Peaky Blinders: Season Two, Episode Six

“I was so close.”

This is a perfect episode of television.

Let’s start at the end: Tommy, on the cusp of death, explaining how close he came to achieving his goals. And what are they? Love. Legitimacy. Liberation from the political machinations of Campbell and Churchill.

Knowing how Tommy describes his success helps us answer the question I asked a few episodes ago. What does Tommy Shelby want? He wants a successful and full life, with the wealth that gives him agency, that helps him avoid the shit-shoveling “honest work” he decried in the previous episode, and that allows him to care for his family and loved ones. Gangster violence is the only path he sees towards that life. It’s a vicious fable of income inequality and social immobility, one that’s quite relevant to our world today. (Here’s a liberal take on what that means and a conservative take on what that means, so you can pick your poison.)

Seen in that light, the ta-da moment at the end of the previous episode becomes even more clear. How long has Tommy been planning to use the Epsom Derby to wipe the board of all but his own pieces? That’s why he had John plan the bomb at the house of the Black-and-Tan commander, to relocate Campbell’s desired location and get Campbell off his back and create a necessary distraction. That’s why Tommy bought a horse. That’s how he wants to destroy Sabini once and for all: by using illegal violence to steal his gambling licenses, and the legal system to get those permits for Shelby, Ltd, a respectable company thanks to that import/export license Churchill granted.

And it all takes place at a race that Wikipedia describes as “Britain’s richest horse race,” one attended by the king, where the wealthy get the box seats and the foot soldiers are lucky if they can place the equivalent of a two-dollar bet on a horse that’s fixed to win. Because the fix, of course, is always already in.

Whereas Tommy refused to get his hands dirty in the previous episode, this week he goes all in on both violence and the threat of violence. The scene with Alfie Solomons is pure delight. (Okay, the whole episode is pure delight.) Tommy’s war record, and the fact that everyone around him agrees that he doesn’t fear death, means Solomons truly worried that Tommy would blow them all to kingdom come. Watching Tom Hardy move from relaxed (“I’ll bet that [phone call] is for you”) to concerned (“Tommy, I’m going to fucking shoot you”) to panicked (“What are you doing?!”) is such a treat. Watching Tommy win out against a man who betrayed him just one episode ago is even more wonderful.

Because it’s just hard not to root for Tommy Shelby, no matter how much wreckage he leaves in his wake. Lizzie is a good example: she thought she’d moved beyond her non-upright work, and Tommy makes her do it again with a man known for his violent disregard for human dignity. Did he plan to use her all along, or is he making some of this up as he goes along?

Tommy tells Arthur to “Trust me, brother,” and Arthur still does, no matter how hard prison was for him. (He was holding a shiv when the warden came to let him out.) John’s faith, portrayed so well in the scene with Arthur in the previous episode, is on full display as he beats up the Sabinis. Even young Finn gets in on the action, albeit more than Tommy wanted. (A lapse of obedience reminiscent of Tommy's advice to Johnny Dogs in Episode Four: stealing one box is fine. Stealing two is too much.)

Trust is the sine qua non of Shelby life, and Tommy and Polly work out a ploy to test Michael’s faith, which is likely shaky after his incarceration. Would he take the money and run, live a happy middle-class life in the big city? Or has he fallen for the broke-down grim of Birmingham and its attendant joys? He chooses the life of crime, of course. And all its glorious possibilities.

Those are all the moving pieces, both logical and emotional, that come into play before this episode’s pièce de résistance: the tense, prolonged sequence at the Derby, from Tommy’s goodbye kiss to May to the boondoggle of killing the commander to Grace’s sudden reappearance (pregnant!) and her fraught conversation with May.

That conversation, precipitated by May’s ability to recognize Tommy’s beloved (similar to how, in some vampire mythologies, victims can recognize each other), underscored the complexity of women in this world of manly violence. It’s too facile and condescending to say that women like Polly, Grace, May, Lizzie, and Ada are pawns or victims. But because the women are not allowed to play Tommy’s game they can never quite win or lose. They’re just carried along.

