This review contains spoilers.
5.1 Black Tuesday
Peaky Blinders is dazzlingly full of itself. That’s usually meant as an insult, but in this case it’s nothing but compliment. It’s a towering, mythic drama that looks good, sounds good, and never reveals a trace of timidity or a bead of sweat. Five series in, Peaky Blinders knows exactly what it is – the coolest show on TV – and exactly how to be it.
This premiere is your proof. The opening slips and slides between continents, lassoing the Shelby family together two years after we last saw them. Director Anthony Byrne takes us through doorways in Limehouse that lead to the lobby of Detroit hotels, from bedrooms in the South of France that adjoin offices in Birmingham. It’s a fast, intoxicating start that gives us Michael in America with a girl and a gun, Polly in Monte Carlo being pleasured by a pilot, Finn in London champing at the gangster bit, and Tommy on a horse in the Lickey Hills.
Tommy’s burying a horse too – Dangerous, the racehorse May Carleton was training last series. “Too wild to race, wouldn’t take the reins or the whip. Got tired of the pasture. Couldn’t stick the peace and the quiet, gave up on life and is now free.” He’s talking about himself of course, up until the part about giving up and being free. The member for Birmingham South Mr Thomas Shelby OBE isn’t free, but despite a suicidal urge he hasn’t quite given up, yet. As he tells the opium-conjured apparition of his dead wife Grace, there’s too much to do.
First on the list is the execution of a Chinatown pimp, “a particular opportunity” too good to pass up. That story gave us much more than just Finn’s first bullet and the exhilarating spectacle of Aidan Gillen bursting through a wall; it restated the show’s point that the establishment is just as criminal and morally bankrupt as the underworld. For all the Peaky Blinders’ wrongs, they’re better men than that paedophilic high court judge, and he’s hardly the only bad apple – a lesson Tommy learned years ago in his dealings with the Economic League.
In that same series, Tommy also learned that no matter how big his house or how much money in his bank account, the establishment (and the press, it seems) will always see him as a gangster bookmaker. To quote Ada, Tommy’s response is so what? If he can’t join them, he’ll beat them. He’ll steal their white horses right out from under them, and where better to do it than the dimly lit corridors of the Houses of Parliament.
Aggrieved as Ada and Lizzie (now the second Mrs Shelby) are that it’s business as usual for the Peaky Blinders, the family’s off-the-books income is vital to keep them afloat after their loss in the 1929 New York Stock Market crash. Ever-resilient, Tommy even comes to see that as a particular opportunity. Cash is king and cash the Peaky Blinders have. They’re going to wave it in the faces of desperate men.
Tommy’s an exasperated man in this episode, almost every scene of which Cillian Murphy leads with the kind of magnetism that could bend iron (even when he’s not there in person, Tommy’s portrait stares down from the wall of the Shelby Company Ltd. boardroom). Nobody’s listening to him – not Michael, Finn or Charles. Tommy must have known that telling his kid brother to stay out of the Limehouse job was a guarantee that Finn would go in guns-blazing?
Then again, there are things Tommy Shelby doesn’t know: that the Special Branch agent to whom they’re feeding Commie secrets in exchange for military supply contracts is the father of Ada’s baby, who the mysterious Angels Of Retribution are, or what he’s going to do with the admiration of fellow MP Oswald Mosley (a nastily sinister Sam Claflin).
Things Arthur doesn’t know: by the sound of it, how the financial markets work. For all his terrifying ability to rage, Paul Anderson remains a comic treasure on this show. “Sometimes, death is a kindness.” Oh, Arthur. Between him, Polly and Tommy’s kids, this episode got more laughs than some BBC One sitcoms.
Symbolism being vital to Steven Knight’s treatment of these characters, the golden key that Anderson was playing with in Linda and Arthur’s scene perhaps stood for future opportunities or for locked ones. More symbolism came with the sound of the clock ticking on the Times reporter’s visit to the lion’s den. His days were counting down from the minute he sent that unfortunate letter. And how about Tommy’s coin toss in that phone box giving him the power of god over life and death.
Why was there a phone box in the middle of nowhere? 1) Because it looked amazing. 2) By order of the Peaky Blinders. 3) Don’t ask questions. You saw what happened to that journalist.
What an opener. All that plus Alfie Solomon’s dog, Brummie band Black Sabbath on the soundtrack, and Aberama Gold literally breaking the fourth wall to address any first-time viewers hanging around after Poldark on the show’s new BBC One home. Bang. Now you’ve heard of us.
Read Louisa’s review of the series four finale, The Company, here.
Episode two airs on Monday at 9.30pm on BBC One.