Warning: this Peaky Blinders review contains spoilers.
No wonder he’s having seizures; Tommy’s last deal is next-level complicated. He’s intercepted President Roosevelt’s route to British and Irish fascists to undermine their goal of installing a fascist leader in Britain and ultimately ushering in the ideology of their “friend in Berlin”. To do it, he’s pretending to sell Churchill’s secrets to Jack Nelson in exchange for a spurious opium deal that he’s really doing with Nelson’s Jewish enemies in order to unseat the kingpin from his Boston throne.
If this final strategy comes off, Tommy will have snuffed out fascism, avenged Polly’s murder, made more money than God, and earned his escape. That is, if Michael Gray, a brain tumour or a gypsy curse don’t kill him first. And seeing as Tommy’s adopting a ‘keep your friends close and your enemies in prison’ approach to Michael, the smart money’s currently on the latter.
Gypsy curses are real in Peaky Blinders. That’s how Ruby could get the all-clear from a doctor at the start of this episode and be coughing up blood and hearing voices by the end. “The Grey Man” with green eyes is coming for her and for her daddy, and daddy knows exactly who she’s talking about: a malevolent spirit in the form of the green-eyed Prussian soldier who was the first person Tommy ever killed – the same soldier Tommy wrestles with whenever he loses consciousness, and the same one he saw when he descended into an opium-induced sleep in season one. Whenever Tommy’s mind is blasted by opiates, it takes him back to the tunnels in France, to the site of his original trauma.
Fear for Ruby has taken Tommy’s conscious mind in another direction – towards Esme Shelby-Lee, John’s gypsy widow and the most recent person to lay a curse on the family. Can Esme save Ruby from what afflicts her? Is Tommy past saving? Lizzie and Ada both warn him this episode that he’s coming close, not that he heeds either of their caution. There’s work to do before the Peaky Blinders can rest.
We never saw Tommy Shelby on the campaign circuit – his seat in parliament was bought with Communist secrets – but you can see why he’d win the vote. The man’s a natural orator. South Birmingham’s Labour Party volunteers drank up his impassioned protest against the National Government and King George, against cuts in wages, welfare and dignity, and against the working people absorbing the blows of the rich’s booms and busts. (A “trade mission to America” was it, Tom? I suppose that’s exactly what it was.)
Tommy’s speech here provided a kind of editorial balance to Mosley’s vicious post-ballet rhetoric last season. With minimal tweaks, both could still be heard today, which is the point Peaky Blinders is making We’re moving in circles. Danger ahead.
Peaky Blinders has always been a political drama – politics makes war and war made Tommy Shelby – so its engagement with fascism in the last two seasons not only feels natural, but necessary. It’s a history lesson illustrating some of the show’s major propositions: that fighting evil is a cure for nihilism; and that the upper ranks have zero claim to moral superiority over the working class. As Tommy said this episode, “Fascism is quite the thing among the very best people.”
Enter: one of the very best people, Lady Diana Mitford. Diana’s introduction fascinated, perhaps more so than the arrival of the much-discussed Uncle Jack or even the return of Alfie Solomons. Diana was more chilling than both of them combined. Titled, arrogant and cruel, she was introduced as a 24k carat villain even before she alluded to being pals with Hitler (Chancellor of Germany for around a year by this point). Amber Anderson’s character swigged champagne and beamed patronisingly, singing her and Mosley’s hate-filled ideology with a smilingly soft voice. She treated Lizzie like dirt and Tommy like a tradesman she thought she’d charmed and was planning to stiff on the bill. At least ‘Elizabeth’ landed one blow, even if it only glanced her ladyship.
Diana’s entrance, with the cascading protest powder and the spotlight, could scarcely have been more dramatic. It was only pipped for impact by Tommy’s red-lit descent to Alfie’s realm of the underworld soundtracked by Nessun Dorma, and the speck of Jack Nelson in that vast, empty cathedral.
In the four years since Alfie was shooting seagulls on the Margate coast, he’s gone into decline. The old Alfie’s still in there though, as seen in that lightning-fast switch from his operatic and Irishman digressions, to asking the price of opium in tonnes. A Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy scene requires exactly what it was given here, a big drum roll followed by an empty room with enough space for the two of them to work their volatile magic.
Tommy’s meeting with Jack Nelson had a grander setting but less chemistry. Towered over by actor James Frecheville, Tommy looked diminished and dominable, which was uncomfortably unfamiliar for fans used to seeing everybody orbit around his still self-possession. Great backdrop though; there’s really no such thing as a mundane meeting in the world of Tommy Shelby. Even his Garrison Tavern conflab with ‘Captain Swing’ was lit like a gala performance. Another little politics lesson there, in Tommy’s sales pitch explanation of the ends of the curve at which socialism and nationalism meet.
He’s in the middle, unresolved, a bridge between ideologies, Tommy tells the IRA and The Daily Mirror. In public maybe, but in the shadows, he looked far from impartial leaping into that stylised silhouetted fight between the Jewish protestors and the blackshirts. Cosh out, blackshirts down. Was Arthur even sober enough to know who he was fighting? Arthur’s opium addiction shows the human cost of the powder trade, just as Tommy’s cracked mind shows the human cost of war.
Is it cracking for good, Tommy’s mind, or are the seizures all part of the painful work of healing? Not in a medical sense, but in the spiritual realm that so much of Peaky Blinders exists in. By wrestling with the very first life he took, is Tommy experiencing catharsis on his route back from nothingness, death to life, darkness to light. As he told his IRA contact, Tommy Shelby is changing.
Peaky Blinders continues next Sunday the 13th of March at 9pm on BBC One.