even those with the sharpest memories of the first and second series won't be prepared for and it's immediately clear the show will remain a standout series for a new and returning generation of fans.
It's not meant to be flattering or condemning. Nor is it just a gritty, gratuitous close-up of an underserved subculture. It's a gut-punching drama that speaks to experiences which people on both sides of the equation could do with recognising. You'll spend as much time with a lump in your throat over loss, pain and tragedy as you will grateful that this instalment gives us 10, rather than four episodes to work through.
Top Boy season 3 is available on Netflix now