by Logan Cox
Peaky Blinders is a series featuring characters who aren't afraid to get physically violent when someone brazenly violates their principles. For whatever savage reason, I quite enjoy stories and characters of this nature.
This can also be seen in shows like Deadwood and Supernatural, or even Lost. It might be that I like it because, on some level, I find the barely-contained urge to pummel whoever happens to be giving you a hard time without provocation to be eerily relatable. On a greater level, though, it's because stories and characters like this, when treated right, can deliver some incredibly compelling drama. Peaky Blinders is no exception.
At the start of the second episode, we see this reactionary behavior when Thomas Shelby and his brothers drive out to buy a white racing horse from one of their Romani acquaintances only to get into a bloody brawl with members of the Lees, a fearsome gypsy family. The moment the fight begins, you understand why it's happening: one of the Lees called the Shelbys' mother a whore, which sets off Thomas, with Arthur and John eagerly following his lead. But as the brutal sequence plays out in a chaotic mix of discordant music and slow motion shots, we witness the brutality as it truly is: Frenzied, irrational, unnecessary, like the quarreling ape-men at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The rest of the episode makes it clear that this sort of reckless passion, that comes so naturally to street toughs like the Shelby boys, will always bring the most troublesome of consequences.In fact, everyone must face consequences in this episode.
The stolen military weapons brings Inspector Campbell's sustained wrath down upon the Peaky Blinders turf, sending his police in before the waking hours of dawn to raid all the houses in search of the guns (and communists). During the raid, Campbell goes to personally interrogate Aunt Polly. But he is unmanned by her sexuality, and that he found nothing even after his goons tossed the church. However, he tells Polly to inform Thomas, the real man in charge, that he wants to meet with him.
The raid forces Freddy Thorn, Campbell's most wanted communist, to leave town. It's only after Freddy's gone that Ada Shelby learns she is pregnant with his baby. Thomas refuses to hear anything of Ada marrying Freddy Thorn, since he seems to believe that Freddy is just using her to get to the guns that Thomas is hiding so he can use them for his political purposes. Ada tries to remain optimistic about Freddy, but Polly convinces her that she can't wait for him forever and that an abortion would be better than a hard life raising an illegitimate child alone with no father.
Between Campbell and the police, a little sister carrying his former best friend's child, the Lee family sending him a bullet with his name on it (war were declared), and a cursed race horse, Tommy's got a lot on his plate to deal with at the moment. But, as Heather pointed out in her review for the pilot, Thomas Shelby is a naturally intuitive man. He possesses an acute sense of how the world works -- whether it is the world he walks in, the world that his enemies inhabit, or the world of the common man.
First off, he retaliates against Campbell's police state by organizing a public bonfire in which citizens join together to burn their portraits of King George. He then leaks this information to the press, putting a spin on it that makes Campbell and the authority he represents appear cruel and oppressive... which they kind of are. Word gets back to Churchill, who proceeds to chew Inspector Campbell out for his indelicate handling of the situation with the stolen guns.
When their one-on-one meeting takes place, Thomas easily owns Campbell. He tells the inspector outright that he has the guns he's so desperate to find, and that he's willing to hand them over and make Campbell look like a hero. But only if Campbell stays out of his way and keeps the law from meddling with Shelby business. If not, Tommy will hand the guns over to the IRA instead, which would most certainly not be good for Campbell.
Unexpectedly cornered, Campbell is forced to agree, but only to later tell Grace, his undercover operative, that she has a new objective: gaining leverage on Thomas Shelby. Though he clearly has a less than professional attachment to her, he reluctantly orders Grace to do whatever she can to get close to Thomas.Grace agrees, and she's already making progress in winning over the friendly neighborhood gangster. She speaks with Thomas on his level, convinces him to let her sing in the pub, and sings him a sad song.
Grace sees two different sides of Thomas in this episode, each illustrated by his interactions with the white horse. First, she sees the humanity beneath his rough-edged exterior as he is able to patiently calm the horse down when it gets spooked. Next time she sees him, he's in a dark, sardonic mood after having to put the horse down due to the Lee family's "curse" rendering it useless. So she knows now that, though he is compelled to exude a cold and calculating persona, Thomas still has a warm beating heart underneath it all.
Tommy also displayed his lighter side when he had a change of heart and reached out to Freddy, who returns just in time to propose to Ada. Unfortunately, Freddy defies Thomas by refusing to leave town with Ada like he asked. This could be a problem, since Freddy's removal from Birmingham was part of the deal Thomas made with Campbell.
Finally, Thomas' big play is his new alliance with Billy Kimber in the last scene. Kimber is the crime lord who holds sway over the horse-racing racket. Thomas hopes to make the Shelbys gambling ring legal by doing this, which will make them even greater profits and increase their odds in the war against the Lees. It also means putting up with Billy Kimber himself, who proves to be quite the insufferable little tyrant. He immediately takes a disliking to Tommy, and makes it clear that he doesn't see the Peaky Blinders as partners or equals. This can only be a problem, since Thomas clearly has no intention of dancing to any tune but his own.
Of course, I'm sure that will come with its share of consequences too.
* Getting into this series was very easy for me, since it stars Cillian Murphy and Sam Neill -- two awesome actors who I've enjoyed for years -- and is brought to us by Steven Knight -- a stellar writer/director who typically doesn't shy away from hard-hitting material.
* The deeply rich and glossy style is a neat contrast to the series's poor, grimy, Machine Age setting. It reminds me of the way Michael Mann shot Public Enemies.
* Polly's story of getting pregnant at 16 by a man who abandoned her, and then nearly dying when she tried to abort it herself, was so sad. It is a shame that, despite their strong opinions and fierce personalities, Polly and Ada's lives are still largely dictated by the men around them. A depressing fact of history, but an accurate one that should not be ignored.
* It didn't really register to me when I first watched this one, but the Peaky Blinders live up to their name in the opening scene. Thomas initiates the fight with the Lees by whipping off his newsboy cap and slashing the main offender across the eyes with the razors stitched into the peak of the cap. They literally used their hats as weapons to blind their enemies. Gnarly.
Charlie: It's Thomas Shelby against the whole bloody world, right?
Thomas: (to the white horse) It's just noise. You get used to it. It's just noise.
Ada: Oy! I'm a Shelby too, ya know. Put my fucking film back on!
Polly: (to Ada) You know the words. You're "a whore." The baby's "a bastard." But there's no word for the man who doesn't come back.
Arthur: Remember what dad always said, "Fast women and slow horses will ruin your life."
Three out of four named bullets.