Warning: contains spoilers for Peaky Blinders season six episode four ‘Sapphire’.
What a sorrowful hour. Maybe after that, all those Peaky Blinders fans who aspire to be Tommy Shelby will see that beneath the sharp cheekbones and the sharp tailoring there’s nothing to envy. Scrape away the cash and the cars and the power and there’s just pain, grief, and now, a deadline. One year to 18 months. To change the fucking world.
If Dr Holford and the country’s top three brain surgeons are right, Tommy won’t live to see the outbreak of World War II. (He might, at a push, make it to the Battle of Cable Street, and if so, he’ll likely bus in the anti-fascist protestors himself.) Tommy also won’t live to see Mr Churchill become prime minister, but if his strategy comes off, he will have helped him neuter the fascist threat in Britain and stop the likes of Mosley and Mitford from rolling out the red carpet in welcome to the German chancellor and his new world order.
That deathly meeting was a sickening place to be as a viewer, and not just for the dizzying camerawork. Diana Mitford’s insouciant retelling of the time Jews were forced to eat grass to entertain the Nazi elite is based on a boast allegedly made by her sister Unity after dining with Julius Streicher. These revolting people and their revolting brags. “We are England. We are the mood England is in.”
If only Mitford’s words were just a brag; the brick through Ada’s window said otherwise. How widespread fascist sentiment was in inter-war Britain is something to face up to, especially when so many school history lessons tend towards the ‘we defeated evil’ narrative while glossing over the evil that was home-grown. Confronting the truth of it – even in the stylised, mythological and untethered-to-reality world of Peaky Blinders – is useful work for drama to do, particularly when our other recent TV portrait of the time Downton Abbey insists on an abridged version of history peopled only by nobles with hearts of gold.
Karl’s racism towards his sister – “that thing” – and those schoolyard threats about what will happen “when they come to power” show how imminent the fascist threat felt. Half-Gypsy Karl learning that his Communist father was also Jewish (a believable retcon, perhaps inspired by Freddie Thorne actor Iddo Goldberg’s Jewish heritage) makes him just as vulnerable to the fascists’ “cleansing” as little Elizabeth. Ada handled the bigots the Shelby way, but must be feeling the dread.
Dread suffused this episode. It took us straight from Ruby’s funeral to Tommy’s revenge on the Barwell family, sound-tracked by two mournful Sinead O’Connor songs. Cillian Murphy really has been through it this season, fitting, ranting and breaking down multiple times an episode. Murphy’s been terrific, but if it’s this bleak to watch, what must it be like to act? Don’t make that poor man the next James Bond, book him a beach holiday and a sitcom.
How will the Tommy-wannabe viewers feel about his attack on the Barwell camp? It’s a difficult one to square away with admiration, as Lizzie’s disgust proved. Tommy’s balance-sheet morality says that he can increase his good works to outweigh the bad, but he must know it’s not that simple. He knows now that gold isn’t the answer, so he’s banking on goodness instead. Can he really just step off one boat on life’s canal and onto another, just swap his pile of bodies for something peaceful and honest and good? This drama started out asking whether it’s really possible to escape your roots, and has ended up asking whether it’s really possible to atone for your sins.
If ‘Sapphire’ is the point at which Tommy swaps boats, then it was his nadir, the lowest moment on which everything turns. The episode was filled with Tommy’s lowest points, from Ruby’s funeral to the gypsy camp shooting to the Nazi salute, to the tuberculoma diagnosis. Where his surprise son Duke (Conrad Khan) fits in – a blessing or another curse? – remains to be seen in the season’s final two instalments.
Even though we know that Nazi salute was an empty gesture, it was a cursed image, and (hopefully at least) another complication for any fan who’s ever looked up to Tommy Shelby as a role model. Tommy’s always seen through politics as a series of empty gestures and a means to an end, but even mimicking that ugliness hurt him – as seen in the rage-filled Scarface moment that followed. To sharpen his pain, that scene featured the return of a moment from Tommy’s past. The rebel song Jack Nelson pressured Laura McKee into singing was ‘The Black Velvet Band’, the very same song sung by Grace on that Garrison bar stool in season one. A story of betrayal, it was a fitting choice when Grace was undercover and spying on Tommy, and it’s a fitting choice now, with Tommy undercover and spying on the fascists.
Tommy has a reluctant accomplice in his undercover work now, thanks to the close eye he’d kept on Gina since she stepped off board that steamer from Boston. Those sly looks between Gina and Mosley at last season’s ballet did mean something after all – and the upshot is a new spy for Churchill in Berlin.
The salute may have been the episode’s enduring image, but it gave us others. There was Arthur’s emptiest barrel, drip dripping into that wine cup. There was Tommy’s first sip of booze in over four years, blood-red and signalling a return to life from his empty clockwork left-right left-right march. There were Tommy and Arthur’s hands clasped as brothers. And there was the canal tunnel from their youth – miles of darkness and swimming rats before a corner was turned, and they finally saw a shaft of light. That’s where we are now, Tommy told Arthur, and where the show is too. Season six has been miles of darkness. Some light feels about due.
Peaky Blinders season six continues next Sunday the 27th of March at 9pm on BBC One.