Warning: contains spoilers for Peaky Blinders season six episode two ‘Black Shirt’.
Peaky Blinders is known to pay homage to different film genres with every season, from Westerns to Gangster flicks to Hitchcockian and conspiracy thrillers. In ‘Black Shirt’, season six revealed its genre: horror. From the Hammer picture image of lightning cracking over Tommy’s stately home, to Ruby’s scrawled drawings of the devil, and Tommy fighting the imaginary yellow-toothed “Grey Man”, episode two was filled with horror imagery – fitting, for a show about somebody who’s haunted.
Haunted, and cursed. Tommy believes that Ruby’s demonic visions and illness are down to a curse laid upon the Shelby family. At the end of the episode, he places a phone call to his widowed sister-in-law Esme Shelby-Lee, whom he hopes will lift the affliction. Even if Esme can lift the curse and cure Ruby, it’s doubtful whether she could also free Tommy from his “Grey Man” visions, because he’s been having them since we first met him.
“A Prussian boy with green eyes”
Grey is the colour of the uniforms worn by Prussian soldiers in World War One, and of the uniform worn by the man Tommy’s brain tells him he’s fighting whenever he has a seizure. In ‘Black Shirt’, Tommy tells Jack Nelson that the first person he ever killed was “a Prussian boy with green eyes” who “was already underground”, and we can presume that’s who Tommy is hallucinating/remembering in season six.
It’s not the first time Tommy’s been plagued by that vision (though it is the first time the memory has jumped out of his head and into a present-day location like his Westminster office.) In almost every episode of season one, Tommy has elliptical flashbacks to a wartime fight he and his fellow ‘claykickers’ had with enemy soldiers in the tunnels they were excavating. Every time Tommy smoked opium and when he was being strangled by an IRA man at the Garrison Tavern in season one, we glimpsed pieces of that nightmare.
In the full scene, shown in season one, episode four, Tommy, Danny ‘Whizzbang’ and Freddie Thorne are crouching in a tunnel and listening to whispered German voices from the other side of the mud wall. The enemy breaks through and a brutal fight erupts in which Freddie is shot, Tommy is strangled, and there’s a repeated close-up of a knife entering a body.
“I’m so high it makes my brain whirl”
Flashbacks to his wartime tunnelling days recur whenever Tommy’s under the influence of an opiate. After sustaining a serious head injury at the hands of Section D in season three, Tommy imagines descending a ladder to the tunnels, wearing his claykicker apparel of hat, braces and undershirt. On morphine, his brain transports Ada’s conversation with his doctors to a tunnel setting. “He was in the war, he was in a tunnel collapse, he won medals,” says Ada, urging them to take care of him.
That season three head injury was serious enough to require surgery and a long convalescence. (As Alfie Solomons put it, Tommy’s head has been left like “some kind of smashed vase what has been stuck back together by an ‘orse.” The historic injury could be a medical explanation for Tommy’s current symptoms, which include vomiting and seizures alongside the hallucinations.
The Grey Man then, is a memory, a curse, and a kind of demon manifested from Tommy’s war trauma. It’s a soldier Tommy’s been fighting in his mind since he returned from France. Now, in the final season, the question is will he be able to exorcise it before it kills him?
Peaky Blinders season six continues on Sunday the 13th of March at 9pm on BBC One.