This review contains spoilers.
Stop swearing? You’d have more luck getting the Shelby men to wear tutus, Pol.
Despite Polly’s toast in the same scene, episode three found the Shelby family anything but united. Harmony is impossible this series because the Shelbys can’t agree on what they are now they’ve struck it rich. Their new circumstances have splintered the family’s self-image. Each has a conflicting idea on what it means to be a Peaky Blinder nowadays, and it’s pulling them apart at the well-tailored seams.
Arthur and John are dangerously resentful at their demotion, Polly’s aspiring to the bohemian classes, Michael’s being kept for best but gagging for violence and Ada is still half-civilian, half-Shelby with her head turned by the prospect of a new life in Boston.
Tommy’s a contradiction in himself. He says he wants to prioritise legitimate business, then, in an unsettlingly powerful display of Cillian Murphy’s range, asserts himself as a savage Blinder in front of his enemies. Surprisingly, the civilising influence came from Arthur and John, who disobeyed their brother’s revenge-lust and refused to murder an innocent, good women like Mrs Changretta. Why? They’re not those kind of men, Arthur told Tommy.
So what kind are they? Bosses, workers, toy soldiers, bin-men, gypsies, business owners or gangsters? Each of those labels was used this week, reflecting the family’s chaotic inability to define itself. They own mansions but still congregate below stairs like the hired help. John may say it’s not political, but of course it is. It all is.
Take Polly’s budding relationship with her portrait artist. It’s a fascinating pairing because it lets the redoubtable Helen McCrory reveal Polly’s vulnerabilities, just like the introduction of her son did last series. In Small Heath, Polly’s name was her armour. In society, it’s worth nothing. She might have the wealth Ruben lacks, but he has the background and education. (Only someone so used to privilege they can afford to take it for granted would bat away the latter by saying “what is there to learn, after all?”, even if he was just being charming.)
“Do you tell your friends you’re painting a gangster?” Polly asked Reuben, attempting to drill down down the source of her attraction to a man of his class. Is he, she wonders, like the uptown girl Michael ‘met’ at the wedding, and drawn to the glamour of the criminal life? Polly might look the part in that couture gown, but its hooky provenance makes it the perfect symbol for her current conflict: high class aspirations and criminality tied up in a posh pink bow.
Arthur’s inner conflict is of a more metaphysical sort. His faith-based crisis of conscience only promises to deepen as he and devout Linda start their family. It’s notable that well before the word “congratulations” fell from his lips, Tommy responded to his brother’s happy news with “Goodbye Arthur”. He sees the gap between them widening still. As a father, Arthur can no longer be the mad dog at Tommy’s side.
And Tommy is fast running out of people at his side. Grace is dead and he’s mourning alone, deflecting messages of condolence and goodwill as if they burn his skin. Regression seems to be Tommy’s coping strategy. We see him on horseback for the first time since series one. He takes a wagon on that absolution-seeking trip to the Black Mountains when there are countless cars in his mile-long driveway. Tommy’s rejection of modernity reaches its peak when he accepts a soothing obvious lie from Madame Boswell, his alternative to a priest.
Speaking of which, Paddy Considine’s role was much reduced this week as Father Hughes was relegated to a single scene of praising soup. We need more from Father Hughes if he’s going to transcend the dark cartoon villain he’s been sketched in as thus far. He has been outed as a double agent though, and as such is at the top of Tommy’s kill list.
The question is whether “young boss” Michael, whose unpredictability revealed itself in that macho gunplay scene, is planning something that’ll put his name next on that list. Power grabs are the stuff of gangster drama, and it feels as though Peaky Blinders might be manoeuvring Michael into position as the Jimmy Darmody to Tommy’s Nucky Thompson.
There was a sombre, elegant style to this episode, fitting for a period of mourning. Shots were balanced and symmetrical in a way that suggested calm and control, the opposite of the characters’ chaotic mental states. Dramatically, things were at their best when the Shelbys were vibrating with tension, that kitchen scene being the stand-out of the lot, showing once again that Tommy doesn’t have to be front and centre for this show to power along. Family politics are proving much more gripping than the international sort this series. Give me Paul Anderson’s bristling Arthur and Helen McCrory’s struggling Polly over caricatured Russians and arbitrarily evil priests any day.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, here.