With The Last Panthers catching its breath before diving into the finale, it’s a good time to take stock of the show. What started as an investigation into a diamond heist has turned out to be resolutely not that. That impression comes across early, although it takes a while to sink in: The Panthers are purported to have pulled off some of the most magnificent heists ever in some of the ritziest neighborhoods on the planet, but there’s nothing remotely glamorous about The Last Panthers. The miniseries takes a wrecking ball to those neighborhoods, getting down to the dirt of Europe. Under Jack Thorne and Johan Renck’s vision, Marseilles isn’t a tourist mecca but the Kalashnikov capital of France. Wealthy London is uncomfortably imperious and cruelly imperial. The diamond heist itself is the MacGuffin. It lured our three protagonists and many of their connections into an elaborate chase through the sewers of the continent. And here at the outset of the finale, they’ve each taken in the scope of the capitally conjoined corporate, political, and criminal forces against them and managed to escape with very little but their own lives. That and, at last, an appreciation of the whole forest, not just the trees.
“Angel Of Death” is the episode that puts all the pieces together. Granted, it does it by way of another prestige trope, the penultimate flashback episode, but a leopard can’t change its spots. The nearly episode-length flashback to Naomi and Milan meeting in the Bosnian War is a heart-breaker. Paired with the framing story of Naomi and Milan converging on Adnan’s location just too late, it’s even more powerful. The last moments of the flashback are Milan telling Adnan they’ll start a new life in Serbia, and then we slam into the present, where Milan watches his baby brother fall to his death.
The Last Panthers has some storytelling issues, but “Angel Of Death” is an intricate piece of work. The episode contains obvious tragedies, but it doesn’t wallow. That restraint makes it all the more moving. The episode is so carefully controlled and structured that it punches you when you’re not looking rather than pummeling you the whole time. For example, we’ve already seen Milan and Adnan come to Serbia without their father, Pev (Bojan Dimitrijevic). So Pev has a sword hanging over his head the whole flashback. But it doesn’t feel that way, because Jack Thorne isn’t just setting up dominoes to topple over. He’s telling a story. He keeps us focused on Naomi’s relationship with the Begices, and he distracts us with the Panthers shipping arms to Marseilles, and then he has us wondering exactly what’s going on with the war, and by the time Pev dies it’s almost an “oh, yeah” moment.
The best example of the care that goes into structuring the audience’s emotional response throughout “Angel Of Death” is the cut to Milan and Adnan in the secret compartment as their father is shot to death in the driver’s seat. The cut itself contains three elements that heighten the power. First of all, the idea of the compartment had been set up earlier. What it’s used for is a red herring, but that’s what the script has us pondering. So when it shows up again, it feels like a circuit connecting. It gives you the sense that you had all the information but couldn’t put it together in time (or maybe you could). Second is the surprise. We hadn’t seen the kids at all yet. Now we find out they’re there the whole time, which feeds into that feeling that we should have known. Finally, the cut to the children contextualizes the death without compromising the vision. The general approach of The Last Panthers is cold, hard distance. It’s sad to watch the Serbs close in on Pev’s truck, but in a journalistic kind of way, not a tragedy kind of way. However, cutting to the kids, in tandem with the callback and the surprise, puts us right there in the bloodbath with the survivors whose destinies are being written. All that in one editing choice. And then Milan and Adnan have to physically crawl out of a hole covered in corpses.
The one accidentally off-putting sequence has to do with the visuals rather than the writing. The look of the flashbacks is so overbearing, the better to illustrate the desaturated fade of “history,” that the hide and seek game comes off a little more like a horror movie than I suspect was intended. For all we know Naomi could have been walking into a trap. The fact that she isn’t is a great relief, but it should have been clear from the get-go. On the other hand, the worn-in gray gives some dimension to the landscape shots. We hear in the characters’ words and see in their performances how beautiful the view is. But when we see it ourselves it looks foreboding. The colors are ashen, the topography is splotchy, and the camera moves like it knows something we don’t: Witness the opening sequence pan down from the pleasing vista to the UN convoy snaking its way to the border. After the hide-and-seek game begins we cut to the deep charcoal mountains that night. One view out the window echoes Tarkovsky, the master behind Stalker, set in a wasteland, The Sacrifice, which takes place during an apocalyptic nuclear war, and the window shot in general.
