Warning: this Peaky Blinders review contains spoilers.
That felt more like the old days. Having not counted himself among the living since France, Tommy’s terminal diagnosis seems only to weigh on him as a deadline, not a shock to the psyche. There was no grieving in ‘The Road to Hell’, only action. Tommy made deals, made threats, and made preparations for a secret strategy, the end-goal of which is known by him and him alone. There’s the man we recognise.
What is Tommy’s secret strategy this time? We know that it involves a trip to Canada, a $5 million “legacy”, streets of charitable housing, and derailing the fast-track to power currently being laid for British fascism. We don’t know whether it takes into account Jack Nelson’s similarly double-crossing scheme of doing away with Tommy as soon as his opium docks in Boston harbour. Knowing our man, probably. When it comes to Tommy Shelby, always assume that it’s a real bomb.
That Chinatown sequence was a classic opening, from the slo-mo rock swagger of Tommy’s approach, to the explosive ending and the drily comedic “By order of the Birmingham Open District Council” take on the show’s catchphrase. Having been witness to Tommy’s wretchedness this season, it was a kick to see the cool-as-you-like boss back in action. Of course to really enjoy it, you had to wave aside the fact that he was bullying a business out of five pounds of opium while pushing five tons of it himself in the most glaring example of nimbyism ever conceived, but to enjoy Tommy Shelby is to wave things aside. He’s right about belonging at the table with those other fuckers; the man does unforgivable things. The difference between him and his dinner guests is that he knows it, and is trying to outweigh the unforgiveable with the good.
An example: shagging Diana Mitford in a Solihull suite in exchange for her giving the nod to her ex-husband’s charitable fund to finance the building of canal-side houses for the poor. Unforgiveable – at least as far as Lizzie and we’re concerned – but ultimately… good?
Diana made a conquest of Tommy, presenting sex as the final initiation stage of his ‘Prove you’re a Nazi’ test. She and Mosley also had another motive, which was to humiliate Lizzie out of her marriage and clear the path for a new Mrs Shelby, one with a less scandalous past. You’d scream ‘hypocrites!’ if there weren’t much worse things to call them. Lizzie earned her living through sex; Diana boasts that the English aristocracy do it “like shaking hands”. (Add this debauched pair to the mad Russians in season three and has a TV drama ever had a lower opinion of society’s upper ranks?) Nelson was right about bloodlines being England’s true currency. To this lot, money and rule-following are for the little people; breeding and blood is all.
Blood was in good supply this episode, bursting from the jugular of the “holy referee” who took a stand against the Peaky Blinders (not everybody came back from WWI a nihilist, evidently. The horror retuned some moral compasses in the right direction), or dripping sickeningly down Billy Grade’s leg in that sauna. What a nasty couple of scenes they were – Jack Nelson buzzing from the pain he was inflicting, Arthur and Isaiah smirking at the condemned man like hyenas. Linda had better keep the Acts of Contrition coming.
Did Billy deserve it, for being the IRA informant whose phone call in the last season finale led to Polly’s murder? Did he have a choice, is the question, or was he forced into betraying the Peaky Blinders as much as he was coerced into joining them, and into this episode’s “blooding”?
Tommy does have a choice, as Hayden Stagg pointed out. He could stop the sport and live as an ordinary mortal man, but chooses not to. In a moment of uncharacteristic candour, Tommy confessed that, like Jack Nelson, he still went around collecting the pleases and thank yous for the thrill of it. Compared to the high of having power over life and death, “junk doesn’t even come close.” Honesty, this late in the game. Faced with the end, Tommy’s finally admitting the truth about himself. Oh, he belongs around that table, no question.
Stagg is unusually self-possessed around Tommy, which makes for real tension and unpredictability. Even faced with a bullet engraved with his name, Stagg didn’t crack. It’s a pity there can’t be many more scenes between Stephen Graham and Cillian Murphy in the offing.
(On that bullet – tell me, where does the shipment of Thompson submachine guns fit into Tommy’s strategy? Working with Churchill, he can’t very well run weapons for the IRA, who also happen to be Polly’s murderers. Perhaps when he told Stagg to take a good look at the bullet, there was something else for the ex-army man to see. Might the IRA find that ammunition as useless as the Georgian army would have found their sabotaged tanks in season three?)
Elsewhere, Finn got married and his family shrugged with indifference, and we met Duke Shelby. That’s some award-worthy casting. On screen, Conrad Khan shares an ethereal quality with Cillian Murphy that makes them convincing as father and son. Duke, who like his dad, prefers horses to people, is a kind of window into a pre-WWI Tommy. Dark, or light? Duke turning his back at the betting shop says light, which leaves the dark for young Charles. If the Peaky Blinders film ends up being about two Shelby sons, then this show’s morality will always side goodness with nature and the wild, and evil with stately homes and wealth.
Michael was once an innocent country boy, corrupted by cash and thrills. Now he’s Jack Nelson’s weapon. The question is, will Michael feel the same about Gina’s uncle when he learns that Nelson’s plot against Tommy Shelby puts him in league with the very people who killed Polly? With one episode left, the show’s exactly where Lizzie said, in the fraught silence between the clock stopping ticking and the bomb going off…
Peaky Blinders will conclude in a feature-length episode starting at 9pm on Sunday the 3rd of April on BBC One.