This review contains spoilers.
Strategising is Tommy Shelby’s superpower (that, and making smoking look cooler than a dozen James Deans times a hundred Humphrey Bogarts). Like every superhero/villain though, his powers are subject to one weakness. Tommy’s? His family.
Specifically, his family’s will. Whenever Tommy’s orders aren’t followed, there are consequences. Michael and the US investments, John and Esme deciding to weather the mafia threat alone, Arthur and John not killing Mrs Changretta back in series three … This time, he’s being disobeyed by everybody. Arthur, Polly, Michael, Finn and Aberama have all ignored direct orders. Even Johnny Dogs was found playing while the cat was away. What will be the fall-out of so much rebellion?
At least Lizzie has quashed her own revolt, deciding to balance her head against her heart and keep the well-remunerated job of being Mrs Thomas Shelby OBE. (Polly’s right – they do all try to get away, but none of them ever actually manage it.) Having made her choice, Lizzie started talking like a gangster this episode, lines that not everybody could carry off but Natasha O’Keeffe wore well. “You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you take.” Said like a true Peaky Binder.
Faced with all this insurrection and treated by Oswald Mosley with all the respect you’d afford a carpet stain, Tommy’s god complex was only indulged twice this episode – in the bedroom with Lizzie (“Everything is mine”) and at the nunnery with Kate Dickie’s Mother Superior. “Let us pray.” You’d better pray.
What a scene that was – talk about angels of retribution. It seemed to belong nowhere in this series’ increasingly knotty plots, but floated alone on a bubble of rock star style and exhilarating righteousness. The Peaky Blinders on a mission from… not God, themselves. It’s a beautiful fantasy that abused kids could have the terrifying might of Tommy and Pol in their corner, that the testimony of children could be believed and avenged by their furious power, and that evildoers should lie awake in fear listening for their footsteps.
Like that high-court child abuser in episode one, the nunnery visit was another reminder that the lines between good and bad aren’t drawn clean and that the establishment is pockmarked with evil. Enter: Sir Oswald Mosley.
Now at the mid-point in this series (it goes so fast), we know Tommy’s strategy as regards Mosley. He’s planning to join up as deputy leader of the British Union of Fascists and inform the Crown on Mosley’s sedition – a classic Tommy move designed to accelerate his route to that bigger office. His strategy has always been about making friends in high places and then selling those friends out to other friends in even higher places.
Until now, Tommy’s moves have been made without anything in the way of political conscience. He’s done deals to sell guns to the IRA, tanks to the Russian White Movement, gin to the US mafia, vehicles to the British army, and with Jessie Eden, he’s literally been in bed with the Communists (whose secrets he passes to UK Intelligence). The politics is by-the-by – every deal is just another step up the ladder.
Fascism though, in Tommy’s own country, is a line crossed. Publicly espousing a racist, anti-Semitic movement that, as Jimmy McCavern helpfully explained, views gypsies as inhuman? A party that would see Colonel Ben Younger and Alfie Solomons and his own unborn niece driven from their countries? Even as a double agent, Tommy using his talents to motivate the populace to the far right is a dangerous prospect for our man. The problem is, Tommy’s good at politics. And as nobody needs reminding right now, conscienceless men who are good at politics start fires.
Arthur started a fire of his own across the border (“Arthur is going to Scotland so he needs hand grenades” – never say this show doesn’t have a sense of humour). The war with the Billy Boys led to some grisly scenes, but none more so than Arthur beating a pacifist Quaker to death. That was another line crossed.
For all the fuck yeah-ness of the Peaky Blinders soundtrack (the best it’s been yet, thanks to Anna Calvi’s score), it was right for that horrible moment to be accompanied by a mournful piano song – a lament for the victim but also for the perpetrator, wrecked by violence. Can there be a way back for Arthur after that? He’s owed a reckoning.
Reckoning, in both the retribution and calculation sense of the word, was a common thread of this episode. The Peaky Blinders doled out vengeance while tallying the entries on their various balance sheets. Tommy and Polly set their sins against those of child abusers. Aberama weighed his son’s murder against the death he’s dealt. Lizzie weighed her head against her heart. Linda weighed her little heap of transgressions. Arthur measured his loving, god-fearing breast against the work of his devil’s hands.
As much as anything else, that’s what series five of this gripping, ambitious drama is about: good, bad, and the places they meet. Since the War, Tommy’s always been in combat, but now his fight is metaphysical. It’s a battle for his soul, and he’s fighting on both fronts. The question being asked is – like a red birthday rose grown in horse shit, can he and the rest of them emerge from all this violence with virtue?
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Black Cats, here.