Naomi doesn’t just meet Milan during her time coordinating UN aid. She also meets Tom, who was old even 20 years ago, when he was working for MI6. It’s the centerpiece of the episode, the macro moment where everything clicks into place. Naomi has caught wind that the Serbs are distributing arms, so Tom tells a story about how the Panthers began. Essentially, Yugoslavia president Josip Broz Tito made a deal with certain criminals to deal with dissidents in exchange for carte blanche across Europe. The proto-Panthers would suppress anti-Tito voices, and in exchange they could steal all the diamonds in Europe and still claim the protection of the government. That arrangement has continued and developed in the intervening years, and on behalf of MI6, Tom would like Naomi to kindly mind her own business. The idea of delegating to criminal enforcers is as close as we get to a Khalil appearance this week, and really it’s more of a Roman appearance. Les Agnettes is operating on the same theory.
They argue over the right thing to do, with Naomi taking Khalil’s side. Tom’s contention is that too heavy a hand makes intervention backfire. Naomi’s is that people are dying. He’s made peace with the long view, but she’s concerned with the short term. Uncharacteristically, Tom has a valid point that isn’t purely self-interested. But so does Naomi, and hers is bolstered by the tragedy that follows. With her hands tied, she can only tell her lover, Pev. At least, she thinks he’s the only person she’s telling. But an eavesdropping Milan, too young to have all that wide a perspective on the situation, spreads that information. The result is a Bosnian preemptive strike, the end of the cease-fire, and the Serbian ambush of Pev and his friends. These are the accepted casualties. Tom and the wealthy West he represents have done the calculations, and everything’s going according to plan.
Earlier I said there were four or five other profoundly moving sequences. Two of them are just shots of Samantha Morton taking it all in before a view of the city, first when she absorbs the shock of the resumed fighting and all but certain deaths of Pev and his family in Bosnia and later when we cut back to the present on Naomi’s pained face absorbing the shock of Adnan’s death against a sleepy Serbia. Another comes shortly after, when she reveals the photo of Pev she carries in her wallet and Milan immediately tears up. Staring at the photo as the end credits tinkle starts up, he says, “Funny, the only time my family dies is when you are around.” But is Naomi his angel of death, or the institutions Naomi represents?
Adnan’s death is somewhat foregone, but he has a little showdown with Zlatko on the roof of a building before he goes. “I’m fed up with you people thinking you’re so powerful,” he says. “You have no idea what power is.” Those are Adnan’s last words before he trust falls off the building, eventually slamming into a duct between buildings so hard that it sets off a nearby car alarm. It’s a moving rejection of the powers of ruthless capitalism and criminal violence. What else is there? Resistance, loyalty, morality? The Last Panthers has finally filled in its map of seemingly insurmountable political-corporate-criminal power. But with a whole episode left, maybe there’s hope for a solution after all.
- “Angel Of Death” is written by Jack Thorne and directed by Johan Renck.
- Ferid, one of the local border guards, asks Naomi and the entire West looking for unobstructed access to his country: “Why even ask for permission?”
- Another interesting collision of experiences: Naomi tells Pev about her traumatic first memory, a traffic accident involving a truck running over a biker. Pev responds, “You don’t think my children have seen worse?” The scene isn’t about calling out Naomi’s relative privilege or lamenting the years of Balkan violence. Above all, it’s about these two people from opposite ends of Europe connecting, sharing their experiences, coming together (cue jokes). I can’t believe how quickly Naomi’s relationship with Pev comes alive.
- Igor monologues about Serbia’s history of invasion. “My people, we know blood. We know war. ‘Cause every war has taken from us. British, they know how to start war. Not to survive it. You have blood on your hands, and we have blood in our hearts.”
- After the fighting breaks out again, Naomi urges Igor to arrest the Bosnians for their own protection. He starts to wonder why she’s so motivated. “Are you in any way responsible for this?” She looks down, guilty, but then she snaps back, “Are you responsible? Should you not have done more?” Part of the point of The Last Panthers is there’s enough blame for everybody.
- Igor’s final statement is the culmination of a series-long motif: “This is not a game.” Except, well, for the parties with less skin in it.
- How credible is it for two Bosnian Muslim kids to play Serbs convincingly?
- Naomi takes Milan away from his brother’s final hideout back to her hotel. “This is an expensive hotel room,” he says. Even the way Goran Bogdan sits in the chair reveals how un-used he is to such wealth. “Diamond hunting pays well, huh?” What about diamond stealing? Apparently those profits weren’t trickling down to the actual thieves all those years, were they?