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Peaky Blinders: Strategy

"The man we’re about to meet is the devil."

The only point in Tommy’s favor in this episode is that he hates Oswald Mosley. I’m not sure that’s enough.

Sure, Steven Knight tries his very hardest (and writes an excellent episode along the way) to make Tommy more sympathetic: Tommy and Polly stand up for abused orphans. Tommy tries to calm Arthur down (but gives up). Tommy tries to make amends with Lizzie (but winds up calling her his “property.”) Tommy joins the Fascists (but for good reason!). Tommy thinks of himself as a man oppressed by people who just won’t listen to him.

It doesn’t really work. Not for me, at least. This is my big struggle with this season: it’s harder to root for Tommy than it should be. Or maybe I should say: the show thinks it is giving me reasons to root for Tommy, but they’re not enough. He isn’t getting better. He’s just getting resentful at someone we hate more: Oswald Mosley.

Mosley is fun to hate, though! He won’t do deals with Tommy. He puts his cigarette out on the carpet. He knows way, way too much about Arthur’s marriage and Michael’s family. And he’s founding a new political party (the Fascists), who have support among the wealthier members British Intelligence (as per the conversation with Younger) and among the masses of resentful proletariat men (represented here by the Billy Boys).

Tommy has never really lost a fight, so I assume he’ll defeat fascism by the end of the season, thus ushering a wacky alternate-history sixth season about what happens when Hitler goes back to making bad art and Mussolini becomes a car mechanic.

Since Tommy obviously has the whole “growing fascist threat” thing under control, we can spend more time in this review thinking about Arthur. Linda has left him; she’s staying with some Quakers in Bournville. She has a “friend.” No, she has a “Friend.” The Friends “aren’t like us,” says Tommy. “They talk.” (This made me laugh out loud.)

Arthur, of course, doesn’t talk. As the last episode established, Tommy knows enough to know there aren’t words for what’s in his head. Arthur doesn’t have that level of insight, and in this episode he presents an corporeal ontology: “inside” he is a “good man.” But his “hands belong to the devil.”

Our culture’s post-Cartesian mind/body dualism rejects an embodied psychology. We talk about the “mind” as though it is distinct from the brain, with one being psychological and the other, physical. Arthur’s perspective is almost pre-modern. He is, appropriately for the high-energy physicality Paul Anderson brings to the role, more body than mind. Or more clearly a bodymind, as postmodern, posthumanist thinking would describe it. To say his hands “belong to the devil” is both an attempt to abjure responsibility (“the devil made me do it!”) and an attempt to situate his psychology in the pre-psychological—the psychomachia of an earlier age.

None of that excuses what he does to Linda’s Friend, though. The beating is vicious. He is obviously using his razors at the end. And it’s worth mentioning that Quakers are pacifists. The Friend can’t fight back.

But it also worth pointing out how director Anthony Byrne shoots that horrific beating: the backlighting from the windows kept the Friend perpetually in shadows. We never truly see his face, and we don’t see the details of the violence. That keeps the focus on Arthur’s emotional pain (at causing pain) rather than the physical pain the Friend undergoes.

The result is a scene that is visually striking and emotionally something of a dodge. We know intellectually we should hate Arthur for what he does, but the show foregrounds his struggle rather than his victim’s anguish. Just as this episode wants us to think of Tommy as fighting a good fight (despite all he has done and continues to do), it wants us to be sympathetic to what Arthur is going through, not what he is putting others through.

This scene is part--a small part--of why the attempted rehabilitation of Tommy just doesn’t quite work for me in this episode. Tommy has some responsibility for Arthur’s action. In Season Three (I think), Tommy discouraged Arthur from continuing to take a sedative to regulate his moods. Tommy needed him “fast and sharp.” In this episode, Tommy gives in and tells Arthur how to find the Friend, not because he thought it was a good idea, but because it was most expedient for Tommy’s own plans to get the violence over with, and because Tommy was upset at the idea of someone daring to divorce a Shelby.

As a result, Tommy is driving me crazy, because he thinks he’s struggling with the world, when really he’s struggling with himself and letting others get caught in the crossfire. Perhaps I’m more sympathetic to Arthur because he’s so obviously struggling with himself—in that one way, he is more self-aware than Tommy. That’s all my own personal reaction, though. Results may vary.

Anyway, the use of mise-en-scene to create a desired audience reaction in the Arthur scene becomes more obvious when contrasted with the later scene in which Aberama pours hot tar into a Billy Boy’s mouth. It’s clearly lit. We see the guy (I assume his name is Billy) experience everything. It is excruciating, a classic Peaky Blinders moment of allowing us to both cheer for the doer (Aberama, getting vengeance) and be horrified at his deeds. There's no moral complexity. Just hot tar and revenge.


The most violent scene of all, though, is one with no bloodshed: Polly and Gina, cutting each other with words, glances, and—sharpest of all—cheekbones. I dislike Gina, even though I like Anna Taylor-Joy. Gina is fun to dislike, because she's the opposite of an audience surrogate. She doesn’t see Polly the way we see her. She doesn’t care about family loyalty to Polly or the Shelbys. She’s in it for herself and for Michael. It’s fun, in a way, to see this show craft a completely unsympathetic female character.

Distilled for the Eradication of Seemingly Incurable Sadness:

• Oswald Mosley: “I think we’ll make quite the team. The pheasants won’t know what hit them.”

• Tommy: “The only way to get fired from this household is through burnt toast or talking to the police.”

• Charlie, upon hearing Arthur’s request for hand grenades: “Jesus, it’s like it’s normal!”

• Curly, upon hearing Arthur’s request for hand grenades: “How many?”

• I loved it when Tommy told Michael to sit and smile, Arthur to stand and scowl. I’ve always wondered how cool-looking bad guys know how to pose in various movies and TV shows, and it’s nice to know their secret: the top baddie gives them direction.

• Karl, Ada’s son, is a racist little jerk.

• Johnny Dogs, though, is hilarious.

• Jesse Edens thinks Tommy is a literal champagne socialist. Oh, if only she knew.

• Tommy keeps hallucinating Grace, and I keep forgetting to mention it.

• I’m catching up on some Outlander episodes this week, and all I could think of during the final scene, with Jimmy McCavern exulting in the possibility of gang warfare, was that Jamie Fraser would not approve.

Three out of four Lady Libertys, I guess, because although this episode is one excellent scene after another, I'm not sure they're adding up the way Steven Knight wants them to.

Here’s the Anna Calvi cover of “Lady Grinning Soul” that plays over Arthur’s big fight scene:

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

1 comment:

  1. Why does Arthur do what he does? Because it's all he knows? I remember being a lot more interested in Arthur this season.

    The violence in this episode is way too much. And way too real.


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