This review contains spoilers.
Peaky Blinders has always been a crossbreed. Part-drama, part music-video, it plays its record collection loudly and deliberately, at times coming off like a studiously cool dad when your mates are round, at other times the marriage of music and visuals stopping you dead.
After his death, David Bowie’s self-written epitaph Lazarus took on autobiographical significance. Its appearance here then, borrowed to tell the story of another man, should have felt jarring to a fan. That not only it didn’t, but felt as if the song had been written for Tommy Shelby shows what a rare union Peaky Blinders makes between music and story. It’s also testament to the modernity of these characters that Bowie can sing about cell phones in a 1920s drama and nothing feels off.
The whole poetic opening sequence, with a similar hospital bed setting and opiated feel to Johan Renck’s Lazarus video, was the hour’s strongest moment. It was also typical of its narrative instability. The episode felt as though Tommy’s morphine hangover (“I’m so high my brain whirls”) bled into what followed and left us with a discrete series of events instead of a coherent whole.
Scenes luxuriated in their naughtiness and good looks without much driving the plot. Arthur was tested, the Russians hosted an ostentatious orgy, Polly and Ruben got it on, Tom Hardy tipped up and stole the show… it was all beautiful and eye-catching but didn’t seem to add up to much. Like seventy grand’s worth of jewels spread sparsely over a table-top.
The pacing might have been it. Tommy’s addiction and recovery was elided into the opening credits and tidied away with a neat “Three Months Later”. Despite having a head like a smashed vase put back together by a horse, the previous episode’s attack didn’t seem to have left a mark. Though as the song said, he has scars that can’t be seen.
As does Michael, we learn, whose history of abuse at the hands of Father Hughes was introduced and hurried away with the same speed, along with Charlotte’s abortion storyline (and going back, Lizzie’s love affair with Angel, another casualty of this series being stuffed to the gills). Little time was spent developing either, as if we were told about both in passing while the episode was preoccupied looking at something else.
It’s obvious what that was, and I’m not talking about the Fabergé Egg. Peaky Blinders has never felt more like it belongs on HBO than in the Russian orgy. Even in series two’s decadent Eden Club scenes (the director of which, Colm McCarthy, told us had the following brief: “if there was a shot and I couldn’t find somebody being fingered in the background, I was going to be really disappointed.”), there wasn’t this much debauchery. It was wall-to-wall tits, blowjobs and rutting.
All of which was at odds with Arthur’s born-again Christianity. He may have stopped himself from staving in Alfie Solomons’ skull with an ashtray, but temptation got the better of him in the Russian den. Polly was right about men seeming hilarious when they want sex. At least that was how I responded to the scene of Arthur crying and twisting off his wedding ring while banging that maid. Poor, ridiculous, conflicted Arthur.
At least the brilliant Paul Anderson was given both of the episode’s Gif-able lines to make up for it. “There you go, ladies, made in fucking Birmingham” was a bit of welcome comedy in a truly weird scene, and the blood-vessel-bursting “I’m Old Testament” should be his catch-phrase from now on.
Just as “Why should the men have all the fun?” should be Polly’s. Or perhaps the title of her now-completed portrait, “Fuck them all”. Helen McCrory does such detailed work as Polly you can watch and rewatch her scenes and still find something new. The moment of most fascination in her relatively polite bit of fun with Reuben came after she told him about killing the copper (careful Pol, can you really trust him?). It was a different style of confession to last week’s church scene, delighted and excited instead of traumatised and pragmatic. “She did it” said Pol, referring to her portrait, thrilled by the powerful mirror Reuben had held up to her. What would Freud have to say about that?
He’d have his work cut out for him with the mad Russians, that’s for certain. From Billy Kimber to Sabini to Solomons, Peaky Blinders has long done a good line in cartoony villains, but this lot take the caviar-dipped biscuit. We’re used to seeing Tommy have the life choked out of him, just not usually in pursuit of a transcendent orgasm.
Like a string of pearls then (six thousand, we’ll settle on five), the episode had gleaming individual components but was ultimately frivolous. Beautiful things often are.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, here.