This review contains spoilers.
Perhaps knowing that the clock’s ticking on the time we have left with the Shelby family (creator Steven Knight has long said series five would be the last, though there’s reason to hope he may yet change his mind), this run is doing more than ever to let us in on the mystery of what’s happening behind Tommy Shelby’s unblinking blue eyes. Last week we learned about the near-death experience that made Tommy fearless, and this week we learned about his first love, Greta Di Rossi.
Grace wasn’t the first woman Tommy loved to die in his arms. Before he went to War, he also lost Greta (can it be a coincidence those two names are so similar?). When Tommy told Grace in series one that her sad song couldn’t break his heart because it was already broken, we can now assume that Greta’s death did the breaking.
Before it, and before France, we learn Tommy was an idealist. Polly once told Grace that he used to laugh a lot and wanted to work with horses. He was devoted and brave and stood up for the vulnerable, a young Communist who promised his lover that he’d change the world.
He’s certainly done that. This series alone, Tommy’s turned Small Heath into an army barracks and marched its soldiers into war. He’s provoked hundreds to walk out on strike, and forced ordinary working people like the foreman who tried to escape on a midnight train, into a criminal life. He’s killed and tortured and threatened. He’s blackmailed the King himself. Yes, it’s fair to say Tommy Shelby has changed the world, though not in the way he’d promised.
The casting on Peaky Blinders continues to be as impeccable as the writing, and newcomer Charlie Murphy is our latest proof. Tommy’s visit to Jessie Eden’s home—he was right in series one, people are different at home—was as captivating as Arthur’s infernal hammer rampage, despite being polar opposites in tone. Paul Anderson, drenched in blood-like paint, looked like a creature from hell and gave a performance so unhinged you felt nervous watching. Charlie Murphy, on the other hand, was all control. She conveyed Jessie’s vulnerability and tragic past with the lightest of touches.
It’s been said that in series four, Jessie Eden serves as Tommy’s conscience, and that’s certainly true here. Through more meticulous research, Jessie dug out Tommy’s broken heart and used it as a weapon against him. An effective weapon, by the looks of it. The workers may still be out on strike, but thanks to her and Greta, local charities and new children’s homes are going to feel the benefit of the Shelby Company fortune.
Tommy’s research into Jessie’s past provided ammunition just as destructive. Just when you think someone has the upper hand on Tommy Shelby, he reveals himself to be a step ahead. Can anyone ever beat him?
If anyone has a chance, it’s Pol. That’s what makes this week’s cliff-hanger so exciting; of all the brutal beatings Tommy’s taken over the years, we’re finally watching him go up against a real opponent. Polly’s just as smart and scheming as Tommy (see her manipulation of Arthur through Linda’s Japanese silk), and perhaps even more vicious. If she’s really out to bring him down, there’s every chance it could happen. Where that would leave the Peaky Blinders is anyone’s guess.
No doubt because she delivers them with such relish, Helen McCrory was given some great lines this episode. There was her New Year’s Resolution to fuck “somebody unsuitable”, her refusal to behave, and that glamorous, foreboding meeting with Luca. In an episode that compared Tommy and Arthur’s different operating styles—one through a sergeant’s police badge and homework, the other through infernal cardiectomies and hammer-blows, we also saw how Polly works—covertly, manipulatively and using everything she has.
We’re yet to see much of anything from Ada, but Finn finally had a storyline this week. It turns out that he’s a sweet boy underneath the haircut and hat, but it can’t last. Brother Tommy, the ultimate pragmatist and capitalist who sees nothing wrong with paying anyone “the king’s shilling” for whatever work he needs them to do, wants Finn to be a man.
The pressures of being a man, and the eldest Shelby brother bound by tradition to avenge John’s death, were what Arthur was movingly struggling with. After pretty much literally fighting demons in the depths of hell (even the accompanying soundtrack for the factory killings was about the devil), Arthur battled his figurative demons and, with Linda whispering to him as you might to a spooked horse, he eventually chose the modern way.
There was another surprise in an appearance from Michael’s adoptive mother, there to proffer apples and show us the rural peace Michael willingly swapped for gangster excitement. If this show’s always asking whether it’s possible to escape your roots, Michael’s story shows better than any that you can’t. He started life as the son of a Peaky Blinder, and no doubt he’ll end it there too.
Can Luca Changretta be trusted to keep to his bargain and leave Michael off limits? So far, he’s been pretty decent in targeting the Peakies one by one, like goons queuing up to be individually chucked to one side by an 80s martial arts hero. Had Luca simply blown up Michael’s hospital room during that meeting, he’d be back home eating cannoli by now, spotted dick and Stratford-upon-Avon all a distant memory.
That wouldn’t give us much of a show though, would it? And Peaky Blinders, especially this series, is all about spectacle, every thrilling second of it.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here.