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Peaky Blinders: The Road to Hell

“You, too, can be an ordinary, mortal man.”

“Can there be a sadder ending?”

For the past couple of seasons, my reviews have focused on Arthur more than I ever would have expected when I first started watching this show.

Tommy Shelby is an icon. Cillian Murphy plays him perfectly, mixing sangfroid and vulnerability to create an intimidating, nuanced character. But, despite Murphy’s astonishing acting chops and Steven Knight’s excellent writing, Tommy is an icon, not a person. He’s a sexy antihero, a symbol of rebellion against a corrupt system who follows a code of his own but doesn’t realize his own corruption. His plans are complex, his ways are devious, his heart is sensitive. He’s a type, more than a person.

Arthur is a mess, just like a real human being is. He’s alternately grandiose and broken, violent and supportive, a bad husband and a great brother, a firm believer in hell and a firm believer he will be sent there. He is different things at different moments, just like the rest of us. He makes mistakes, is often the fool, and seems to love others more than he thinks they love him.

People will remember Tommy Shelby as the face and guiding animus of Peaky Blinders, but I think Arthur is Steven Knight’s greatest creation, the one who reminds us of the real stakes of violence on both victims and perpetrators. Arthur, himself, is both victim and perpetrator. I cannot think of another character on television who has this much nuance.

That’s how we can see Arthur coaching young Duke with a smile in one scene, getting weirdly fanatical about the Gospels in the next, torturing an honest referee for the crime of not following the orders of the Peaky Blinders, and truly asking for forgiveness by the end.

There are a few different discussions in this episode about the motivations and moral stakes of violent men. Tommy explains to Mr. Stagg that he does what he does to feel the thrill of pointing a gun and having the power not to shoot it. Nelson (the Kennedy stand-in) tells Billy that he longs for his past days as a violent man, and he “misses the wave of electricity under the scalp” just like (Nelson assume) Tommy himself.

I’m not sure Tommy would agree with Nelson’s analysis of him, though. When speaking to his surprise son, Tommy says “we don’t get to choose which one we are”: light or dark. His business has both sides, but Tommy sees himself as innately dark. Earlier, he claimed he “belongs at the table with you sad fuckers” to Mosley, Mitford, and Nelson. And he seems aware of what is at stake when he caps that off with the second of this week’s lead quotes: “Could there be a sadder ending?” I can’t say Tommy is questioning his motivation. But he is questioning his actions, both past and future.

That brings me back to Arthur, who sees the referee as a victim, a veteran trying to make a life for himself after the war. (A more honest life, of course.) Arthur even quotes “In the bleak midwinter” before they kill the referee, just as though he were a Peaky Blinder himself. That is Arthur positioning himself, and all the veteran Blinders, as equal victims.

But Arthur also sees himself as a perpetrator, and he is aware that doing evil leads to real damnation (which means Arthur forces Billy to damn himself). Arthur does terrible things and is certain he’s meeting with a terrible fate, so he just keeps doing terrible things. In for a penny...

But that's been Arthur's struggle for literally the entire show, and we finally, finally, finally get some progress in the next Arthur scene, which is, for me, one of the most powerful scenes in the entire show: Linda coaching Arthur through the Act of Contrition (version two): “Forgive me my sins, O Lord, forgive me my sins. The sins of my youth, the sins of my age, the sins of my soul. The sins of my body, the sins I know, the sins I know not. The sins I have concealed for so long.” And then Arthur ad-libs: “For so, so long.”

In my review of the fifth season episode “Strategy,” I tried to pin down Arthur’s ontological self-positioning by considered the idea of “embodied psychomachia”: Arthur locates his sin in his body, rather than in his soul, as both a coping strategy and a pre-Freudian (even pre-Cartesian) way of articulating his lack of control. When he claims “these hands belong to the devil,” as he did in that episode, he wasn’t abjuring responsibility but situating it in a way that we twenty-first-century folks likely wouldn't.

In this episode, Linda tells Arthur that he will remember the prayer, one he learned in childhood: “It’s in there somewhere, Arthur. Like a song.” This line speaks to the power of what we learn as children, maybe even evokes some of CS Lewis's ideas about the inner voice that helps us understand right from wrong, and also shows us that Steven Knight is not only taking Traveler spirituality seriously this season: he’s taking Arthur’s religious faith seriously, too.

