“White Knight” doesn’t find any life in The Last Panthers, but it does the next best thing: It simulates it. If we can’t experience any relief, at least the characters can. Turns out there’s a world outside the grim and gritty crime drama. Tom isn’t funny, exactly, but he’s having a gay, old time making breakfast for Naomi. He’s there to absolve her of her Serbian responsibilities in person, or rather, coerce her into volunteering for the job. “Consider yourself on trauma leave, until you feel detraumatized, I guess.” John Hurt laughs the whole way through the line. Naomi was attacked and nearly killed on an assignment he ordered her to take in spite of her traumatic history, and Tom’s acting like all’s well that ends well. Later, Zlatko can barely take anything seriously; that’s how little he’s aware of the intense investigations closing in on him. We meet a man even more cushioned from the violent fallout of the diamond robbery than Tom, Lord Belmaire, and he can barely spare a thought for whatever Tom’s working on. And Khalil’s sister Samira is just passing through the show, with no clue how heavy her scene is. None of these scenes escape the tar pit—Tom comes off callous, Zlatko idiotic, and Samira in danger—but they reveal that not everyone in the show is actively participating in the tragedy. Some of the characters have lives.

The point isn’t to amuse the audience, although TV writers could stand to remember humor has never undermined a strong, serious drama. The point of leavening a heavy tone with whatever’s handy is simply to demonstrate perspective. Tom’s life isn’t going to have the same tone to it that Milan’s would. And Milan isn’t nearly as fatalistic as the show around him. At a certain point, a hard rain and Hans Zimmer brahms fall like ACME anvils, and your serious tragedy becomes a cartoon. The Last Panthers had me a little worried after the relentless premiere, but “White Knight” does a lot to open the series up.

For one thing the flashbacks are a lot more forthcoming. Instead of Naomi’s somewhat opaque glimpses of war, “White Knight” offers specific landmarks in the histories of Milan and Khalil. As kids, Milan and his brother Adnan come to Serbia, hook up with the Panthers, and Milan gets his tribal tat. And Khalil and his brother Mokhtar race their bikes around their project, Les Agnettes, only to stumble at the feet of the local criminal element. Now, the flashbacks don’t fit into the present-day storytelling with much grace. The poor guys zone out periodically over the course of their days, as one does. And they don’t reveal anything salient that we don’t discover elsewhere. But there’s something gained in the flashbacks anyway, particularly Khalil’s. It’s one thing to see Mokhtar in the present, a criminal of Les Agnettes who has to sneak a box of chocolates to his mother. And it’s another to see the fear on young Khalil and Mokhtar’s faces as they go from innocent children playing in their neighborhood to pawns in a dangerous game. Khalil’s obsession isn’t just motivated by professional duty or, to us, abstract history. We’re witnesses to a formative moment in Khalil’s life, and it doesn’t take much extrapolation to see the big picture. Khalil has personally grown up in that environment, and he’s watched his brother fall into crime. That’s why he’s so intent on cleaning it up, on playing white knight.

Unfortunately, as he learns from two The Wire plots stitched together and moved to Marseilles, that’s easier said than done. In another smart, quick establishing shot, the widescreen barely captures the expanse of Les Agnettes in full, highlighting the enormity of the task. “White Knight” opens with the raid to find the source of the arms that wound up in the hands of the diamond thieves. The sequence is full of great details. This time overhead shots look less like abstract expressionism and more like video games. Click to throw a washing machine on a police car! Game references abound in “White Knight,” most plainly when Milan plays chess with his brother in the hospital. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t feel as heavy. The characters think they’re playing.