When Grace storms into Tommy’s pristine plan, with its tense three o’clock deadline, she threatens to derail his intended sequence of events, but she also seems to derail his suicide mission. At that moment, when Tommy hears Grace say she loves him, he seems to swing from “willing to try but die” to “willing to fight to live.” He becomes more serious and tense after that, dismissing Lizzie’s dress because he is too preoccupied to realize how much it matters to her, this marker of money and respectability and attending something as posh as the Derby.

The scene with Campbell is equally tense, especially in what it reveals about Tommy’s view of himself and his nemesis. “Today, it’ll be me dead, or you,” he says. “But whoever it is, he’ll wake up in hell tomorrow.” Tommy does bad things and knows it. Campbell does bad things and thinks he is destined for salvation. That’s the root of Tommy’s dislike of the man, I think. He’s a ridiculous hypocrite.

Campbell’s encounter with Polly really drives that home. He actually thinks there is something between them! It is sickening, and I am glad Polly shot him and glad Tommy delegated that task to her, both for her own sake and the sake of whatever “happened to Michael,” as Tommy phrased it. Judging on my TV-morality scale, Campbell deserved to die. (Disclaimer: my TV-morality scale is different from my real-life morality scale, so don’t @ me.)

That scene—between Polly and Campbell in the phone booth—would win our Scene of the Week award if not for the horrifying, realistic violence of Tommy and Lizzie killing the commander. Tommy’s command of the situation and of himself in the ensuing conversation with Sabini was masterful. If anyone deserves to win at gangster life, it’s him.

And he does, I guess. “So fucking close,” he says when he stares at his own grave. “Oh, and there’s a woman. Yeah. A woman I love. And I got close. Nearly got fucking everything!” One double-cross later, and Tommy’s still alive, still victorious, but haunted by the Red Right Hand’s last words to him: “Mr. Churchill will want to speak to you in person, Mr. Shelby…We’ll be in touch.”


The scene of Tommy’s long walk back to the city shows just how much that threat haunts him: even with Campbell dead, Tommy can’t get out from under the thumb of Churchill and his extrajudicial machinations. But Tommy’s conversation with the faithful Michael ends this season on a different note. Hope. Optimism. Grace.

Random Thoughts

• I appreciate the narration at the beginning of this episode, not just for the fun nod to the idea that an American newspaper will be able to clean up Britain’s problems. I especially like how unreliable that narration was.

• Tommy dropped his watch in the grave—time’s up!—and didn’t collect it when he walked free. I wonder if that will be significant at some point.

• Campbell is working with a group known as the Red Right Hand. For more on that symbol in the history of Ulster, I direct you to the Wikipedia page, because it’s way too complicated to recap here. Showrunner Steven Knight talks about the way the theme song (“Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave) wound up fitting into the show here.

• I’m fascinated by how the shared experience of fighting in France allows men on very opposite sides to still treat each other with respect.

Quotes:

• Tommy: “He’s like one of those anarchists that blew up Wall Street...From a good family, too...It’s shocking what they become.”

• Alfie: “I heard they all got buried.”
Tommy: “Three of us dug ourselves out.”
Alfie: “Like you’re digging yourself out now?”

• Tommy: “Grace, I seriously have things to do.” For some reason—I think it’s the modern use of the word “seriously”—this line always make me laugh.

Four out of four horse races. I wonder who won?


And just for a treat, here’s a different take on “Red Right Hand”:



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

1 comment:

Billie Doux said...

What a wonderful review, Josie. Thank you.

It's a wow of an episode, no doubt about it. That ending at the grave was so riveting that I bought into Tommy dying, even though I knew he wouldn't. Because I kept thinking, how can he possibly get out of this? There is simply no way for him to get out of this. And then he did. Churchill has hired killers? Why was I surprised?

Tommy psyching out Solomons in that long scene in the office was so amazing, too. Much more fun than blood. Grace with her pregnancy announcement at the race track, and Tommy's reaction, was just too funny -- worst timing ever.

And Polly and Campbell. I was going, kill him, Polly! I'm used to liking Sam Neill, but Campbell was such a revolting human being that I didn't even enjoy watching him -- I just wanted him gone. He almost made Tommy look sweet in comparison, and I'm sure that was the point.

Poor Lizzie. I like Lizzie more than Grace. Or May. It's sad that Tommy didn't hesitate to use her. Although I'm certain he didn't intend for it to go as far as it did.

Thanks for getting me to watch this show, Josie. It was worth it, just for this episode.