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Peaky Blinders: Black Cats


“Look down on earth and see the seeds you have sown.”

So, do you think that crucifixion is the Most Obvious Symbolism this week? And that fathers and sons are the Theme of the Week? I wonder if those two things are related...

This episode begin and ends with crucifixions (one a scarecrow, one a real man) and sons in peril (one safe, the other not). The bible-sounding lines on the note for Tommy (see above) can be read as our actions coming back to haunt us, or as fathers looking at their sons and feeling, one hopes, some element of pride. Sown seeds, in other words, can be a symbol of the past or a symbol of the future.

Tommy talks about his past in this episode, telling Lizzie that there aren’t even words for what he and Arthur went through—and that the worst of it was that they volunteered. Is Tommy in some way punishing himself for his own past idealism?

There’s the past that’s closer to home, and closer in time, too: after last week’s killing of the investigative reporter (not by order of the Peaky Blinders), the cops are looking to Tommy for answers. He may not have killed that man, but he’s killed plenty others. Can all that violence really stay buried for long?

There’s also the future to look towards. When Tommy realized he was standing in a minefield, he thought about setting one off and dying in a fiery explosion. Then Charlie came running, and Tommy saved him. This is the second time this season we’ve seen Tommy actively contemplate suicide. Even Lizzie brought it up, reminding Tommy that she’d take over whether he died by his own and or someone else’s.

There's plenty going on in the present, as well, as this season establishes a variety of Big Bads: the Billy Boys, maybe Michael, Oswald Mosley, maybe the IRA, and definitely Tommy's damaged psyche (and Arthur's).

The crucifixion of the scarecrow was a threat. That threat was realized at the end of the episode, when the Billy Boys crucified Aberama’s young son Bonny. I’d be curious to know your impressions of Aberama: I like him quite a bit, mostly because I like Aidan Gillen quite a bit, but also because he makes Polly happy. And if he makes Polly happy, then I want him to be happy, and the loss of his beloved son has obviously broken his heart.

And mine. Not that I loved Bonnie as a character, but because it’s such a horrible death, and it seemed—to both me and to Aberama—to come out of nowhere. The Billy Boys threatened Tommy but went after his most isolated comrades. A sign of weakness? Or a shot across the bow? At the very least, it’s a big entry for one of this season’s Big Bads. They even have a catchy theme song.

Speaking of Big Bads—not to mention fatherhood and children—Michael’s back home. Just think of the past few weeks he’s had: he lost all of his family’s money in the stock market, took a long sea voyage, married to his pregnant girlfriend on a boat, was nearly tricked into doing a deal with the wrong kinds of Scots, and then abducted by the IRA, who used Michael as a pawn to trick Tommy into owing them a favor.

Don't trust him! Not in a camel coat!

Just in case the IRA and a bunch of sadistic singing Scotsmen aren’t enough, there’s Oswald Mosley, fascist prig. He knows May Carlton. He’s pretentious about whiskey. He treats waiters badly. And, from what I understand, his name is very well known even today in Britain, although of course I had never heard of him until the season of the show, because I cannot reiterate enough that my general historical education was horrifically flawed. The show does a great job, though, of communicating just how squirrely he is in only a few scenes for those of us who don’t have much prior knowledge.

However, Mosley’s presence raises the question that I’ve asked a few times in these reviews: is Tommy a fascist? Or, more properly, why shouldn’t we think of him as a fascist, with our twenty-first-century understanding of that very twentieth-century ideology?

Timothy Snyder’s short volume On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century was published in early 2017. Snyder is a historian of eastern Europe; in recent months, he’s been back in the news explaining what the Russians are doing to Ukraine. But his 2017 book focuses on fascism more broadly, explaining twenty things average citizens can do (like “practice corporeal politics”) in order to define, through negation, what fascism and tyranny are.

Snyder is wary of paramilitaries, especially officially-sanctioned privatized military and security forces, but also extra-judicial groups like armed alt-right hate groups, who often pretend to act as an unofficial security force against leftist protests. Snyder is wary of leaders who constantly lie and deflect from the truth: “the biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.” Snyder notes that both fascism and communism grew out of “new visions of mass politics in which a leader or a party claimed to directly represent the will of the people... Both fascism and communism were responses to globalization: to the real and perceived inequalities it created, and the apparent helplessness of the democracies in addressing them.”

Another historian of the twentieth century, Richard Overy, saw more than a “fear of globalization” in the roots of fascism, communism, and (eventually) the outbreak of World War II. In his book The Twilight Years: The Paradox of Britain Between the Wars, he describes the 1920s and early 1930s as about fifteen years of unadulterated anxiety about the prospect of another war. All the psychoanalysis, all the political back and forth—all the various madnesses of that era—can be explained by horrific fear, all the more horrific when we remember that it was not misplaced.

Overy’s thesis matches Tommy’s psychology. He, like many of the men around him, is doing everything he can to avoid another war, in part because he’s still reliving the Great War in his head and in his dreams. He’s reading Freud, for goodness’ sake! (Really, I’m pretty sure that Steven Knight has read at least a few parts of Overy’s book.)

But Snyder’s thesis problematizes the idea of Tommy as a perpetual underdog, haunted by his own past, a sort of morphine-fueled Robin Hood, because Tommy runs the Peaky Blinders much like a fascist organization: he refers in this episode to his fear of someone “coming for my crown.” He tells Lizzie that “everyone needs me.” He demands absolute submission from his followers, and everyone is either a follower or an enemy. (Just think of Finn telling the singer/footballer “You’re a Peaky Blinder now.”)

