This review contains spoilers.
Funny. That was the first episode of Peaky Blinders in which Tommy Shelby didn’t have a gun pulled on him and now he’s scared.
There’s reason to be. Tommy finally has something to lose, and I don’t just mean the tall towers of cash in that Small Heath safe. The man who once declared himself invulnerable to heart-break because his heart was long broken now has a wife and child. And threatening them, an under-the-table government contract to supply stolen weapons to Russian royalists fighting Georgian Bolsheviks.
‘That escalated quickly’ you might say, but you’d be stating the obvious. Escalating things quickly is Peaky Blinders’ specialism. In thirteen hours, we’ve watched Thomas Shelby go from shell-shocked claykicker to international arms dealer and—who knows—future lord mayoral candidate. Eat your heart out, Mr Chips to Scarface.
Displaying characteristic Shelby endurance, Tommy climbed out of that series two finale grave and into a stately home. (They didn’t show the moving-day scene of that Downton lot sobbing as they trailed down their former driveway, dragging their hat boxes behind them as the Shelbys motored in whooping, but you can amuse yourself by imagining it.)
For all the square meterage of his impressive new digs—bless Arthur for getting lost—there’s a sense in which Tommy’s now more confined than he was in those French tunnels. The surprise reprieve he was given at the end of series two came with the non-negotiable clause: work for Churchill or hang. He may have told Polly that he was willing to risk everything for a factory robbery because he was a gambling man, but as he told Arthur, the choice wasn’t his to make. After they’d done what was asked of them though, one brother assured the other, it’d be back to business as usual.
Fat chance. The same was said about the Epsom Derby assassination, and the one that preceded it. Tommy says ‘just one last job’ like an alcoholic says ‘just one last drink’. Like Arthur, in fact, whose warped logic justifies him drinking whiskey now and again to remind him why he doesn’t drink it.
Do these characters believe the lies they tell? Or the promises they make? No guns in the house vowed Tommy, just before Arthur pulled the trigger on that Russian spy in the wine cellar. You have to hope Grace knows what she’s gotten herself into.
She does, of course. It’s all part of the attraction to a man like Tommy, and it isn’t as though she doesn’t have a few corpses in her own closet. Grace’s mistake is thinking that running tracks and selling cars while she hands out Shelby Foundation cash to Birmingham’s poor and needy is going to be enough for her new husband. If only she’d seen as many gangster flicks as Peaky Blinders’ creators have, she’d know that once on this path, there’s no stepping off. There’ll be no raising chickens in the countryside or spending a quiet retirement in the stables for the Shelbys. At least we hope not, for our sake.
With an absence of Sabini or Solomons, and the introduction of new Russian foes, this episode felt more spy thriller than gangster tale. Having been fed a diet of stylish slow-mo swagger and breath-taking violence up until now, you could be forgiven for finding it somewhat subdued. Sedate, even, compared to the tense action of series two’s finale or its literally explosive opener. At least to begin with. Like the guests around that wedding breakfast table, we were made to wait for our meal. And after a game of ‘who’s under the veil?’ (the ghost of Charlotte Riley’s May only present in that handsome portrait of Tommy and his race horse overhead) and some family politics, it was finally served: a hot stew of punching, biting, fucking and frantic jazz that left us in no doubt that Peaky Blinders was back.
The show’s tone though, feels undeniably altered by taking the action out of Small Heath, with its black alleys, belching infernal fires and clanging mechanical soundtrack, and into the corridors of a well-appointed country mansion. Only when Tommy and Pol strode into their den in the closing moments did it feel like the Peaky Blinders of old.
Change though, is good. Dramas can’t go on repeating the same tricks, and Tommy Shelby’s on an upward trajectory. Where else would we expect to find him at this point but a few rungs up the ladder?
There’s also something to be said for bringing the violence and unpredictability of Small Heath to that luxuriant backdrop. Staging a fire-lit bareknuckle fight in the manicured gardens of a stately pile was a thrilling sight. Peaky Blinders’ contrast used to be provided by the clash of Tommy’s glamour with his downbeat locale, but now it’s reversed. The locale is glamorous, the characters are messily unstable.
And the least stable of all is Arthur Shelby, Tommy’s ‘mad dog’, who appears to have a new owner in the form of devout Linda, played by Wolf Hall and War And Peace’s Kate Phillips. Paul Anderson has always shown Arthur to be more than just an unhinged brute, and this episode, with its faltering best man’s speech was his best work yet. Arthur finding God offers the character some thrilling possibilities.
Elsewhere, we learned that Ada’s still a Communist, Michael’s still the most self-possessed teenager ever to wear a tie-pin, and Polly’s still got a sizzling-hot tongue and all the best lines to say with it.
And Tommy? For the first time ever, Tommy Shelby is scared. It’s a new look for what promises to be a sensational new series.
Read our review of the previous episode, here.