You can hardly make a crime drama anymore with any life in it. Everyone is cornered by circumstance. Nobody has any perspective. The world is a bunch of Ahabs at various stations, all of them offering occasional disquisitions on the nature of man or society. And whatever happens will be the only thing that could have happened, a determinism either of philosophy (True Detective) or politics (American Crime). But it’s worth saying that some dramas handle heaviness better than others. The two I mentioned droop only from the mass and force of all their animating ideas. The real problem for the genre is a dour face on an empty head.
The first episode of The Last Panthers is mostly an orientation and after-party where we get to know everyone—maybe not the best indication of what to expect from the six-episode series—but with occasional exceptions, it wears its tone well. Don’t get me wrong: It’s as serious as a six-year-old’s shooting. Even the wealthy Brits who descend upon the scene are strict—they’re in emergency mode after all—and Samantha Morton’s insurance company investigator Naomi gets to check off both boxes, “all-business” and “traumatic backstory.” But so far The Last Panthers stays afloat. Part of that is its facility with an international cast and smart Southcliffe-like visuals, a restrained foundation that saves extremity for spice. But most of it is momentum. “The Animal” moves with such purpose it couldn’t possibly sink.
The premiere follows a diamond robbery in Marseilles that spirals into a tour of the crime capitals, police precincts, and corporate annexes of Southern Europe. It’s almost procedural for the first half, focused on the various step-by-step chain reactions triggered by the robbery. The robbers are a team of three Serbs, lead Milan (Goran Bogdan), young Borisav (Marko Janketic), and soon to be wounded Rajko (Alexis Manenti). The manager hits the silent alarm as soon as they appear, she stalls and resists, and she eventually forks over the safe code. Which is important because it means the store did everything right, so the insurance company will be liable for the jewels if the police can’t recover them. It’s a throwaway line, but it packs a wallop. What if the manager had been so frightened by the gunmen charging her store that she messed up the procedure? The store would be on the hook for the 15-million-Euro price of the diamonds plus whatever the stolen watch costs? That insidious idea is what brings these three parties—cops, robbers, business—together, and it’s what gives life to The Last Panthers.
The main action follows the robbers, who perfectly execute their plan to pen in the first responders between two sets of burning cars and then split up. Milan gets away fine. Rajko gets shot, dives into a trash can, and isn’t seen again, although Milan is confident he’ll call “the Arab” and be taken care of. And Borisav fires indiscriminately back at the cops chasing him and manages to take out a six-year-old girl. He also leaves behind his gun out of shock and guilt. Thus the diamonds are too hot for any of the usual buyers, and thus the insurance investigation of the robbery finds itself at cross purposes with the police investigation of the murder. In one fell swoop all three parties are fucked.
From there Milan and Borisav hook up with their comrade Drago (Bojan Zirovic), whose claim to fame is a removable tooth from which, with the help of some fishing line and a remarkably well-trained gag reflex, he can dangle the vacuum-packed jewels down his throat and into his stomach. (The go-between who takes the jewels from the robbers to Drago is a woman we don’t see again but might in the future; in her most brazen obstruction of justice, Naomi procures the footage of the woman’s hand-off to Drago that the cops are looking for.) The pre-arranged sale in Genoa goes bad. They try to sell the jewels to some of Drago’s pals in Ujmajor, Hungary, but are stripped and nearly killed instead. So they wind up back in Belgrade, where at least Milan is from. And that’s where the story pivots from Milan trying to offload the diamonds to Milan falling in with his old crowd, a gang known as The Pink Panthers. The Fagin of the bunch is a man named Dragan (Boris Isakovic) who’s currently in jail, leaving one of Milan’s old rivals, Zlatko (Igor Bencina) in charge. Zlatko says he’ll help sell the diamonds, but Milan’s gonna have to help him with some stuff first. Suddenly this looks less like the end of a criminal career (one last heist) and more like the start of one. Just when he thought he was out…
On their tails, sort of, are Marseilles detective Khalil (Tahar Rahim) and Naomi, but despite some magnetic moments for both, neither makes much progress on their own in the first episode. Khalil’s boss and an Interpol ally deliver no news and bad news, respectively. Naomi’s boss Tom (John Hurt) is even worse, and not just because he’s the one in the story who can’t answer a damn question without a humanities lecture. No, what’s worrisome about Tom is his friendly inhumanity, like a form letter with its usual cheery expressions. Naomi calls him to Marseilles to report her findings, that the robbers have fled to Belgrade, and to remind him that she has a deal that absolves her of having to work in the area. Flashbacks give us only clues at this point, but she was a part of the military force that rolled into Belgrade under the UN flag, and apparently something bad happened there. I mean, obviously, but in this case something bad happened to her. Anyway, Tom tells her she’s too good for him to let her sit this one out. “Anyway, you’re going to Belgrade,” he commands, tossed off like that. The robbers have a Robin Hood code, he says, like the hajduk. “We have a code, too. You do what your manager requires of you, and you do it well.” Hurt isn’t forceful. He doesn’t have to be, and he knows it. The Last Panthers offers the usual obstacles for the cops and the robbers, but these moments bring a fresh flavor to the crime drama: intractable corporate bureaucracy with a smile.
