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Peaky Blinders: The Company

“There it is. The revelation.”

...in which Tommy takes a vacation, Alfie visits Margate, the Shelbys finally get a chance to celebrate Christmas, and Arthur makes a successful speech.

This Entire Section is about PTSD, and You May Want to Skip It:

I recently read a review of Stephen King’s newest novel, Billy Summers, that explained “it pays only the scantest regard to the rules of narrative structure...[a]nd it’s his best book in years.” That book, which is indeed quite good, explores the effect of what is clearly war-induced PTSD, although it is explained as such. Throughout, we can see that the titular character’s present-day actions reflect and refract his experience in Iraq, representing the Freudian compulsion to repeat trauma in order to attempt to move past it, even though the main character never seems to realize it.

I could say all the same things about both this episode and about Tommy: this episode meanders, throws out the rule book of narrative structure (it has more endings than Lord of the Rings!), and, above all, shows the effects of PTSD.

It was pure serendipity that I rewatched this episode the same week I read King’s novel, because both defy traditional narratives and, in doing so, imply a connection between frustrative narrative momentum and PTSD itself. If PTSD is repetition—re-experiencing but also re-enacting trauma—then it is also a defiance of narrative progress. We echo rather than speak, we recreate rather than create.

But we do so within the passage of time; PTSD, as understood by Freud, Stephen King, and, apparently, Steven Knight, is not Groundhog Day, in which one man develops as the world around him stays the same. It is the opposite: PTSD is being stuck in one emotional gear as the world around us changes.

That is what happens to Tommy. He…won? He defeated the mafia. He killed Alfie. He has more money than he knows what to do with. He finally earned a vacation, and that’s when it all hit. That’s when he began to relive the war.

It could have been a breakthrough, a realization, an opportunity to move forward, as Tommy realizes how much help he needs and finally tries to get it. (Good luck in the 1920s, but still.) Instead Tommy moves backward, back to the striving and fighting and scheming, trying to get power—trying to be Goliath—so that he doesn’t have to reflect on what life was like back when he was just David with a good cause and a little slingshot. His hunger for power is a band-aid on cancer that he thinks is a cure.

I wrote in my review of the middle episode of the show, “Blackbird,” that it represented Tommy’s stuckness, his refusal to realize that he could return to his pre-war idealism. We see his tyranny as a coping mechanism, but he sees it as the only logical path forward in the “extra” time he has.

The result is a show that could be, in some sense, spinning its wheels, with each season showing a more involved or more powerful adversary for Tommy to eventually defeat. Indeed, on my first time watching the show, I think that’s how I would have described the totality of the first five seasons.

But now, thinking about the psychological work of Tommy’s character, I’d argue that there’s something bigger going on here. We can be distracted by the (admittedly, still appealing) lather-rinse-repeat quality of ever-expanding crime and corruption, but this episode clearly indicates that the real story of Peaky Blinders is not just flashy gangsters ordering people around. It is, instead, all the emotional damage that motivates that violence. This is not a classic tragic reveal story, in which a man gets to big for his britches and must fall. This is a story of someone who has already fallen. At this point, we’re just waiting to see if he realizes he can get up.

(Never let a TV review impact your mental health. If you found any of the above material triggering, please remember that we know so, so much more about PTSD and how to treat it these days. Here’s a page with resources for veterans, and here’s another for the general population.)

Meanwhile, Speaking of Distraction, and Let’s Not Forget Arthur

Steven Knight tricks me every time. As I mentioned in a previous review, I should never forget that this show started with Tommy playing a trick on Small Heath (and, in the same episode, Knight tricking us with Tommy Whiz-Bang's purported death). This season I was already tricked by Polly's apparent betrayal, and in this episode Arthur's death...it seemed so real!

Rewatching it, I can see how the lack of dialogue between Tommy and Polly immediately after Arthur was attacked was an obvious dodge, but that's Knight tweaking our sense of the expected: wordless trauma with an overbearing soundtrack is a dime-a-dozen technique. We expect wordless, visual grief in modern cinema and TV. Knight used our narrative expectation against us.

That revelation is even more fun (or maddening if you don't like being messed with) when we remember that the Big Lie of Arthur's Death is intercut with shots of Bonnie's victory. Bonnie planned to win in the fourth, and he pulled it off. His victory was both intended (by the Blinders) and improbable (by everyone else's standards). At first, I thought it was a juxtaposition of success in the ring and failure backstage. Later, I realized it was all spectacle. But, like so much of this show, spectacle with a purpose.

At the macro level, of course, the whole “flashy gangsters moving up in the world” thing I just discussed above is, in fact, the purposeful spectacle hiding this show’s real plot: Tommy’s recovery from PTSD.

And not just his. Arthur’s Christmas-in-July speech emphasized that they were returning to the post-war normal: “As you all know, Arthur Shelby is dead. Because of that, Tommy's offered me a way out. A new identity. Start a whole new life for myself. And I've thought about it. Made a decision. I ain't fucking going nowhere.” It’s a sweet speech, in a way, as Arthur is choosing to stay with family. And it’s a horrifying speech, when we remember that violence is also Arthur’s way of trying to block all the trauma he has undergone.

Tommy and Alfie

My love of this bromance is no secret, and this episode is a fabulous culmination of their tense camaraderie between these two very similar, very different men. From their conversation in the opening scene (“So you’re moving to Margate then?”) to their duel on the beach, Tommy and Alfie—not to mention Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy—are one of the best pairings put on screen.

Alfie, of course, did betray Tommy. We saw that in the previous episode. But this episode explained why: Alfie betrayed Tommy so that Tommy would kill him. Because Alfie doesn’t want cancer (specifically, cancer that may have been caused by the war) to do the job. He wants a good death, a ritual slaughter, a chosen death from a man he considers an equal. No matter how weak Alfie may have felt, I assume he only winged Tommy on purpose—just enough to push Tommy to shooting him in the head.

(I felt so bad for the dog, though. I wish Tommy had taken the dog. His name is Cyril, and he deserves better.)

Are You Serious?

Tommy claims he shook hands with the devil and walked past him, but he seems to have been slipped a note by Ol’ Nick: Tommy is now working in government and spying on the Communists. So, that’s what we’ll be dealing with next season.

Distilled for the Eradication of Seemingly Incurable Sadness:

• Linda’s doing cocaine now. That is not Quaker approved.

• My goodness, they actually checked to make sure that all of Alfie’s henchmen were circumcised. I’m glad we didn’t have to see that.

• Michael is being exiled to New York.

• I love how the Shelby reunion fulfills the tension from the season premiere, “The Noose,” in which Tommy tried to hold a Christmas party but didn’t have any real family willing to show up.

• Tommy’s explanation of his state of mind was “I know what this is. It’s just myself talking to myself about myself.” Along with “I’m sorry for being busy in my head,” this is one of Peaky Blinders quotes that I can easily use to describe myself.

Tommy Shelby golfing was set to Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” and I think all golf should now be set to that song. I’ll get the trend started here, because this episode definitely deserves four out of four Fore[s]!

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

1 comment:

  1. Josie, I love your reviews, and I love this one. Congratulations on finishing season four.

    Goodbye, Alfie. What an amazing character, and wow, did Hardy make me laugh. And what an absolutely gorgeous gun fight on the beach.


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