Peaky Blinders series 5 episode 2 review: darker than dark

Traitors and usurpers are coming for Tommy’s crown in an especially bleak episode of Peaky Blinders. Spoilers...

This review contains spoilers.

5.2 Black Cats

Tommy Shelby may want to switch up his reading matter; Richard II – a play about a king who makes a series of bad decisions and is overthrown – can’t be reassuring to a man in his position. And as for Freud’s Interpretation Of Dreams, also visible on Tommy’s bedside table in Black Cats’ opening shot, rifling through that subconscious? Talk about a minefield.

Every new series is a minefield for Tommy. A threat from every direction. Move left – danger. Move right – more danger. A joy of this show is knowing that if anybody can pick their way through the tripwires (or machine gun the detonators) and somehow come out on top, it’s Tommy Shelby. This episode might be the first time Peaky Blinders’ subtext has so quickly become text.   

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That wordless, atmospheric opening with its ground-level shots of smoking earth looked like a dream of WWI – the crisis that created Tommy Shelby, as he attempted to explain to Lizzie at the end of the episode. The War changed him and Arthur so irrevocably that now, its noise, dust, mud and blood is all they can do.  

How much longer can Tommy do it, is the question. If Michael’s telling the truth about his Belfast experience (and if Polly says he is, then in that Greta Garbo suit, who would dare to disagree), then the Peaky Blinders boss is seen as a spent force these days. The gang is fixing sports betting again, back to the start. Captain Swing of the IRA thinks he’s on the side of the angels. Lizzie and Linda have made their own assessment and given Tommy just two years. It’s not sustainable, says Linda. 

Peaky Blinders knows something about sustainability. Every series, however much Tommy’s ascendance in society has insulated himself from the blood and puke, writer Steven Knight finds a new way to bring it to his doorstep – literally here, with crucifixes and landmines and a grieving gypsy, all courtesy of Glaswegian protestant threat the Billy Boys. Despite the rule being no more sport for anyone named Shelby, twice this episode, Tommy ran out of his stately home with a machine gun in his hand (once watched by little Charles – no amount of violin practice will muffle the true nature of that family). Lucky for Tommy’s political career that the paparazzi drone is almost a century away.  

That political career may be on shaky ground now that the police have made the connection between Tommy and the murdered journalist. Will ordering that hit turn out to be the first of Tommy’s short-sighted Richard II mistakes? How about the sale of those guns to the IRA back in series one? Could a seed planted that long ago complicate things a decade later? A drama as devilishly plotted as this one would be well capable of that move.

The devilish plotting of series five makes both new villains – Oswald Mosley and the Billy Boys – different heads of the same monster. A toff and a razor gang, establishment and underworld pushing the same Fascist agenda. So far, Mosley makes the more enticing prospect as a baddie than Jimmy McCavern’s band of singing brutes. His recognition that the populist song Tommy is singing in the House would serve his needs is a chilling reflection of his opposite number in our own times. “We are the people and we’ve had enough”. Write that on the side of a bus why don’t you.  

In which direction is Tommy heading, Mosley asked this episode. That’s the question of this series, but with Ada Shelby as his political advisor, it’ll hardly be Mosley’s way.  

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Arthur could do with an advisor where his marriage is concerned. Linda and Lizzie’s coup against the Shelby men was staged in tandem. Two letters, two separations. Gratifying as it is to see more from Paul Anderson (between his concern about Tommy, frustration with Finn, intimidation of … everyone, and his fearsome fight with Linda, this episode belonged to Anderson and his versatility) the direction in which Arthur is heading looks as dangerous as he does. Could things get as bad as series two’s noose for him?   

With his fist raised above that landmine, Tommy’s suicidal impulses continued in this mournful, fraught episode, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Lizzie (“Should you choose to depart”). It’s not just the life Tommy doesn’t like, it’s life full stop. Maybe try one of Shakespeare’s comedies, next time Tom? A bit of hey nonny nonny might do you good.

Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Black Tuesday, here. Read more about new British drama on its way to TV here.