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Peaky Blinders: Blackbird

“Do you recognize the boy in the photograph?”

Showrunner Steven Knight’s original plan for Peaky Blinders was seven seasons. Thanks to Covid, that has since been amended to six seasons and a movie. But I think it’s still very worthwhile to watch this episode through the lens of its intended placement within seven seasons of six episodes each. It is exactly halfway, and that makes the revelations about Tommy’s past, and how he thinks about that past, even more meaningful.

Tommy, after all, makes a huge decision in this episode. After Jessie Eden reminds him of his first love (Greta), his first passion (he was a member of the Communist party), and his first identity (caring, sweet, innocent), Tommy waxes nostalgic for the first time…ever? And then he does three things:

First, he takes Lizzie to the canal where he used to meet Greta, and gives Lizzie the tiniest glimpse into his past life. Then they have sex.

Second, he tells Lizzie he wants to fund even more social projects, especially for destitute children. (Let’s not forget that Tommy grew up without shoes, as he said earlier this season. That was the impetus for his leftist politics before the war).

Taken together, these two events hint that Tommy is turning a corner, moving away from his power-hungry pragmatism and back to his more compassionate, even romantic, roots.

But then the third thing happens. Tommy talks to Finn about Finn’s first sexual encounter, and it’s clear what’s really going on: “Everything is for the money, Finn…You need to be a fucking man. People get tired. Working in a fucking factory gets you tired. I don’t go around apologizing, do I? There’s an empty space here to be filled. So be a fucking man.”

Tommy hasn’t returned to his roots. Like Orpheus, he took one glance back. Unlike Orpheus, Tommy decided he didn’t want what he saw back there. He was honoring Greta’s memory with his charitable endeavors, but that’s it. He is all-in on oppressing the oppressed, no matter how tired they might be. (Just as Mr. Devlin, the shop manager with three kids and a wife hiding in Glasgow.) Tommy is also treating Finn almost like a factory worker himself: he is “filling a space,” not contributing his own unique perspective to the Shelby Family Ltd. Tommy is demanding that Finn mold himself to the job, not the other way around.

That coldhearted perspective isn’t a shift but rather a confirmation that Sergeant Tommy Shelby, OBE, is sticking to his path. But the way this is framed within the episode—in light of Tommy’s past, represented by both the photograph and Jessie Eden herself—makes the Theme of the Week transformation. Or maybe, rupture.

Numerous characters articulate this, mostly in reference to Arthur’s desire, as putative head of the family, to fire the bullet with Luca Changretta’s name on it:

Tommy: “Tradition will just fuck us up.”

Polly: “Dropping the law of the bullet is part of the process of modernization I was working on before…before I was executed.”

Arthur: “Linda says it’s the modern way, Tom.”

(Even Jesus gets in on the action, via Linda, who suggests that he would approve of contract killing more than face-to-face vengeance killing.)

Each of those lines applies as much to individuals like Tommy and Arthur as it does to the social backdrop of interwar Britain. Steven Knight draws our attention to the strikes in Birmingham (and our historical knowledge that the big General Strike of 1926 is coming up). In doing so, Knight is arguing that this is the new, modern era—and that eras shape people just as much as people shape eras. This is, in Knight’s interpretation of history, a moment at which the powerful look at their power and shrug. The moment at which the powerless try, desperately, to avoid the total alienation of industrialization and dehumanization.

Tommy’s will to power isn’t the only transformation we see in this episode, though. Polly takes the wild step of betraying the family in order to protect her son. I want to believe that this is all part of some larger scheme, especially since Tommy (and the show itself) never reveals every nuance of Tommy’s Byzantine plots.

However, Polly sows the seeds of her betrayal early in this episode, when she tells Ada she wants to hook up with “someone unsuitable.” At first, it seems like a cute, personal moment between women, a type of scene we rarely see on this so-manly show. (The last one was the fourth episode of the previous season, when the women go on brief strike.)

It was all a trick, though. I think Polly was setting up her alibi for going to the bar. After all, even though they’re safe in Small Heath, every Shelby is under surveillance, and Tommy is probably tracking their movements. Polly was laying the groundwork for her night on the town and subsequent meet-up with Luca.

Are her reasons valid? Pretty much, yes. As she says to Ada, “While working for this company, I have killed a man. I have lost a man. I have found a son. I have nearly lost a son. I have nearly lost my own life.”

Do I want Polly to betray Tommy? Not at all. As Curly pointed out in the previous episode, without Polly, Tommy goes off the rails. Also, I love Polly. Also…well, we’ll just have to wait to see what happens.

I am curious about how Polly seems to have corrupted Linda, though. Not just with the Japanese silk, but with Linda’s willingness to use sex to convince Arthur to do what Jesus she wants. Linda was even wearing red nail polish, and you can’t tell me that was a popular color with Quaker women in the 1920s. Linda herself seems to have undergone a transformation. She even works in the betting parlor now.

Oh, and Arthur has taken up painting. I almost forgot to mention that.

Four out of four spotted dicks. Because the Italians are right: what on earth is that?! And, no, I’m not going to google it.

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

1 comment:

  1. Polly turning traitor was an OMG moment.

    Poor Arthur. He's a terrible human being, but I can't help feeling a little sorry for him.


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