At the level of politics, Tommy has the police force under his thumb (another version of privatized security). He’s supplying military vehicles to India (anxiety about globalization, but also a focus on the mechanization of governmental, colonial power). He’s a Socialist MP who is ratting out fellow leftists to the mainstream of British political powers, he’s two-timing the Communists with the Torys, he's doing the dirty work of various lords.

I mention all of this not just to understand this episode, but also because this show is hard to review in our present reality. It’s hard for me to praise the brutal beauty of the opening scene, when Tommy machine-guns a minefield in a flurry of fire, in the middle of yet another spate of mass shootings in the US. It’s hard for me to root for Tommy’s politics when I remember that he gained his seat in Parliament through voter fraud and intimidation. It’s hard for me to sympathize with Tommy when he has become a man with a huge amount of power who still thinks the world is out to get him and so he ought to punch (or shoot) first.

Writing about the fourth season, I was able to think through the show’s juxtaposition of stagey, beautiful violence with its message about how ugly violence is for the psyche. Watching this fifth season, I’m caught in a trap: Is Tommy a fascist? If not, how can the show rehabilitate him enough that he doesn’t seem like one anymore? Peaky Blinders makes a valiant effort this season to recuperate Tommy, although I’m not sure it entirely succeeds. I want it to succeed, though, and I’m trying to help make that happen in these reviews.

The Jorts to Tommy's Jean.

And now I want to talk about Arthur. In this episode, he schools Finn in choosing a path of nonviolence, but also coaches Finn in the basics of intimidation (with the singer/footballer who is going to help them fix games matches.) He intimidates Michael and Gina when they arrive at the station and he supports Tommy during his confrontation with those young rascals. He does all of those things well. Good job, Arthur!

But his failed attempts to communicate with the two people closest to him remind me, once again, of the theme of fathers and sons. Specifically, Arthur's relationship with his father.

In the Garrison pub, Arthur and Tommy speak only briefly about how Tommy is doing. Arthur knows a bit more than he ought to, since Linda has been chatting with Lizzy. Arthur claims he doesn’t know anything, he barely listens when the women talk, like they do... but the one thing he is concerned about is that Tommy isn’t sleeping. His tone in that scene is so hesitant, trying to find a safe path to walk through what he knows could be an emotional minefield. (Making minefields the Second Most Obvious Symbolism.)

Arthur is trying to say: “I know you are hurting and I want to help.” But, as Tommy says elsewhere in the episode, “they haven’t invented the fucking words” for what he is experiencing—they don’t have the vocabulary of psychotherapeutic compassion that permeates our own lives, nearly a hundred years later.

In that scene, I see a glimpse of Arthur’s own interactions with his father back in Season One. That episode was a fascinating glimpse of being an adult child of an alcoholic, as Arthur swung from servile glee at gaining his father’s approval to utter despair at realizing he meant nothing to his own father. Anyone who has known an alcoholic knows the difficulty of having those rough conversations, like the one Arthur tries to have with Tommy about his state of mind.

In that Season One episode, Arthur switches his loyalty from his father to Tommy, which can also mean that he switched those behavioral patterns from one person to another. Even all these years later, Arthur is still struggling to negotiate his submission to someone who can be, in fact, quite brutal. Someone for whom Arthur is perhaps more "useful" than "loved." For that reason, Arthur wants to help but is afraid he’ll be attacked for helping.

We see that pattern come into play in Arthur’s scene with Linda, too. Tommy was able to identify his own problem with communication and connection: that there are not yet words to describe his problem. Arthur, who is not as brainy or well-read as Tommy, doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know.

Instead, he keeps trying on various roles with Linda, looking for the one perfect attitude that will fix their marriage. In the previous episode, he asked for her acceptance but didn’t receive it. In this episode, he tried to bully her but couldn’t bring himself to do so.

To be clear, I’m not saying he should have bullied her. But I am pointing out that Arthur knows there is a problem—so, so many problems—and he keeps trying to fix them in the same broken ways: violence and intimidation in his professional life, various role-plays that mask true communication and connection in his personal life. Something has got to give.

Distilled for the Eradication of Seemingly Incurable Sadness:

• Arthur on Fashion: “Your coat. It’s like you’re a camel, right?”

• Mosley: “Where do you stand on the Irish question, Mr. Shelby?”
Tommy: “Never been asked it.”
Mosley: “Then perhaps it's time you were.”

• After saving Charlie from the minefield, Tommy stops to smoke a cigarette and checks to make sure his hand isn’t shaking. It isn’t. This will matter later.

• In the previous episode, Tommy mentioned that the Shelby foundation funds orphanages. Here, Tommy and Arthur give some coins to young kids in Small Heath. The show repeatedly portrays acts of charity for children, both small and large, this season. I think it’s meant to show us a glimpse of some tiny amount of good the Peaky Blinders do. I’m not sure it’s enough.

• The IRA captain who spoke to Tommy is named Captain Swing. If that’s a nom de guerre, then I love it. I love it even more if it’s just a regular nom.

• Polly’s gonna be a grandmother.

• I wonder who the real “Black Cat” traitor is?

Four out of four black cats, although this episode, like the previous one, felt like a huge amount of set-up for a very complicated season.

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

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