“Underbelly: Razor” the best show you’re not watching

3 Nov

Recently I stumbled onto a show called Underbelly: Razor, about the 1920s criminal world of Sydney, Australia.

Let’s have an official plot summary:

It was the 1920s, Sydney, Australia and the gutters were running with blood as the underworld exploded in violence.

Vice in the harbour city was dominated by two powerful women — Tilly Devine, a sharp-tongued cockney who ran a chain of 40 brothels, and her bitter rival Kate Leigh, an Aussie battler who’d built an empire out of sly grog, thieving and cocaine.

So, Underbelly is an Aussie series that dramatizes True Crime. Basically, each season they choose a time period and make 12 episodes about the main criminal element that operated back then or whatever. Seasons 1, 2 and 3, from what I can tell, focused on various famous criminals in the 90s, 80s, 60s who were mainly dudes.

And then they got to season 4, titled “Razor” because of the ‘razor gangs’ (police outlawed guns; criminals started slicing each other up instead) popular during that period, and THE ENTIRE CAST IS WOMEN. WOMEN RUNNING ORGANIZED FUCKING CRIME IN SYDNEY. This is a show about two women who, between them run Sydney’s entire criminal underworld, the daughter of one of them, the new girl who’s stepping on their scene, and the cop (one of the first women cops to work in Sydney PD) who’s out to bring them to justice.

I JUST. I CAN NOT. HOW IS THIS SHOW REAL. I mean, IT’S BASED ON TRUE EVENTS is how it’s real, but SERIOUSLY. SERIOUSLY.

This is Tilly Devine.

She was born in London in 1900 and became a prostitute at about 15 years old. Not long after that she started running her own business, taking a cut from other prostitutes, increasing her profits and climbing up the professional ladder. At 20 she moved to Sydney, Australia, with her husband, Jim, an ex-soldier.

Jim, being a stand-up fella, helps Tilly out with running her immensely profitable, enormous network of brothels, ruthlessly guarding her territory from her enemies and you know, looking pretty on Tilly’s arm. They make quite the couple.

Tilly’s interests include brightly colored headgear:

Dealing with her employees:

Cards, booze, good times:

Diamonds, furs, silk, cigarettes, style:

And being an asshole to her sworn enemy, this woman:

This is Kate Leigh.

The papers officially refer to her as “The Worst Woman in Sydney.” She’s Australian, born in 1887, orphaned at a young age and well familiar with life on the street. She had a child, as a teenager, out of wedlock, although she’s never – as far as we know – worked as a prostitute. The laws in Australia forbid the sale of alcohol after 6pm, and so Kate’s business is to, of course, sell tons of alcohol to the evening crowd. She runs saloons and “grog shops”, and is enormously, enormously wealthy as a result.

This is Wally, Kate’s employee, lover and long time friend:

This is Bruce, Kate’s lover and latest boytoy.

I’m just saying. This is the sort of show where a powerful older women will sleep with whoever and have the relationships that she will and the show will NEVER FAULT HER FOR THIS. I just. I still can’t get over how that’s even happening.

Kate’s interests include taking care of her daughter, Eileen:

Going to church:

Taking care of her enemies:

Helping out in the community:

And trying to make sure that Tilly Devine stays out of her business:

In general, if you see Kate making strategy, deciding how much illegal booze or cocaine is going to be distributed that week or who needs to have their kneecaps taken care of, she’ll be doing it at her kitchen table, baking pies or making scones, surrounded by her sister, daughter and several other women, giving her advice and helping her out with running the house. She’s the sort of gangster who doesn’t drink or smoke, ever, and offers the cops cookies with their bribes. She also owns several shotguns, though, and is handy with using them, so God help you if you cross her.

Mostly Kate and Tilly’s relationship can be summed up as, Tilly thinks Kate is a stuck up nobody from hicksville and Kate thinks Tilly should fuck off back to England where trashy lowlives like her are meant to stay. Except with, you know, guns and politics and LOTS of money changing hands.

Next we have Nellie Cameron:

Known as the “Beauty Queen of the Underworld,” barely of legal age and she’s one of the most sought after prostitutes in the city. Unlike most of her peers, she comes from a middle class background and it’s a mystery what drove her to choose this life. But, regardless, Nellie isn’t something to trifle with. She has a good head for politics, excellent people skills and a string desire to see blood split.

In her spare time Nellie enjoys fucking beautiful boys:

Watching them kill each other for her affections:

And joyfully experimenting with BDSM:

Finally, we have some moral authority up in this joint. Lillian Armfield, one of the first women to serve on the Sydney police force (or any police force, really).

Lillian spent much of her career not being allowed to wear a uniform, not being approved to carry a gun, being kept in the same low rank despite her achievements and watch her male colleagues get promoted, etc etc, you know, the usual funtimes. In spite of this she spent over 30 years working for Sydney PD and, on the show, frequently tries to raise awareness about rape and sexual assault as crimes that the police should actually investigate, provide options for women doing sex work because there’s no other work to be had, and tries to get her colleagues to see beyond the shades of their own privilege.

Needless to say, her hobbies include paying visits to suspects’ homes:

Asserting her credentials:

Outsmarting her male colleagues:

And letting criminals know they’ll eventually be brought to justice:

So, yes, that is the cast. THAT IS THE CAST. There are other characters, obviously, men and women, but holy shit. HOLY SHIT, this is the cast. The show’s also got a FANTASTIC soundtrack, good writing and excellent acting.

Most of the show’s characters are white – there are some non-white actors in supporting roles but they never get their own plotlines – but I don’t know enough about race issues in Australia at the time to have a real comment on this. I mean, obviously all the character are racist as fuck – this is acknowledged and explored – cops, criminals, everyone, although they’re racist in different ways depending on upbringing and social status. I know the show is very accurate with various historical details, but it does seem odd to me that EVERYONE IS WHITE in Sydney’s criminal underworld in the 1920s, even allowing for the White Australia policy and the fact that most Indigenous people weren’t allowed anywhere near the big cities during this time. If someone has a more thorough understanding of these issues I’d of course love to hear a critique, and regardless, I wish the few non-white characters would get more screentime than they do. A bit like “Deadwood,” this is a show that’s very good at talking about a particular subset of criminals and acknowledging racism, but doesn’t deal with more peripheral communities.

All right, a few more caps before we sign off:


Kate’s posse.


Kate’s war council.


A dynasty of crime.


Wally, watching a couple of lads take a dip in the ocean, as you do.

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