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Eventually Khalil winds up in the bedroom of an elderly couple, Georges and Marie, who are clearly scared shitless. When asked if there’s anyone in the room, Marie shakes her head nervously and Georges stares straight ahead. It doesn’t take police training (or a lifetime of police dramas) to know someone’s in the closet. The closeted fellow comes out, guns blazing, and it’s intense for a moment. But the guy winds up dead, Khalil powers through his cracked ribs, and the police recover, in technical terms, a big bag of guns. The problem is when Khalil leans on Georges and Marie to fess up to their small part in the arms operation. They keep quiet even after Khalil makes it look like they identified a local lieutenant. But when they’re let go without Khalil’s knowledge, they wind up dead, and Khalil faces the consequences of his actions. Now his brother warns him people are talking about him and his sister delivers a message from those people in the form of Georges’ gym membership card, dropped in her cubby at work. If the double murders weren’t enough to show Khalil he can’t be the white knight of the neighborhood all on his own, that ending hammers the message home. He isn’t risking only himself.

That’s the big difference between Khalil and Milan on one side and Naomi and Tom on the other. The Brits don’t have any skin in the game. It’s sort of what Dragan suggests to Naomi during their first interview. She isn’t working out of obligation. She isn’t trying to support or save her loved ones, like Milan and Khalil. She isn’t risking her life for subsistence. She isn’t even fighting for an ideal. And, technically, thanks to that opening bit with Tom, she isn’t even being commanded to track the diamonds anymore. She’s involved because she can’t resist it, and she’s good at it. It’s a game.

So when Naomi crosses the line, it’s somewhat less forgivable. In this case she has two masked thugs let into Dragan’s cell to beat him and confiscate his phone, which she can then offer to replace in exchange for some assistance on the diamonds. The attack successfully turns Dragan’s “we don’t talk” stance into a “What do you want to know?” That’s how much she hurt him. Now, Dragan survives while Georges and Marie are dead, and Naomi actively chooses her violence while Khalil’s was accidental. There’s plenty of relative guilt to consider. And a subtle joke of the episode is that Naomi and Tom identify Borisav and Drago in the beginning, but the Marseilles police don’t get their names until near the end. But the main comparison here: Naomi and Khalil both stand apart from the violence. He’s the white knight, crusading on behalf of the victims against their local oppressors. She’s something else, the queen who snaps her fingers over here so guards beat someone up over there.

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Stray observations

  • “White Knight” is written by Jack Thorne and directed by Johan Renck.
  • The episode tells us why Khalil is so focused on Les Agnettes, why Milan orchestrated the diamond robbery, and sort of why Naomi gets involved (she can’t resist it), but what about Tom? In a conversation with the even more aloof Lord Belmaire, it turns out Tom is being squeezed out. It’s not clear if he just loves the money or the thrill or what, but it is clear he’s desperate to keep his job, and that’s why he takes the airport assignment.
  • That is, the new Belgrade airport, a modern strip for a modern city. That’s the lucrative slosh pit the Panthers are after. Thanks to some quick thinking by Milan, they get it, and all they have to do is tranq a dog, sew the diamonds up under his skin, and send him to London with the project head, Guillaume. Thanks to some very slow thinking by Zlatko, however, they give the guy the watch. So now he’s going to be wearing a flashy and very hot watch when he reaches London, the capital of the investigation into the watch’s theft.
  • Tom: “Your face looks considerably better than I had anticipated.”
  • Today we add just one pin to the map: Antwerp, Belgium, where Dragan is serving out his remaining six months for the robbery that landed Milan in prison for six years.
  • One of the most interesting scenes is the kind of boilerplate bureaucracy another show might have skipped over. In order to get access to Dragan, Naomi is willing to trade. Her old friend, now in some authority over Dragan’s sentence, asks, “And in return?” “A name. Three names in fact.” Naomi takes a beat staring into her purse at the folders, one of which is for the man who spared her. “Sorry, two.”
  • At the end of their meeting, Naomi’s colleague offers a friendly goodbye. “Tell Tom to fuck off for me. Shouldn’t have let you anywhere near Belgrade.”
  • Georges: “Sometimes things are too rotten to change.”

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