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Peaky Blinders: Heathens

“A sport between gentlemen.”

Sometimes I watch this show and just giggle with the pure joy of getting to see such a perfectly made thing.

Take, for instance, the chain of conversations that anchored this episode: Michael told Polly that she needed to pull herself together, because without her, Tommy was off the rails. So Polly pulled herself together and had a nice talk with Tommy, in which she gave him some advice about Abarama Gold. Tommy then talked to Abarama Gold about what he wanted (for his son to be a boxer), which clarified all the crazy posturing Abarama had engaged in at Charlie’s yard. Then, Tommy arranged a boxing match at his factory, which gave him a chance to re-bond with Arthur, which allowed him to finally have a real conversation, also with Arthur, about death, the afterlife, and poor John.

Only once that happens—only once Arthur and Tommy are brothers again—does the iconic theme song, which had been absent for the entire episode, finally start up.

And let’s just take a few minutes to consider John. Prior to the start of the show, he was impossibly young when he served in WWI. When we first met him, he was newly widowed and unable to take care of his children. Then, an arranged marriage with Esme that turned out better than anyone expected. Lots of violence, lots of tension between his family (with Esme) and his brothers. And now he’s dead, shot on his own threshold, all because of Tommy’s rage against the Changrettas all those years ago.

John’s death also gives the show an opportunity to explain the phrase “in the bleak midwinter,” which all the Shelbys who served say whenever they think they’re about to die. Trapped behind enemy lines and waiting to die during the war, Jeremiah suggested that they sing “In the Bleak Midwinter.” They didn’t die, and they now see every moment since then as “extra.”

It’s the explanation we’ve always wanted for Tommy’s fearlessness (or what he thinks of as fearlessness, despite how often he is scared), his recklessness, and his propensity for violence. Nothing matters, since he lost his faith. Nothing matters, since he lost his hope. It’s all just filling time until his time comes.

(It’s so interesting to think of how that sort of filler action—not wasting time but manufacturing arbitrary goals to fill it—is socially constructed. In the 1920s, Tommy wants power and he gets it through gangster violence. What would the equivalent be today? How is time-filling culturally constructed? Would he create a conspiracy-theory YouTube channel just for the clout?)

Polly now sees herself as like Tommy and the other veterans. She survived the noose. Everything is extra and she has nothing to lose. Her stance, though, is always more moral than Tommy’s. She draws more lines than he does, which also means she’s always still a bit of a wildcard. She’s seeing auras, too, and it might not just be the “prison tablets” (such a perfect name for opioids, huh?). Interesting, Tommy’s mother had the same mystical streak.

Ada, on the other hand, is a wildcard of a different sort. Her past political activity means she is now suspected of planning a “revolution in Birmingham,” which I’m sure felt very real to the people in charge back then, and now feels like the stupidest fear ever. That means the Shelbys are once again under threat from shadowy government forces.

They’re not the real threat, though. At least not right now. After the Shelbys vote for intrafamily peace (with two votes for truce through abstention, because they run family meetings like board meetings) they declare war on the mafia. Vendetta, we are told, is both “eye for an eye” and “we take two of theirs for every one of ours.”

On Team Shelby, or at least subbing in, is Abarama Gold, who is so frightening that even Johnny Dogs is horrified that Tommy has brought him in. Played by Aidan Gillen, who should just use his real accent so his struggles with every other accent stop distracting me from his otherwise excellent acting, Abarama is yet another wildcard. His back and forth with Charlie and Tommy about the yard and the bet and the boxing was so masterful, especially the way Tommy called his bluff but then let the mood ease by declaring a late Christmas. But just as young Charlie is Tommy’s weakness, and Michael is Polly’s weakness, is Bonnie Abarama’s weakness?

Maybe yes, maybe no. At the very least, Bonnie Gold gave us our Symbol of the Week: the boxing match between the heavyweight and the welterweight. It’s the little guy who wins, and not only because no one expects it: he’s also just very, very good.

That sort of “sport between gentlemen” emerges as a guiding principle throughout the episode. We see it when Tommy and Abarama have their pissing match. When Tommy uses the funeral as a snare to trap on-the-make Italians. We see Linda break the rules when she dismisses Arthur in front of everyone, but we see the gentlemen’s rules emerge again in Tommy’s disclosure to Jessie Eden that he wants the general strike to happen because the chaos will be his cover.

And we see that sense of sport—blood sport, of course, since this is Peaky Blinders —in the spectacular confrontation between Luca Changretta and Tommy. They stake their claims, they make their moves, and they agree on the rules of the game. The question we’re left with is whether the heavyweight (the mafia) can be taken down by the scrappy kid from the wrong side of the tracks.

I’d say it’s 60/40 odds in his favor.

Bits and Pieces:

• This Week in Curly: “Well, now [Tommy’s] got the Americans after him, he’s a bit hard on people…They call them the mafia…There’s 15 of them, yeah, they want to kill us all, but we got guns and grenades and Polly’s back, so it’s gonna be okay, yeah. I’ll get the horse.”

• Hey, it’s May Carlton! She’s wonderful. And I am so amused that Tommy clearly called her in to protect his prize horse from the mafiosi, and that Curly more worried that May will use a crop on the horse than that the entire Shelby clan is camped out in a self-created warzone.

• Do you think Polly and Michael will ever make it to Australia?

• Charlie and Johnny Dogs arguing about how to make Christmas dinner in a junkyard with steel poles that Charlie forged himself may be the greatest scene in this entire show.

• Adrien Brody did such a wonderful job channeling Marlon Brando that I think all the characters in this show should speak like that for the rest of the season.

This episode is obviously four out of four boxing matches.

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

1 comment:

Billie Doux said...

Josie, that's such an interesting point about the reason for Tommy's lack of fear, and about filling time. I've often wondered what I'd be doing in other time periods and other circumstances.

So Michael lives! Two cast members would have probably been too much. When is Polly going to internalize that Michael is Tommy's clone and not like her?

I love Adrien Brody's Godfather impression. It has to be deliberate.

And I missed Small Heath. It's so gray and black and smoky and ugly, like Hell.