So Naomi winds up in Belgrade, which is great for the resourceful Drago, who wants to claim the reward, since it’s 50 percent larger than the highest bid on the jewels, which would have to be split several ways anyway. And that’s how Drago winds up dead. Borisav and one of Zlatko’s guys, Jani, drag Naomi over to him, and the guys egg on Milan to kill her so they can go. But Milan has second thoughts, and he shoots his colleagues instead. “Jesus,” gurgles Jani, who’s still processing what the hell just happened. “Help me.” Instead Milan kicks his head in. It turns out he recognizes Naomi from her first time in Belgrade, but that’s all we know. He leaves her alive and returns to Zlatko with a decent cover story and both the diamonds and the watch as a show of good faith.
The closing sequence encapsulates the show’s visual command. First the camera pans leftward as Milan diagonally descends the dull red steps of an empty stadium to meet with Zlatko, giving the sense that he’s being swept along to his fate and, given the vectors involved, that he’s fighting the current. Then we see Naomi passed out on her side, the screen black except for her deathly face. Finally the episode cuts to a shot of Naomi and the three bodies lying over a network of cracks as a plastic bag flies in the breeze. Even its establishing shots are simple and illuminating, a visitor’s first impressions of criss-crossed telephone lines, old industrial neighborhoods, and the touristy old port of Marseilles, just a turn of the camera away from the 26th victim of gun violence in that city that year. The images are that restrained but evocative throughout. In that way, The Last Panthers takes after Tom. It doesn’t need to be loud.
- “The Animal” is written by Jack Thorne and directed by Johan Renck. It’s based on the journalism of Jérôme Pierrat, who has written about the real Pink Panthers.
- And the theme song, written specifically for The Last Panthers, is David Bowie’s “Blackstar!” Exclamation point mine.
- Marseilles gets several great new tourist slogans in the first episode. Come to fabulous Marseilles, city of the Kalashnikov! Better yet, Marseilles: gateway to Africa and asshole to France!
- Hard to know what to make of Milan killing his own comrades over Naomi, but it strikes me as the second farthest-fetched incident, after the moment when Milan looks down at a woman he must have seen over a decade ago and recognizes her. I always wonder if we’d recognize people from that far in our past who we’re not planning on seeing again if we saw them again. Then again it might turn out that Milan and Naomi were a lot tighter at one point than it seems.
- This image when I knew was I in. The episode never does another god’s-eye-view shot, and it rarely again gets so weird again, but this expressionistic arrangement of color, shape, and texture—much more dramatic on a bigger screen where you can see the splatter of the paint—does a lot with a little: the barest suggestion of the investigators as rats in a maze, the good-bad-ugly color spectrum, the rigid geometry of the business next to the unplanned chaos of the robbers’ paint. And it might not stand out nearly as much if it weren’t the only overhead shot, or if the show went full Mr. Robot.