Gomorrah, the Italian crime show whose fifth season is now available in the U.S. on HBO Max, is the kind of great show that sneaks up on you. It’s massive in Italy, but less so in America, which means that there’s comparatively little fanfare on its release; the day always comes when the presence of a new season takes you by surprise. That happened to me this past month, when an email made me aware that not only was the fifth and final season available in its entirety, but it had been out for almost six months.
I’ve written about the show several times at this very website, but it has been a little like shouting into a void. Much like The Bureau, a spectacular espionage show out of France, subtitles are a difficult hurdle for many American viewers to cross, at least in the presence of a sophisticated show; if we’re going to tolerate them, we want the drama to be simple and sugary, a la Money Heist. It’s life, but it’s also a shame, because if a show like Gomorrah had been produced in, say, New Orleans, I’m convinced it would be considered an all-time crime classic, perhaps just a half-notch below The Sopranos.
So consider this essay praise for the entire five-season run of the show, and a call to invest the time to start from the beginning if you haven’t already. This is a show centered on two characters, Ciro de Marzio (Marco D’Amore) and Gennaro Savastano (Salvatore Esposito), who operate in the drug-infested slums of Naples, scratching and clawing their ambitious ways upward in a world where even a slight slip can mean death. The show succeeds in many respects, but it starts with these two centerpieces, perfectly cast, perfectly written, dual orbiting spheres of charisma and terror that electrify each scene they’re in, together or otherwise.
The tone is dark and moody, poverty signifiers are everywhere, and the music—including the brooding theme, “La Serie,” which punctuates the end of each episode—is ominous and sublime. And despite the prominence of the two leads, there’s a sacred commitment by the writers and directors to look at Naples, and Italy, and the brutally capitalistic drug trade of Europe, in both macrocosm and microcosm. This is a show that affects you on a personal level as you watch even minor characters try to scratch their way upward out of misery, often unsuccessfully, but it also teaches you the big-picture mechanisms of how the world operates. (And, to heap more praise, it’s clever even in the small moments—a scene in Season 5 depicts a police car pulling alongside a fruit truck filled on a city highway. The fruit truck is filled with drugs, and at this point, a third car behind them pulls around the police car and speeds away, forcing them to give immediate pursuit. I would never have thought about this kind of diversionary tactic; it’s a great example of the small pleasures on offer.)
This intelligence is not surprising, considering the show’s creator Roberto Saviano, who wrote exposes on Italian crime families and has had to live with security protection for almost two decades. Like The Wire, the creative mind behind the drama is a journalist, and he brings with him a bird’s-eye view to the world he’s recreating. The danger here is for the story to run dry, but that never happens; this is anthropology, sure, but without losing the intensity of the individual human experience.
To put things in their most basic terms, the first season of Gomorrah is one of the best seasons of crime TV ever made, the second is almost as good, the third slips a little as the writers scramble to heighten the stakes for the main characters, and the fourth is an almost unbelievable return to top form.
Which brings us to the fifth season. There’s a move the writers make early on which has perhaps been a long time coming, but nevertheless feels cheap by their standards. And yet, the move itself paves the way for tremendous drama, so on some level it works. The fact is, though, that even Gomorrah falls prey to a phenomenon I’ve written about before (even in relation to this show), which is that when you have even one main character you can’t kill, it becomes hard to raise the stakes in a meaningful way. The solution the writers often attempt is to construct wilder and wilder scenarios to artificially heighten tension, and it cheapens the realism while falling short of the desired effect since the underlying impossibility of a character’s death remains. That phenomenon appeared in the third season, was eliminated by the fourth season, but is probably at its worst in the fifth. In short, this is a very good time for the show to end.
Unlike The Wire, Gomorrah was reliant enough on two central characters that it couldn’t sacrifice them the way that Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale were eventually sacrificed, and couldn’t turn their attention fully to a new tableau within Naples. And unlike The Sopranos, those two characters were under such constant threat that it was impossible to draw the viewer’s attention away from their immediate fate onto other characters and other plots. The ways in which the story suffers in Season 5, then, the times when it devolves into cliche or violates even its own loosening standards of realism, were inevitable, and the only way to to avoid them would have been to end the show earlier.
Yet even in the context of this slight quality drop, everything else about the show—from the acting to directing to cinematography to music—is so irresistibly good that it makes for compelling viewing anyway. The main story ran itself into a corner, but like the dim, blind alleys of Naples, there is a grim beauty to the corner that redeems it. It’s a place you don’t mind staying for a while, and when it’s over, you’re sad to see it go.
But if you’ve never seen it before, you still have 50 episodes before that conclusion comes. This is a rich journey to embark upon, and as is often said from one longtime viewer to someone just discovering a new show, I’m jealous of your blank slate.
Gomorrah is now streaming in full on HBO Max.
Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .
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