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Peaky Blinders: Dangerous

“The man you are waiting for doesn’t exist.”

Season Four of Peaky Blinders has been awfully withholding of its iconic theme song, giving us just a few seconds in the first and second episode. That’s appropriate, since Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” is Tommy’s song, and it’s Tommy’s identity that is up for grabs this season.

In the previous episode, we saw Tommy confronted with a choice: return to his past, compassionate nature or stay the course with his oppressive rise to power. (He chose poorly.) But that choice…I’m not sure it was even a conscious choice on Tommy’s part. Rather, it was an implicit choice that the show made explicit to us, the privileged viewers.

This episode shows us how the other characters view Tommy, and the results are mixed. Johnny Dogs asks Tommy if he “still know[s] what end the bullets come out” of a gun. Alfie Solomons wonders if Tommy’s testicles, wrapped as they are in his O.B.E., may have fallen off. Abarama Gold says maybe Tommy has been pushing paper for too long. Mr. Devlin calls Tommy a traitor to his class. Even Charlie tells May Carlton that the man she is waiting for doesn’t exist.

Those sentiments may seem like variations on a theme, but there are crucial differences in the nuances. Johnny is suggesting Tommy is out of practice with the violence, but he’s not saying Tommy is against violence. Alfie is calling Tommy out on his class ambitions, suggesting that an O.B.E. is emasculating, which tells us a lot about Alfie’s view of masculinity, and dovetails a bit with Mr. Devlin’s idea of Tommy as a class traitor, forgetting where he came from. None of those men, though, are suggesting that Tommy has gone soft. (Okay, maybe Abarama is suggesting that, but that’s Abby for ya.) For the most part, they are only suggesting that he has become removed from the nitty-gritty of violence and power.

Tommy defines himself in his own terms: “I’m not a traitor to my class. I’m just an extreme example of what a working man can achieve.” He also calls his gin “distilled for the eradication of incurable sadness,” so there's that. But it’s not a hobby. More of a venture.

May, acting as an audience surrogate, wants to see the best in Tommy, but is struggling to do so. Throughout the episode, she waits for Tommy, unable to decide whether or not to join him in the hotel suite. By the end, she has given up. She was willing, back in Season Two, to fall for the gangster with the heart of gold. Now she looks at him and sees someone who is too heartless and too obvious in his social climbing. (When Tommy reiterates that he got a hotel suite, not just a room, the look on May’s face as she says “Thank you” is so perfect. She sees that it’s a gesture meant to be seen as meaningful, despite how little of a financial sacrifice it means for Tommy, and she seems to have some upper-class disgust as his working-class striving pretension.)

Charlie says May’s version of Tommy doesn’t exist, and I’ll be curious to see if he is proved right. Time and again, we’ve seen the Peaky Blinders trapped in impossible circumstances, only for Tommy to improbably save the day. I still hope, like May, that Tommy might save himself, and that the ambiguity of how others see him is a hint that his flaws aren’t fixed.

TLDR: Tommy’s gin, which is either too sweet or not sweet enough, is obviously the Symbol of the Week.

“Dangerous” doesn’t belabor the contrast between Tommy and Arthur or Tommy and Michael, but I think it’s worth dwelling on. In the previous episode, I noted that Tommy was treating Finn like a cog in a machine: Finn’s job was to fill the empty space left by John’s death. This week, Finn told Arthur that he isn’t John and doesn’t think he can be. Arthur’s response was quite sweet: he still sees Finn as a person, a brother with a distinct character. Arthur has more heart than Tommy. (Even though his theory that they don’t decide who lives and who dies is logically suspect.)

Michael, on the other hand, is just as puzzling as Tommy’s gin. He knows Polly made a deal with Luca, and he doesn’t know what to do about it. So what does he do? Either nothing or everything, depending on how you read his interaction with Tommy in the hospital. “Have a good weekend” sounds innocuous, until you think about how unusual it is for the Shelby clan to utter such banal sentiments. Was Michael trying to clue Tommy into the trap he was walking into, while still retaining plausible deniability about betraying his mother? (In her comment on “Heathens,” Billie asked, “When is Polly going to internalize that Michael is Tommy's clone and not like her?” Billie is always right.)

The juxtaposition between Tommy and Luca may help us suss out some of these issues with Tommy. I don’t think we can call them character foils, because Luca and Tommy are too similar. Both are family men, and for both, the word “family” can be used in the Mario Puzo sense of the word. Polly claims that men can’t handle conflict between families, but that’s basically what the mafia is known for. And Luca’s visit to Michael was obviously meant to stir up dissent within the Shelby ranks. Does he want Michael to destroy his deal with Polly so he can kill more Shelbys?

Luca isn’t just Tommy’s dark shadow, though. He regularly provides commentary on how Birmingham life works. In “Blackbird” it was the idea that Shelby men can hate forever, just like Italians. This week, Luca claims that “everything here is about the war.” He’s more right than he knows.

Speaking of foils: let’s moon over Tom Hardy’s Alfie Solomon for a few minutes. Or, rather, let’s let Cillian Murphy do it for us. He’s a fabulous actor, but in some of his scenes with Tom Hardy he looks like he's about 30 seconds away from breaking character and bursting into giggles. Sometimes, that's incorporated into the show itself, as in this shot of Tommy watching Alfie and Abarama play out this sequence:

Abarama: "Who the fuck are you?"

Alfie: "Who the fuck am I?"

Abarama: "Who the fuck is this?"

Reaction Shot: (you may want to zoom in on his face)

Looking back at this season so far, not a lot has happened since John’s death, but each episode has kept me on the edge of my seat. This season feels like the show coming into its own, allowing breathing room to enjoy the secondary characters (like Alfie, Charlie, Abarama, and May).

But there are also a few patterns that I’m noticing now, on rewatch, that I didn’t see before, and I want to end by highlighting the most interesting one: Tommy’s ambivalence about the “communists” winning. On the one hand, he doesn’t seem to care who’s in power as long as he has power. But twice now, he has wound up changing his approach based on what others have said. A few episodes ago, Tommy quoted Ada’s statement: “I have it on good authority that the Bolsheviks couldn’t organize a picnic.” In this episode, he seems to take Mr. Devlin’s fears to heart, and send Ada to offer Jessie Eden a deal. It’s rare that we see Tommy so obviously change his approaches in response to other people’s ideas.

Distilled for the Eradication of Seemingly Incurable Sadness:

• This Week in Curly: “While you’re waiting for the man who doesn’t exist, would you like to try some of his gin?”

• This Week in Adorable: Real-life couple Charlotte Riley and Tom Hardy just missed each other in Small Heath, and provided very different opinions of Tommy’s gin.

• This Week in Blatant Self-Promotion: If you like Tom Hardy, you might enjoy my review of his television show Taboo.

• This Week in OMG Moments: Lizzie is pregnant! I wonder if she knew that when she was being mean to May?

Four out of four bottles of gin.

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

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I am indeed always right. :)

    Michael. Wow. I think he's going to regret it.


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