Warning: this Peaky Blinders review contains spoilers.
What better tribute could Peaky Blinders pay to the character of Aunt Polly – and to the equally redoubtable Helen McCrory – than birdsong and fire and a portrait titled “Fuck Them All”? A portrait the eyes of which lingered in the sky at the funeral of the gypsy queen, watching over the sorry lot of them. The untimely death of McCrory from illness during the Covid-rescheduled production period necessitated a rewrite in which her character became a casualty of Tommy’s ambition. That deep loss was confronted head-on this episode, with a music-free funeral pyre and a vow of vengeance spoken into the flames.
This show’s always lived side-by-side with ghosts, omens and dreams. It’s set in a world where the walls between life and death run thin. So Polly’s gone and yet not gone. Tommy still talks to her. And in that flicker of electric lightbulb in his Boston hotel room, she seemed to talk back.
Four years on from pulling the trigger on the gun he held to his head at the end of last season, we find Tommy in limbo. He tried to die but, like Arthur when his noose snapped in season one, “they wouldn’t let [him] pass”. Now, Tommy’s hovering between the living and the dead. He no longer drinks whisky, existing on water in a kind of ascetic fast that keeps him at a distance from life. (Arthur didn’t follow the path of abstinence after his own suicide attempt, but his junkie incoherence makes him just as absent.) “No more Polly, no more whisky, no more Tommy,” bemoans Lizzie.
That may be so, but Tommy the strategist is clearly still with us, and his latest scheme transports us to the French-Canadian island of Miquelon. The location may be unfamiliar, but the harbour scenes are straight out of a John Ford Western: a dark stranger stalks through a town as the locals apprehensively twitch their curtains. He walks into a bar, cuts a card game dead and refuses to be provoked into a fight before being forced to teach a foolhardy thug a painful lesson. “Since I foreswore alcohol, I’ve become a calmer and more peaceful person,” deadpans Tommy in the same breath as slicing a man’s face and putting a bullet through a bird in flight. Don’t let it be said that this show doesn’t have a sense of humour. See also: Arthur’s dereliction of Santa duties.
If the swagger and action of that harbour opening belong to the Western genre, then the symbolism, with its black dog, black cats and caged canaries, is very Peaky Blinders. An island surrounded by fog that Tommy needs to leave before it traps him? Miquelon’s a real place but feels like something out of Greek myth, as did Tommy’s repeated temptation/refusal of whisky. Tommy even describes the place as if talking about himself: “an island with no morals and no opinions, just a load of fucking boats with nothing to carry and nowhere to go.”
Tommy’s emptier than ever following the loss of Polly, but is still going, like a clockwork man with an ever-wound key. “Every catastrophe is also an opportunity”, he tells the smugglers at the Hotel Robert. That could serve as the motto on the Shelby coat of arms. In season one, this whole saga began with the Peaky Blinders coming to the catastrophic attention of Major Campbell, his Ulster Volunteers and their IRA enemies, thanks to the inadvertent theft of a shipment of machine guns. Tommy turned that into an opportunity to make an ally of Winston Churchill. Now, the IRA are back, and Tommy is using the bootleggers’ catastrophe of prohibition ending as an opportunity to make another powerful friend. He’s swapping his illegal supply of whisky and gin to the US for opium, and reuniting with sworn enemy Michael Gray to do it.
There’s a plan, of course. One that involves using Michael as a pawn to gain access to Tommy’s real target – Gina Gray’s influential ‘Uncle Jack’ – a fictional proxy for real 1930s Boston politician and businessman Joseph Kennedy Sr. In Jack Nelson’s ascendancy from mug shots to the pages of society magazines, Tommy recognises a kindred spirit, though he’s dubious about the progress Nelson’s climb represents, having long recognised that the upper ranks are as bloodthirsty and venal as any backstreet gang.
Going into the meeting with Michael, Tommy treats the likelihood of his own death with total equanimity: “Someone may die,” he tells the Miquelon gendarme. “If it’s me, tell them to call my brother.” He faces embittered sailors, murderous rivals and a belittling Gina Gray (what a screen presence Anya Taylor-Joy is) with the same impassive calm. The only thing that scares Tommy this episode is what his daughter Ruby’s been saying in a fever. Her Romani words “Tikno mora o beng” speak of a child and killing and the devil, and they strike fear into Tommy’s gypsy heart.
The devil, in the form of Oswald Mosley, is who Tommy was trying to rid the world of last season. “Kill the man, kill the message,” was the strategy, but Tommy failed at both. Now we finally know who’s responsible. “I imagine you’re curious as to who it was prevented the assassination,” said the voice on the telephone in the resolution to that cliffhanger. We are curious, as it happens. Fans have spent since September 2019 trying to work it out. The answer – the Irish Republican Army – can have been at the top of few lists. Tommy’s told that the IRA needs fellow nationalist Mosley alive, and that’s all he needs to know. If he doesn’t want any more family members driven to his front door wrapped in a white sheet, he’ll do business with them.
It’s to Michael’s disgust that Tommy is working with Polly’s killers. Michael’s here for revenge, which Tommy knows, and which is why he’s now safely behind bars until this latest business has concluded. When Tommy tells Michael that he’ll be free to execute his outstanding business after his release from prison, was the word “execute” chosen advisedly? By bringing back his rival only to humiliate him, provoke him and allude to seducing his London-bound wife, is Tommy turning Michael into the next gun to hold to his own head?
Peaky Blinders continues on Sunday the 6th of March on BBC One and iPlayer.