This review contains spoilers.
The sensational twist at the end of Peaky Blinders’ last series left writer Steven Knight with a problem: having blasted them apart, how could he reunite the Shelby family? After six months inside and a noose around each of their necks—all part of the boss’ plan to shake them loose of the Economic League’s grip—would Arthur, John, Polly and Michael ever forgive Tommy?
They don’t need to forgive him to get back together, is Knight’s simple and smart answer. An unprecedented threat is what’s required to make the Shelby-Grays reunite. Enter: the New York mafia. In retaliation for the murder of Vicente Changretta last series, son Luca (Adrian Brody) is back from America to serve the Peakies the black hand. That means kill or be killed.
For John Shelby, sadly, it means the latter. Michael might survive his gunshot wound, but short of a miracle, there’s no way John’s coming back from that hail of bullets.
Luca’s arrival at Liverpool docks, the face of a 1920s movie star peering up from under the rim of his hat, was stylised gangster perfection. For all its surprises, this show isn’t afraid of leaning on familiar images when it works. The last-minute reprieve from the noose, Adrian Brody’s introduction, and the bloody butchers-hook fight among the dangling carcasses were all proof of that.
To throw us off the scent of impending tragedy, there were some great comedic moments before all the blood. Feeling similarly doomed for slaughter, a long-haired Arthur commiserated with a goose on Christmas Eve. There was Lizzie’s gag about not even Esme pulling a razor in a baby’s presence, John taking a pistol to the game birds on his new estate, and Esme’s “Fuck me, it’s Father Christmas”.
Less comedic was Esme’s vow that her and John’s family can look after themselves. She was proven wrong about that in the cruellest way. The Shelby family has lost people before—Freddie, Grace, Arthur Sr.—but until now, never one of the central core. It’ll be fascinating to see how each of them responds to John’s death. That’s the perverse joy of a drama with casts as strong and characters as well-written as this – even though you love them, you most look forward to seeing them broken apart.
That’s how we find the family at the start of season four; scattered and in pieces. Each one is living in a remote house that isn’t making them happy. Tommy might affect contentment with freedom and a carousel of paid-for women, but his request for “someone new” reveals dissatisfaction with his commitment-free, family-free life. John’s miserable, Arthur’s bored and Polly’s strung out on medication and spirits of both kinds. Even Michael tells Tommy he’s suffering nightmares after “what happened” (though whether he means prison, slitting Father Hughes’ throat, or being abused as a child, who can tell).
It’s Michael who delivers the verdict on the state of the family, “they’re all fucked, the lot of them” and him who has the episode’s key thematic line “We’re not the Peaky fucking Blinders unless we’re together.” Christmas 1925 and the loss of John sees the family at its lowest point – the bleakest of their bleak midwinters, if you like.
You could say that as John was responsible for escalating last series’ conflict with the Changrettas, he’s the most just casualty of a war with the Italians. Had John not attacked Angel Changretta, Grace wouldn’t have been accidentally killed, Tommy wouldn’t have tortured Vicente, and Luca wouldn’t be here now. You have to salute the solidity of this show’s plotting.
All that would be scant comfort to Esme of course, whose hatred of Tommy glowed white-hot even before her husband was killed in front of her. The women seem to have taken Tommy’s betrayal to heart more than the men. Esme, Linda and Polly want nothing to do with him.
Polly once threatened to pull the Shelby Company down around Tommy’s ears, and could well do it if she can leave the dead behind, kick the pills and get a grip on life. Helen McCrory, it goes without saying, played Polly’s distraction with such feeling that it hurt to see her so utterly lost.
Speaking of pulling the Shelby Company down around Tommy’s ears, “someone new” who may just have the mettle to do that is union firebrand Jessie Eden (Charlie Murphy). Off-stage, she was the real-world union activist who brought the women out on last series’ Good Friday strike. Here, director David Caffrey gives her a mythic entrance worthy of Mr Shelby himself. Filmed from behind, walking in slow-motion to a thrumming soundtrack (Tommy’s Red Right Hand theme song no less), the message was clear: Jessie’s Tommy’s equal. That much was proved when they struck up their volley-of-bullets conversation.
Tommy’s own introduction this year saw him cutting a new silhouette. He’s swapped the peaked cap for a bowler hat, pairing it with glasses (required since last series’ vicious beating). This is Thomas Shelby the businessman, trying to leave his “sporting days” behind him.
If this show’s about anything though, it’s about the past catching up with you. “My hand has blood” stammered the Italian chef. “Mine too,” said Tommy, (by no means a subtle line, but a deeply satisfying one in a triumphant returning episode). The image of Thomas Shelby OBE covered in blood after one of this show’s grisliest executions sends a wry message that won’t be lost on anybody: wealth and dynasties are built on violence, whether by order of the British Empire or by order of the Peaky Blinders.
Read Louisa’s review of the series three finale here.