This review contains spoilers.
Tommy Shelby is a rare kind of person. Whatever mess in which he finds himself—whether it’s accidentally stealing a crate of Lewis machine guns or being coerced into doing business with Russian aristocrats—he’s able to turn it to his advantage. Trust him to cast his eye over the incipient threat of socialist revolution and end up not with his back against the wall but with a two-million-pound supply contract to the British army. War is a profitable business, and one from which Tommy, having already paid its dreadful price in France, now means to profit.
That being his attitude, you have to ask this: what’s more important to Tommy Shelby, personal vengeance or acquisition and expansion? Tommy’s mortal enemy Luca Changretta is a connected US bootlegger whose customers, as Luca tells Alfie Solomons this week, want gin. Since the war with the Changrettas started, Tommy has built himself a gin distillery able to produce over two hundred gallons a week. Can that be a coincidence? Would Tommy really be willing to brush aside emnity to forge a future business contact from a current foe? Well, it wouldn’t be the first time.
Perhaps the better question to ask is whether Luca Changretta would be willing to do the same? The prayer he uttered during episode five’s thrilling, large-scale shoot-out suggests not. We were told this series that Sicilians and Brummies are alike in their long-lived hatred. Still, money is money. Even with guns-blazing and prayers of vengeance being uttered, there’s a chance Tommy and Luca may call pax in pursuit of yet more wealth.
That, or Luca Changretta will have to die. As enjoyable as it’s been to watch Adrian Brody hammily Godfather his way through Luca’s visit, he’d hardly be mourned were that to happen. As Paddy Considine’s villainous priest or the mad Russians showed last series, Peaky Blinders isn’t afraid of cartoonish villains. All its character development and complexity goes into the Shelby family. At six episodes a pop and a rotating cast of antagonists, there isn’t time to slow-bake a baddie too. The people Tommy goes up against are heightened and exaggerated. It’s all part of the fun.
Another part of the fun comes from thrilling action set pieces like the shoot-out that opened this episode. Director David Caffrey delivered a fight more sustained and on as large as scale as any this show’s ever seen. It was tense, well-choreographed, exciting and… somewhat perplexing in terms of plot. Why would Tommy not have packed Artillery Square with battalions of his soldiers rather than take on the Changrettas alone? Apart from proving that he hadn’t lost his touch, what did it achieve?
It gave us a bit of Die Hard excitement and postponed the Luca/Tommy battle until the finale, which must have been the goal. Next week we see wiry gypsy Bonnie Gold take on the might of hulking giant Goliath in the ring, while, behind the scenes, Tommy takes on the might of the Sicilian mafia. Even if Peaky Blinders doesn’t always make its character decisions add up (Luca’s deal with Polly also seems to make no sense—if he wanted to kill just Tommy, why not do it in his factory office in episode two?), it’s always thematically neat and satisfying.
Speaking of satisfaction, Polly’s found her “somebody unsuitable” in the form of Aberama Gold. Helen McCrory transformed into a forest predator in that woodland scene—sinuous and dangerous, crouched low over the fire and delighting in the prospect of a good buck.
It was delayed gratification for Tommy and Jessie, each of whom is seducing the other for their own purposes. He’s planning on selling her out to the army, she wants his support come the glorious day of revolution. That scene was delightful, from Curly’s giggling about the gramophone “found abandoned in that man’s car”, to the back and forth between Cillian and Charlie Murphy, both actors so fine they sell the intrigue and heartbreak of this extraordinary flirtation.
Satisfyingly, Ada had more scenes again this week (Sophie Rundle is far too good to waste by giving her little else to do than wear lipstick and roll her eyes, like last series). Fierce-tempered and quick-tongued, Ada’s had some terrific moments so far this year. Last week’s imperious pub visit and this week’s “they’ll not see Saturday” took us right back to that girl in series one screaming to the cinema projectionist “I’m a Shelby too you know, put my fucking film back on!” Her best though, was the moment she summed up Tommy’s philosophy, one unrooted in political or personal conviction: “They’ll put that on your grave, Tom. Tommy Shelby – Why Not?”
Before we go, it’s time to update the Changretta corpse tally. First there were fifteen. Then Arthur Shelby pulled out two of their hearts, Aberama Gold and co. slit one’s throat and shot another, and this week, Thomas Shelby OBE “got three”. That leaves eight Italians including Luca Changretta still out for Peaky Blinders blood.
Is Alfie Solomons really with them? Or is that whole manoeuvre another plot cooked up between Tommy and a would-be enemy, as Polly’s ‘betrayal’ was revealed to be? One thing we do know is that Tommy’s planning on staying alive, and for the purposes of series five at least, creator Steven Knight must be planning on his lead doing the same. Whatever clever twist or contrivance is required for that to happen is entirely forgivable. Peaky Blinders doesn’t exist for realism; it’s here to thrill, surprise and leave us shaking in the wake of its glamorous swagger. And by God, series four is doing that.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode here.