Peaky Blinders: Season Two, Episode Two

“We’ve been home a long time, Arthur. Been home a long time.”

What motivates Tommy Shelby?

When I first watched Peaky Blinders, it was in a madcap binge (unfortunately scheduled just before stay-at-home orders), and that question didn’t occur to me until the fifth season, which gets into some complicated political philosophies. But, even with all this intervening time, I’ve never quite figured out the answer.

Tommy’s a striver, that’s for sure. He gets knocked down and he gets up again; they’re never gonna keep him down. Indeed, this episode begins with him battered and bloody—bad enough to pay for a hospital—and winds up with him celebrating the reopening of The Garrison, bedding a pretty lassie, and waking up the next morning to start it all over again by looking over his books.

But: why? The celebration at The Garrison was Tommy at his best, glad-handing his people, coaching Arthur on appropriate cocaine usage, and generally being the Big Man of Birmingham. But he never seemed to enjoy it, and the episode lingers on Tommy burning Grace’s letter more than on his valedictory pub reopening.

Peaky Blinders suggests, I think, that the answer to the riddle of Tommy Shelby is best solved by looking at his foils: Campbell, Sabini, and Alfie Solomons.

Of the three, Campbell is my least favorite, which is no knock on Sam Neill. Campbell plays the Irish against each other while messing with working-class folk in Birmingham, but his only real power is as a proxy of British imperialism as personified by Churchill. Campbell is motivated by revenge, and weirdly enough he always thinks he’s punching down when really he’s boxing above his weight class. He represents both a real threat—the threat of the law against criminals—and a bogus threat, as it’s hard to imagine this show could ever let him win. Especially when Tommy runs circles around him so easily, as with the letter to Churchill, one veteran to another.

Then there’s Sabini: a weak and petty man, a dandified caricature lifted from an as-yet-unwritten James Elroy novel. He wants power because he doesn’t deserve it. His only code seems to be hot-tempered rage and self-righteousness. Like Campbell, he represent both a threat (he’s winning the war in London and has the police in his pocket) and a mere obstacle, since he lacks the sangfroid that Peaky Blinders holds up as the glamorous gangster ideal.

But then we get Alfie Solomons, a vet like Tommy, played by the delightful chameleon Tom Hardy. The scene between Solomons and Tommy was beautifully tense: Solomons toying with the drawer on his right, Tommy calling him out on the gun he knew was inside, and Solomons pulling a gun from the drawer on his left. Was Tommy outgunned? Literally, yes. Symbolically, a bit, likely because of the injuries incurred from his encounter with Sabini.

I mean, Tommy’s eye started bleeding the conversation with Solomons was so tense. His eye started bleeding. And Solomons offered him a hankie.

A hankie!

Tommy is always the smartest man in the room, except when it’s Solomon’s room. His name evokes the wise King Solomon, who suggested cutting a baby in half, just like Alfie Solomons talked about cutting his cabinet in half. I think that’s his motivation, too.

No, not destroying cabinets. Rather, Solomons wants to use his skills to their utmost; he doesn't want power but rather accrues power because of his intelligence. That makes him a true threat to Tommy, and possibly a fascinating ally in Tommy’s expansion plans.

(I need to say it again: A hankie!)

Tommy’s willingness to be partners with Solomons—true partners, since it seems unlikely he’d ever win a war against the man—might help clarify his motivations. Tommy wants power, but not just for the sake of dominating others. He may want to security that power offers.

Or at least the ability to provide security to others. Tommy may have given Ada and Polly houses to hide his money, but it’s worth mentioning that he didn’t seem to give his brothers any property. Tommy wants to be the patriarch his father never was, and to help those that he thinks can’t help themselves.

Whether he’s right about that is something this show does address: is Tommy right to refuse to let Polly have access to her son? It’s a tough call, since Tommy himself doesn’t really ace that encounter, either. Was he right to tell Arthur to stop taking the sedatives? Probably not, but Tommy needs his best weapon “fast, not slow.”

But that reliance on violence brings us—as this show often does—back to the war, to Tommy’s work as a tunneler, to the “soldier’s moment.” Tommy has been home from the war, and he “shut the door on it,” as he says to Arthur.

Except Tommy hasn’t stopped fighting and hasn’t stopped digging. Everything is a battle with him, a constant “war for peace” (as he described the Irish Civil War in the previous episode) even though he can’t ever be at peace since he’s so used to being at war.

Is that it? That’s his motivation? A version of post-traumatic stress disorder in which, instead of flashbacks, he creates new and real situations akin to those he lived through at the Somme and at Verdun? It’s a difficult bind, as that means we shouldn’t root for Tommy’s victory against Campbell or Sabini, shouldn’t root for his expansion plans to London, but should instead root for him to stop fighting and truly come home.

Scene of the Week:

• Ada kneeing a Peaky Blinder in the crotch just as the opening bells of the theme song ring.

Random Thoughts:

• The four-day journey to London, with Tommy cared for by Curly, was a beautiful montage of healing, solitary plotting, and camaraderie, set to the dulcet tones of PJ Harvey’s “Under the Ether.”

Peaky Blinders only occasionally leans into (stereotypes about) Tommy’s Traveler heritage, but his need to get out of the hospital and onto the open water seemed to echo Esme’s need for trees and chickens in the last episode. Of course, this is Peaky Blinders, so Tommy was really traveling from one industrial wasteland to another. Camden Town looked as grim as Birmingham; the accents were the only real difference.

• Those waterways from Birmingham to Camden Town are fascinating: in an era before freeways, freight and people could, and did, travel along canals and rivers. All with a shout-out to Heathrow before it was an airport! So different from today’s roads (and the relationship of driving to the police state, which was quite a different thing in Tommy Shelby’s day).

Quotes:

• Jeremiah: “I’m not family. I’m saying nothing.” There is so much built into this line—race, kinship ties, tradition, even the war—that I’m astonished at how good this show is.




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

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