Top Dog Season 1: A Spoiler Review

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Poster for the TV series Top Dog designed like a playing card

🇸🇪 TOP DOG 🇸🇪
(By Gina Meardon)

Top Dog season 1 (2020-) is a Swedish series available on All4 Walter Presents U.K. as a box set. In Australia, it is on Stan, Canada & US on PBS Masterpiece. Season 1 has 8 x 45-minute episodes. In Swedish and (some) Serbian with embedded English subtitles. Rated Guidance.

Premise:

At a critical point in negotiations by Schale Industri to acquire rival company Eccentric, Schale’s newly appointed CEO Philip Schale mysteriously disappears. Schale Industri is corporate law firm Leijon’s biggest client and if the deal they have brokered fails Leijon could fall. Philip’s disappearance must not be made public and Leijon turns to a private security firm and one of its own to find Philip Schale, making two completely separate worlds collide and creating an extremely odd couple — the lawyer Emily and recently released convict Teddy.

Cast includes:


Josefin Asplund as Emily Jansson
Alexej Manvelov as Teddy Maksumic
Jessica Grabowsky as Sara Eriksson
Gustav Lindh as Nikola Maksumic
Kardo Razzazi as Rewan Zilan
Peter Gardiner as Magnus Hansen
Joel Spira as Daniel
Christian Hillborg as Henrik
Beka Kuliev as Chamon Hanna
Milan Dragisic as Bojan Maksumic
Mahmut Suvakci as Isak Nimrod
Björn Elgerd as Philip Schale
Marcel Khouri as Bello
Dag Malmberg as Carl Johan Schale
Jan Mybrand as Jan Ferm
Sandra Stojilijkovic as Linda Maksumic
Lina Englund as Caroline Schale
Set Sjöstrand as Josef
David Fukamachi Regnfors as Johannes Sjö
Amanda Ooms as Liza
Sara Shirpey as Anina Hanna
Mikael Almqvist as Peder Berg
Jonatan Blode as Mats Emanuelsson
Philip Oros as Carl
Michalis Koutsogiannakis as Kim
Bianca Cruzeiro as Mikaela
Freddy Åsblom as Kevin Rosén
Alexandra Alegren as Angelica

Gustav Lindh, European Shooting Star Winner, Berlin International Film Festival, 2021 and Rising Star Award Winner, Stockholm International Film Festival, 2017

Sara Shirpey, Rising Star Award Winner, Stockholm International Film Festival, 2022

Crew:


Writers: (Season 1) Jens Lapidus (based on his trilogy of books), Lovisa Milles, Linn Möller, Veronica Zacco, Alexis Almström, Josefin Johansson, Amanda Högberg, Gunnar Järvstad, Dunja Vujovic
Directors: Molly Hartleb, Aexis Almström
Composers: Jon Ekstrand, Carl-Johan Sevedag
Cinematographers: Gustav Danielsson, Johan Holmquist
Editors: Tomas Beije, Thomas Lagerman
Location Management includes Sodad Iskander, Assistant Location Manager (4 episodes)

Notes:

Top Dog is freely based on the trilogy of books: The Viper Room, Stockholm Delete and Top Dog by the criminal defence lawyer turned best-selling criminal writer, Jens Lapidus. It is not necessary to have read the books to enjoy the series. I would say that it probably helps NOT to have read the books in advance because, if anything, the series draws closely on events from Viper Room and Stockholm Delete rather than the third book from which the series derives its name. Possibly that may change with Season 2.

The prison where Teddy did his sentence, and which is shown in the opening episode, is a shutdown prison in Norköpping, 2 hours south of Stockholm (credit: Sodad Iskander). Filming took place across Stockholm and also in Södertälje, home to the fictional Serbian Brotherhood, as well as Palma, Majorca

⚠️ This is a spoiler review ⚠️

Review:

It has been nearly three years since Alexej Manvelov told us about Top Dog. I then read the books in anticipation, and when we still hadn’t got the series by last year, made sure I watched it (in Swedish without English subtitles) in Stockholm last May. Whilst I had a good overview and fair understanding of Swedish I knew I hadn’t grasped everything, and Top Dog being a complex drama thriller, I knew I would only get that with the subtitled version.

Thankfully Top Dog has now arrived in the UK on All4, was it worth the wait?

