Peaky Blinders: Season Three, Episode Six

“Make it safe and I’ll go on.”

I try to avoid following a plot-based structure in my reviews. It feels too much like a recap, and organizing by character, theme, or even effects before causes usually makes me feel more like I’m writing and less like I’m transcribing. But this episode has the insane propulsion of a tsunami, and this review can’t help but ride the wave.

The word “safe” occurs throughout this episode. The quote above is from Tommy as he digs the tunnel. But the first time he says it was in his speech about the Grace Shelby Institute for Orphans (aka the “uninsured children of the poor,” because they didn’t like euphemisms as much in the 1920s, I guess). Tommy wants to keep the children safe. But doing that—keeping all children, but especially Charlie, safe—requires putting everyone else at risk.

Because no one is safe in the world of Peaky Blinders. A child-raping priest demands an office in The Grace Shelby Institute. Friends and lovers may or may not betray the Shelby clan. Arthur and John wind up killing six innocent men. Polly can’t prevent her son from “crossing the line,” and maybe she shouldn’t, given what was at stake. And, by the end, Tommy puts every single member of his family, aside from Charlie the toddler, into prison in an attempt to keep them, and himself, safe. But how is that safe?!

I get ahead of myself, though. Director Tim Mielants uses the camera to astonishing effect throughout this episode, especially in the reception at the Institute: the constant circular pans and close-ups emphasize the claustrophobia of those sorts of gatherings at the best of times, as well as the disorientation that could lead to the most lowkey kidnapping I’ve ever seen. Lowkey until Tommy figures it out, that is. You know things are bad when Arthur must calm Tommy down (which I think is a sentence I've written before).

As Tommy has gotten more powerful, the emotional stakes of this show have gotten more ambiguous. I’ve written previously about the glamorized violence, but we might also consider the glamorized power. Should we be rooting for a criminal who is perhaps the wealthiest man in Birmingham? Who got that wealth through means more foul than fair? Showrunner Steven Knight anticipates and pushes back against that resistance, though, by creating increasingly evil villains. It’s simply impossible to root for the orgiastic Russians or the pedophile priest or the vast mechanisms of state that they represent and pervert.

Because the root of Evil Priest’s plan is a desire for the British to stop diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union, and that’s why they have to blow up the train, and that’s his excuses for needing all of the Russians’ jewels, and that’s why he thinks that a random Odd Fellow deserves a Fabergé, because Tommy is up against people who are convinced the world owes them not just a living, but ugly expensive eggs that symbolize some of the worst excesses of wealth (see below for more of my hot take on Fabergé).

It’s all a question of crossing the line, though, as Tommy and Alfie Solomons discuss in my favorite scene in the episode. Alfie, whose sciatica is acting up (really?) brings Tommy not one list or two lists but three lists. Because of course he did; it’s only natural that his lists would be as circular as his speech.

Alfie did cross the line when he sold information to Section D, although he looks offended when Tommy suggests it…up until Tommy reveals that Section D kidnapped Charlie. The look on Alfie’s face says everything, and I love how the director comes in for a close-up. Alfie says he knows but he clearly didn’t. (And he does eventually own up).

The face of a man who realizes he has crossed the line

It took Tommy a while to suss out that it was Alfie who betrayed him: romantic betrayals seemed more plausible to him than bromantic ones. He questioned Arthur about Linda. John about Esme and her cocaine habit. And, most heartbreakingly, Polly about her sexy painter boyfriend. It’s “even odds,” Tommy thinks, that an educated man like that could never love a woman like Polly. He believes it. And for a few horrible hours, so does she. (My heart broke for her in that scene. Helen McCrory broke my heart.)

