Peaky Blinders: Season Two, Episode Four

“This place is under new management. By order of the Peaky Blinders.”

The previous episode had a lovely sequence that I didn’t get a chance to discuss: as Charlie bemoans the legality of recent Shelby, Ltd. enterprises, he mentions that he doesn’t even know the last time Tommy rode a horse. A handful of scenes later, Tommy buys a racehorse.

The connection between those two events is never addressed. There’s no follow-up scene of Charlie saying, “Oh, you used to ride ‘em and now you own ‘em” or something like that. Tommy doesn’t muse aloud on how much his life, and his passions, have changed. Peaky Blinders lets us make the connections. Or not.

Back in 2009 or so, David Mamet sent a memo on writing to the team behind his show The Unit. A breakdown of the memo is available here, but it boils down to: show, don’t tell. Create drama, not exposition. Write visually, not just verbally.

Peaky Blinders is brilliant at that, and this episode is a crystalline example of that brilliance. Take the post-credits scene, when Tommy walks into a meeting with Campbell and discovers the pro-treaty Irish man and woman waiting for him. The camera lingers on Tommy’s face as his eyes move from Campbell to the Irene O’Donnell and back again. “You’re working together,” he says. He appears shocked, struggling to integrate this new information, verbally piecing together the bombing of the Garrison pub with Campbell’s re-entry into his life and the first meeting with the Irish woman from Episode One.

Except we—but not the characters in the scene—quickly realize it’s all a sham. We realize this as we reconsider the first episode, which made the connection between Campbell and the Irish implicit through the sequence of scenes. We realize this in the following scene of this episode, when Tommy tells Campbell that he’s been tracking Donal Henry and has discovered he is a spy. Campbell doesn’t realize that this means Tommy has been onto him all along, but we do.

For an actor to portray a liar is one thing. For an actor, and show, to manage to convey that the character is himself acting, performing for the other characters within his scene, is something else entirely. It results in drama, as Mamet would say, as well as a level of subtlety that would make John Le Carré proud.

That Campbell doesn’t realize the importance of Tommy’s revelation is par for the course. A ridiculous man constantly scrambling for purchase, Campbell is not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, which is likely a big part of the reason why Tommy hates working for him so much. (That, and he gets nothing out of it. Being forced into another country’s politics is no one’s idea of a good time.)

That scene between Tommy and Campbell has an echo later on, when May tells Tommy she checked up on him through her connections at the War Office. Tommy had told Campbell “I have men in places you can’t go…You are stepping into a world you don’t understand.” It’s a brutal thing to say to a man whose job is to understand—and infiltrate—that world, but it’s the same message that May communicates to Tommy, albeit with less spite. She has men in places Tommy can’t go, at least not yet, and he is undeniably stepping into a world that he doesn’t understand or belong in. He doesn’t even know that this new trend of “cocktails” requires mixers.

Michael may be able to help with that, especially in terms of Tommy becoming 80% legal in the next two to three years. Then again, maybe not, since Michael can’t seem to avoid getting drawn into the violence: before, at the racetrack. This week, in defense of Jeremiah against the racists at the pub.

That balance between the legal and the illegal is the theme of this entire season, from the assassinations ordered by an “agent of the Crown” in defense of colonialism to Shelby, Ltd.’s legal automotive exports hiding the illegal whisky to sell in Prohibition-era America. Tommy wants there to be limits, though, even if the law doesn’t define those limits. Johnny Dogs can steal one box of car parts, but not two. Arthur can do cocaine, but shouldn’t become so violent that he needs to be replaced. The lines get blurry, in this era and these situations, don’t they?

Alfie Solomons is a good example of the blurriness of these lines. On the face of it, it seems like Alfie broke with Sabini and the Italians because of the constant anti-Semitism. That’s what he claims, at least. But is that all there is, or is Alfie playing a longer game? And bearing in mind what I said above, about Peaky Blinders letting the viewer make connections: is this why Alfie brought up Tommy’s “Gypsy” heritage at their first meeting, to see if he was insulted in turn? Nothing is straightforward with gangsters.

I’m tempted to say that Tommy’s liaison with May is the only straightforward part of this show, and it has most of the symptoms: honest questions about what she wants, honest promises about what he wants. But Tommy seeking out May becomes complicated when this episode reveals what Tommy knew and we didn’t know: Grace is back in England.

And that is how you create drama.

Scene of the Week:

• The opening scene wins it this time: no dialogue, just the dulcet tones of Nick Cave explaining how a tall, handsome man hands out wads of cash as Tommy Shelby does the same.

Random Thoughts:

• I think Tommy needs glasses. He holds papers very far away from his eyes when he’s reading, and even May asks him if he needs more light.

• Meanwhile, Arthur keeps Arthuring. It’s hard to find much more to say about this plot thread, as each week Arthur vacillates between brutality and remorse.

• This week in Esme: she bonded with May over their love of horses.

• This week in Curly: he doesn’t approve of how racehorses are beaten. Curly is always right.

I might just break my promise and go for the ratings: four out of four boxes of car parts, because the automobile is the future.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

1 comment:

Billie Doux said...

Watching Tommy, and everything he does, is really fascinating. Michael is so happy in this new place, and that is so disturbing. And it feels like Arthur is running desperately toward death.

The level of violence in this show keeps disturbing me. Like the burning of the pub and the blameless owner. Maybe that's the reason they're doing it, though. This isn't a comfortable show to watch.