Warning: contains spoilers for Peaky Blinders series one – five.
It’s taken years, but Peaky Blinders is finally letting us in on what’s happening behind Tommy Shelby’s ice-blue eyes – namely, a breakdown, fed by whiskey, laudanum and grief. In series five, he doesn’t sleep, and when he does his dreams are stalked by black cats, prophetic warnings of betrayal.
Tommy fears people are coming for his crown, with good reason. Protestant razor gang the Billy Boys want his race tracks, fascist MP Sir Oswald Mosley wants his popular support, the Chinese want his canals, and Michael wants his money.
Not all of Tommy’s enemies are flesh and blood. His own death wish is the closest anyone’s come to killing him this year. At least once an episode in series five, Tommy fantasises about suicide – holding a gun to his head, raising his fist above a landmine, standing on a ledge towering over a canal … The man’s in trouble. To add to his WWI trauma, he’s also now haunted by visions of his murdered wife Grace.
This isn’t the first time Tommy’s hallucinated Grace since she was accidentally shot dead by a Changretta family bullet intended for him. In series three, Tommy had sex with Russian aristocrat Tatiana Petrovna. During the act, she performed a little Siberian magic, choking him so that he would see her as if she were Grace.
In series five though, Grace has returned with a message for Tommy. After he swigged from a vial of laudanum in episode one, she appeared at his campfire and told him “You have to listen to the voices that you hear, do what they tell you to do.”
Grace repeats those exact words in episode four, appearing to Tommy in his House of Commons office after a visit from Mosley. That visit comes with a portion of extra guilt as Grace is seen holding the blue sapphire she was wearing on the night of her murder – a gift from Tommy, who’d received it from the Russians as down payment on an arms deal. Before Grace was shot, Tatiana told Tommy, “Does your wife know that sapphire she’s wearing has been cursed by a gypsy? Nothing on earth would make me wear it.”
After Grace’s death, Tommy took the sapphire to gypsy Madame Boswell, who told him that the sapphire was indeed cursed – exactly what he needed to hear to salve his own conscience (Boswell was rewarded for this knowledge with the expensive jewel, so may well have been prepared to tell Tommy it was made of cheese if that’s what he wanted to hear). When Grace appeared with the stone this series though, she said “It wasn’t the blue stone, Tommy, it was you,” as the sapphire turned to blood streaming from the gunshot wound in her chest.
Happy or sad?
Twice this series, Tommy has also seen Grace re-enact a key scene from their series one courtship, when she was working undercover for Inspector Campbell to gather intelligence on the Shelby family in Campbell’s search for a crate of stolen guns. After his drunken meeting with Jessie Eden at The Garrison in episode three, he saw Grace asking “Happy or sad, Tommy?”, then again at the beginning of episode four.
In the original scene from series one, Grace asks Tommy if she can sing at The Garrison tavern, where she’s working. He relents and tells her to sing whatever she wants. Grace stands on a chair and asks what kind of song he wants to hear, “Happy or sad?”. Tommy chooses sad, and before she sings traditional Irish song Black Velvet Band (the story of a man betrayed by a woman) she says, “But I warn you, I’ll break your heart.” Tommy replies “Already broken.” It seems though, that he had a little left to break.
In series five, episode four, after making a deal with the Chinese to smuggle raw opium under coal shipments on Birmingham canals, Tommy has a dream of driving his father’s black boat. In it, the barge passes down the canal carrying a shipment of coal on top of which is Grace’s dead body. The boat’s name, as he tells Ada, was The January, the same boat on which Tommy was born.
In series five, Tommy is working undercover for the English crown, informing on seditious activity by Sir Oswald Mosley, who plans to launch his new political party the British Union of Fascists on the 1st of January 1930. Could Tommy’s ominous dream be dread about his double agent role as Mosley’s Deputy party leader, with that month signifying a point of no return?
Ada, versed in Freud, tells Tommy that the black barge signifies his guilt, a theory he bats away. As well as representing the Peaky Blinders’ inauspicious roots – something the gang is always striving to escape – the name ‘The January’ could have mythological significance. The month is often thought to be named either for the Roman god Janus, usually represented with two faces, one looking to the future and one to the past. Greek mythology made an appearance in that same episode when Mosley cited Nietzsche’s concept of the Apollonian and Dionysian dialectic – rationality and frenzy – to describe the two faces of Tommy Shelby.
Who is the black cat?
In episode two, Tommy confessed that he’d been dreaming about a black cat, an omen he’d been taught by Polly to mean there was a traitor in his midst. “Black cat dream is never wrong,” said Tommy, causing viewers to start playing spot-the-traitor. The obvious choice is Polly’s son Michael, returning that very episode from America where his refusal to follow Tommy’s orders had lost the Blinders half a million pounds in the New York Stock Exchange crash. Peaky Blinders though, rarely does the obvious.
There is a traitor somewhere in the picture – how else would Jimmy McCavern and the Billy Boys have known where to find Aberama and Bonnie’s camp for that crucifixion without some inside knowledge? Johnny Dogs denied it was him, but it could have been somebody from Johnny’s family. Some fans have pointed out the likelihood that John’s widow Esme (formerly a Lee gypsy girl) could have been the one responsible for that. The last time we saw her, she placed a curse on the Shelby family.
Another theory was posited by Pol in that episode. She told Tommy “Black cat can mean lots of things, can mean you’re hurting yourself, betraying yourself.” Yes, she was trying to protect her son from suspicion, but doesn’t that sound about right for Tommy? The man’s his own black cat.
Series five isn’t the only time we’ve seen inside Tommy Shelby’s broken head. After he suffered a serious beating at the hands of the Economic League in series three, we were let into his morphine-fuelled dreams. His brain transposed his hospital room into a WWI tunnel – his trauma a souvenir from his claykicker days in France, when he was in a tunnel collapse – and he had a vision of himself smoking the same opium pipe he used to quell his PTSD in series one. The WWI tunnel dream was particularly relevant in series three as Tommy was planning to dig one under under the Thames to rob the Russian treasury.
Opium, morphine, laudanum and visions. Since his time in France, Tommy has a long history of them all. Like Polly, his gypsy blood makes him a believer in second sight, portents and voices from the grave, all things his rational self would dismiss as superstition. The question is, should he trust Grace’s words and do whatever it is the voices in his head are telling him to do, or is she just another figment of one of Tommy Shelby’s many, many devils?
Read our spoiler-filled review of series five, episode four The Loop, here. And read about all the new British drama on its way here.