Interestingly, Tommy clearly doesn’t know about Michael’s girlfriend, who gets an abortion later in the episode. Michael is better at hiding things than everyone else in the family, isn’t he? He’s always been something of a dark horse, and he went through a transformation in this episode: he shot Alfie’s bodyguard and stabbed the priest. He also abandoned his girlfriend to tend to “family business.” He is no longer pretending to be on the side of the righteous, and the bizarre look on his face when he returns home to Polly, blood still visible, is disturbing.

In opposition to the word “safe,” the language of damnation, hell, and death recur throughout this episode. In his conversation with Tommy, Alfie says that he himself is “damned” and “he who fights by the sword dies by it.” He tries to remind Tommy they aren’t that different, blasting his self-righteousness straight to hell: “How many fathers, right? How many sons, yeah, have you cut, killed, murdered, fucking butchered, innocent and guilty, to send straight to fucking hell, ain't ya? Just like me?” Later, Arthur, who has started drinking again, asks John, “Who wants to be in heaven when you can be sending men to fucking hell?”

Those conversations occur before and within the mid-episode climax, when Mielants cuts between Tommy in the tunnel, Michael fighting the priest, and Arthur and John about to blow up the train with six innocent men inside. The power dynamics in each of those conflicts is so complex: Tommy is getting what he needs to save his son and what he is owed by the Russians anyway (so we think); Michael is getting vengeance and protecting Charlie from harm; Arthur and John are following through on the “family first” ethos that gets the Shelbys both into and out of a lot of trouble. What’s the line between innocent and guilty, hell-bound and otherwise, in a world like that? The show's villains are clearer than its heroes, of which there might not be any.

Maybe Princess Tatiana has it right. She asks Tommy, "You would never steal from your family, would you?" But Tommy does: he steals his family's freedom in the name of safety. So maybe she is more correct in her parting words: "At home, these jewels saw way worse. That's why they are all cursed. As are we, Mr. Shelby."

Bearing that in mind, I wonder if we can think of those vulgar eggs as the Symbol of the Week if not the Symbol of the Season. They represent the illusion of safety, the wealth and power that Tommy craves so he never feels trapped in a tunnel again. But ultimately they’re useful, empty symbols not of safety but of the sort of power that damns both owners and owned to hell.

As Tommy pays off everyone in the last scene, he yells at Polly: “This is who I am. And this is all I can give you for what you've given me: your hearts and your souls.”

This is a new twist on something he said to Grace in the season premiere: "It’s business. It’s bad bad business all around. And I’m scared…And this is how I am when I’m scared. It’s unfamiliar to you but not to me. I can—I can fucking be scared and carry on. And it’s not pleasant to look at and it’s no joy to be around…I’m sorry for being busy in my head."

How much things have changed! After yelling at Polly, Tommy starts to yell at everyone: "Those bastards are worse than us...and they will never admit us to their palaces no matter how legitimate we become...you have to get what you want your own way." The camera briefly cuts to Curly, who looks as horrified as I felt at Tommy's shift from scared to self-righteous:

Curly, who is never wrong, is horrified.

Curly’s reaction reminds us that this is not really what we or Tommy should be rooting for. Class resentment just reifies class stratification. You cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s Fabergé eggs. Any attempt to do so is just what Alfie called out earlier in the episode: cutting, killing, murdering, butchering, all of which end in damnation.

Tommy doesn't see that anymore, though. “You will all get your money in due course,” he says as his family is taken away in handcuffs. It doesn’t seem to occur to him they might want something else.

Four out of four hot takes on fancy eggs, with some moody Radiohead to help us feel our feelings:



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

2 comments:

Billie Doux said...

This episode is nuts. Exceptionally tense, gripping, edge of your seat. The train, the kidnapping, the baby, Michael and the priest.

Josie, what a terrific review. The key to Peaky Blinders is definitely the gradation of evil. As much as Tommy (and Cillian's incredible eyes and amazing acting) draws me in, I don't like the Shelbys at all. Having them fight against even worse evil makes them somewhat sympathetic.

magritte said...

Yeah, Peaky Blinders is a little like the Borgias that way.