I will start with an emphatic yes and, any bias aside, I will explain why. If you enjoy a character-driven intelligent series with a multi-layered plot that makes you think, and concentrate, doesn’t spoon-feed and ‘plays around’ with the norm of the traditional lead characters then this one could well be for you.

Top Dog starts as it means to go on, lulling the viewer with a civilised lavish dinner party where Carl Johan Schale passes control of Schale Industri to his son Philip. Then, bare seconds later, Philip Schale finds himself at the mercy of a ruthless gang who have forced him onto the frozen water of Stockholm harbour, training a laser gun on the ice as it begins to crack around him, all the while to that incredible pulsating soundtrack (which won Best Music at Canneseries 2020). But stay focused, all is not as it seems, there is more than one thread being played out here. What is current? What is in the past? Who do you believe and who don’t you trust?

Double lives, secrecy, betrayal, power, jealousy, greed and revenge drive this story — believe me it has it all. And those elements are far from confined to the criminal fraternity. Family is also central, and spoken time and again in many forms. It is at the heart of the Serbian Brotherhood and abused by those you would least expect.

Anyone who has read Lapidus or watched the Easy Money films (with Joel Kinnaman) based on his Snabba Cash books and that recent series, will know that he understands the criminal fraternity and code well. Top Dog, in true Lapidus fashion, does not shy away from the use of violence.

The premise of creating “an extremely odd couple” works well but Emily, (Josefin Asplund) is no needy female with issues relying on a strong male partner to come to her rescue. (If anything, that could describe her reluctant partner Teddy) Emily is an extremely ambitious young corporate lawyer with one of Stockholm’s biggest law firms, Leijon. Her eyes are set on a fast ascent to Partner and can more than hold her own and play dirty, when necessary, against her contemporaries, not caring whose toes she steps on to do so.

That she has a backstory and deep financial problems, which we are aware of from the very beginning but the whys and hows will be drip-fed. So, as with her secret lover, Henrik, we are only seeing a snapshot of who she really is until the flashback episode (5) and she starts to slowly open up to Teddy. Emily is undoubtedly a strong character — a survivor.

Teddy, on the other hand, is vulnerable. He is leaving prison after serving 10 years for kidnapping and manslaughter. He has a hard reputation amongst the Serbian Brotherhood of Södertälje but the last four years in prison broke him. The naive young man of 25 who ‘took the hit’ for the team, trusting Kum (the Godfather) who told him “I’ll take care of everything, nothing will happen to you, trust me.” — a “red flag” if ever there was one — returns to the family apartment he shares with his sister Linda, her son Nikola, their sick father Bojan and he has “Nothing, no girl, no child, no job.”

Kum is long dead, and there is a new ‘Godfather”, Teddy’s childhood friend Isak, who has ensured, along with his best friend Rewan, that his family were cared for during his incarceration, thus cementing the family’s debt and respect. For them, all, Teddy’s decision to turn his back on the Brotherhood and lead a ‘straight’ life is both a disappointment and a betrayal.

We discover early on that Teddy had a relationship with Sara, a female warder, while in prison and that she broke his heart. Indeed, the first thing he does is to find her because it is clear that he is still in love with her and is desperate for answers. What he finds turns his already shattered world upside down but it is the first thing that gives him any sort of purpose.

Unlike Emily, Teddy wears his heart on his sleeve; he is an open book, with every emotion clear as day. They are yin and yang, and when Teddy tells her “You don’t stab your friends in the back“ (because he genuinely believes that) she counters with “Aren’t you being a bit naive?” As the story unfolds he comes to realise, shockingly, exactly how naive he has been.

Thrown together to find out just WHAT has happened to Philip Schale, Emily and Teddy begin to uncover a spider’s web of deceit that leads back to events in Teddy’s past until, eventually, he realises that the past and the present are inextricably linked together and that the last ten years of his life were a lie. He was nothing more than a sacrificial lamb in a high-stakes cover-up.

With Emily’s help, he sets out to find the truth once and for all. But what will happen when he discovers what that is?

Teddy is on a journey in Top Dog, both emotional and personal, to find out just who the hell he is and the person he wants to be. He has to make peace with the past, which is not easy. I’m not certain about the Swedish penal system, but I’m pretty sure in the UK that relationships between prisoners and warders are not allowed!

For Sara, as a new warder, to show an interest and encourage the relationship between herself and Teddy was an abuse of her position. And then to drop him after she found out she was pregnant, that it was a girl, and had begun to make plans with him was inexcusable, especially for a man reaching the end of his sentence. Her last phone call to him in prison to tell him she had changed her mind about keeping the baby was downright cruel, whatever her reasons. That phone call, together with Kum’s request for Teddy to carry out a ‘task’ (guaranteed to keep him in prison that much longer) sent him over the edge.