If you believe in heaven and hell, like Arthur does, then asking for forgiveness has obvious ramifications of the eternal soul. But asking for forgiveness also has a practical impact: being truly contrite and asking for forgiveness shows a path going forward, a future in which you just don’t make the same mistakes, or sin in the same way, again. Asking for forgiveness isn't receiving a gift. It's making a promise.

Arthur has been caught in a trap since the war; it’s significant that the show reminds us of France in this episode, and how that provokes Arthur into killing the referee. It’s equally significant that Arthur’s moment of contrition (I cannot say a moment of forgiveness, because who knows? Not us.) takes place in the betting shop in Small Heath, the home he grew up in once they left the narrow boat. Linda’s words, reminding Arthur of his childhood faith in his childhood home, take him back to a time before the war. A time, as we know from his conversation with Tommy in the previous episode, when Arthur would still do anything to defend his family (like waving a boathook at a bunch of coppers) but would also easily throw a fight to make his little brother feel accomplished.

I’ve written before, and will not rehash, the idea of the Bad Fan of Peaky Blinders, the folks who think Tommy Shelby is not just an icon but someone to be emulated and admired. But those ideas are in the back of my mind as I ask move to another point: the way that violent shows like this raise questions about how forgiveness works, especially how we do, or do not, forgive characters (and by implication, other people in real life).

We can explore this interplay through the light of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum that “there are no second acts in American lives” a phrase that uses the language of theatre (and therefore fiction) to describe real life. My first reaction upon reading that line, many decades ago, was that it was nonsense. Americans are all about a second act, reinvention, the short-term memory of modern culture. These days, I’m on the fence about its accuracy for real life.

But in fiction, where we can play with morality (including indulgence in vicarious immorality), and rejoice in dramatic consequences, there are even fewer second acts. For a violent character, someone like Arthur, the best we can usually hope for is a redemptive finale, in which the bad-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold sacrifices himself to save others. He learns his lesson, and there’s no second act after that, because he’s dead.

We can think through these ideas by contrasting our feelings about Arthur (assuming you share them) with the bathhouse scene. Nelson’s callous mien and flat affect—like Patrick Bateman without Christian Bale’s charisma—makes his treatment of Billy horrific, full stop. But what does it mean that we can hate Nelson but understand Arthur’s (misguided, wrong) actions? How does our empathy for a character open us up to, or shut us down from, excusing their actions, or finding them glamorous, or demanding a moral reckoning?

All of this is my way of saying that I’m pretty sure Arthur’s going to die in the last episode, and it’s breaking my heart.


Now for a big question: what do you think of Duke, and what do you think Steven Knight is doing with Duke? It’s so weird to introduce a new member of the family in the last two hours of a television show. I assume Duke is, somehow, symbolic of something and/or a part of the planned movie that should come out in the next few years. If that means that Uncle Charlie and Curly will be a part of the movie, then I’m happy. But I resented his time on screen, since I want more of the Peaky Blinders I’ve gotten to know over the past six seasons.

Especially with only one episode left! This season has been all about Tommy shifting his plans. That’s true of most seasons (especially the one with the Russians!), but it’s the unexpected events like tuberculosis and a tuberculoma tumor thing that keep changing Tommy’s plans. It all started so simply—getting revenge on Michael and getting more power, as always. But now, with only one episode left to go, Tommy is focused on wrapping up his various affairs in, of course, the most mysterious way possible.

Paved with Good Intentions:

• I keep forgetting to link to this, so thank goodness that Stephen Graham popped up again in this episode! He seems like a very cool guy in real life.

• Tommy’s hallucination after sleeping with Mitford and Michael’s dreams about Polly, featured what I assume is unused footage from Season Five: it’s cool that we see both Tommy and Polly sharing a hallucination—another example of the show taking Traveler spirituality seriously, and how haunting it was to see new Polly footage on screen.

• How tense was that bomb scene in the beginning, eh? I knew it was a real bomb. I guess the tea-shop owners don't watch the show.

• Speaking of things I keep forgetting to mention: in an interview promoting this last season, Cillian Murphy revealed that, at some point in the second or third season, he and Steven Knight realized that Tommy had never once eaten anything on camera (except for one sprig of mint with Charlie after Grace’s death). So they decided that Tommy never would eat on camera.

• He certainly had plenty to drink, obviously.

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

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