I mentioned violence at the start of the review. Sara’s phone call and the ensuing sequence of sheer carnage where he takes out all his rage against Liam (the “task” Kum had instructed “remind him who is the boss”) is phenomenal. Teddy, a man counting down the final days to release realising he has nothing to go back to, completely loses the plot. The acting, direction and cinematography here all deserve accolades.

Speaking of cinematography, it is used effectively and cleverly, differentiating life in Stockholm and Södertälje. You notice the sweeping shots of Stockholm lit at night with its famous warm golden lighting, with lawyers in expensive suites and plush luxury offices whereas Södertälje is filmed amongst the high rise drab concrete jungles, inner-city shopping areas and snow — so much snow! Those scenes were filmed in sub-zero temperatures!

Of all the roles he has played, Alexej has said that Teddy means the most, and it’s not hard to see why. He isn’t as iconic as Davor, nor is he the badass, supercriminal mind who can turn on the charm when it suits him. But he is a human being in every sense, flawed, knowing he has wasted his life, wanting to make amends, wanting to make something of himself. He was never a leader, he was and still is, a foot soldier used to doing what he is told. Recruited from the neighbourhood as a teenager by Kum and moulded into the criminal brotherhood, in much the same way as Teddy can see that Isak is now doing with his nephew Nikolaj and Chamon.

Teddy is desperate to be part of his daughter’s life and it is emotional to watch. One scene sticks in my mind, with Teddy pleading with Sara for answers she calmly pours them both a coffee and says matter of factly, “I wanted to keep the baby, but not you as the father. I can’t let you be a father to Lea.” Talk about a knife through the heart!

Teddy retaliates immediately with “I know what I’ve done, and I live with it every day — what about you?” Her utter rejection of him is painful, especially with the revelation about his sentence that comes later. However the snatched moments he is allowed with his daughter, Lea, will melt your heart, and he is right when he tells Rewan “She is exactly like me.”

Equally heartbreaking, in the aftermath of the explosion, is his tears at seeing Lea with Sara and Tomas as they leave the hospital.

By the time Teddy has well and truly joined the dots and put two and two together to work out those responsible for screwing up his life (with a little help from Kum’s widow Liza) he resolves to take action and there is only one thing he can do. I must admit that particular scene took me by surprise, I didn’t think Teddy would actually do what he did, it was cold, and it was brutal.

Talking of brutality, Philip Schale has a particularly nasty moment at the hands of his kidnapper and Isak shows his ruthless side in a (very) squeamish scene with the hapless Chamon (played by Beka Kuliev in a great step-up role from Jovan in Before We Die). Chamon is central to Season 1 in many ways, as you will see.

You find out quite early on who Philip’s kidnapper is, however, who is behind it and the motive(s) will take you to the very end of Season 1, and it will pay you to put down those mobile phones. When all the pieces finally fall into place there are shocks and revelations for everyone. Emily will learn that uncovering the truth comes at a price and for Teddy, there seems to be only one way forward.

The story is not over but, before you all panic, I can say that Season 2 wrapped filming last May and is due out in Sweden very soon. This may well play out along similar lines to the third book Top Dog, who knows, but tantalisingly Jens Lapidus has now written and published the FOURTH book in the story of Emily and Teddy! This is called Mister Ett (Mr. One). Not yet available in English language it revolves around a power struggle to be the ‘Kingpin’ following Isak’s decision to step down, but then something happens and everyone is dragged into the power struggle that arises after Isak’s abdication.

Could it be possible that we may yet be treated to a Season 3 of Top Dog?

Awards: 1 Win 1 Nomination:

Win:
Cannes International Series Festival (2020) Best Music ~ Jon Ekstrand, Carl-Johan Sevedag

Nomination:
Kristallen (2021) Best Actor ~ Alexej Manvelov

Walter Presents Intro:

Drama Quarterly video interview with Alexej and Josefin about filming Top Dog:


https://dramaquarterly.com/dog-days/

Trailer with the crew and cast Top Dog Cannes Oct 12 screening:


https://youtu.be/tggDO9sIm9s

More Swedish TV Shows:


https://reel2reeltalk.com/category/tv/swedish-tv-shows/

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