Peaky Blinders never knows when enough is enough
Review: The violent, sulphurous period gangster drama is back to cut up our screens
Thomas Shelby played by Cillian Murphy. Photograph: Robert Viglasky
Few TV series can boast an end to match the wreckage of season three of Peaky Blinders. After blowing up a train, doing a triple- or even quadruple cross, and being complicit in the jailing of his own family, Thomas Shelby (a flinty Cillian Murphy) seemed to be king of an empire of one.
As season four opens, the family are being lined up to face the noose en masse (ever the stylish show, one of Peaky Blinders’ execution chambers is completely spotless and looks like it’s been given the once-over by Farrow and Ball in Justice Grey). But there, at the breathless last second, is Tommy to save the day again, pulling in a favour from the king of England, but not without sticking two fingers up to the establishment by also demanding an OBE. Well, they’ll give those to any old gangster these days.
The year is 1925, the place is Birmingham, and the violent, sweary, sulphurous Peaky Blinders is back to cut up our screens. Rarely has the glorification of gangsters been more stylish or more gripping. But after last season’s plot pulled in everyone from British royalty to the Bolshevik revolution, how can this season raise the stakes? With a spectre much more familiar to crime-addicted TV fans: our friends in New York.
Luca Changretta (a slick as silk Adrien Brody) is waging a vendetta against the Shelby clan, for the murder of his father and brother, the latter of which was deemed not good enough to date Lizzie. He delivers a “black hand” to the family in the shape of an elegant, threatening Christmas card (Peaky Blinders would never stoop to something as gaudy as a fish in a newspaper).
The family, though, has already been shattered by its near-death experiences. The whole arc of Peaky Blinders is Tommy and his brothers’ devil-may-care approach to life being the result of their experiences in the trenches and the chips on their shoulders.
But here, after facing certain death a second time, John and Arthur (Joe Cole and Paul Anderson) are barely pretending the good life in the countryside suits them. Michael (Finn Cole) has developed a cocaine habit. Polly (Helen McCrory) is addicted to pills, and sees dead people everywhere.
There’s more to the show than style. The cracking script often drips with poison. Ada (Sophie Rundle) advises Tommy to head to John’s house for a party to try and heal the rift, and to bring his son along: “They can’t pull a razor with babies there, not even Esme,” she quips.
Tommy, locked into his own bitter circle, waves away Ada’s appeals to reform his life with: “Sex, freedom or whiskey sours. Which one should I give up first?” And when the prospect of reconciliation is raised with Polly? “I’m still a match for him,” she spits towards the fire. “Mum – the word is like a bullet to me.”
If that wasn’t enough simmering tension, the Bolshevik Revolution is threatening to erupt on the Shelbys’ factory floors, with shop steward Jessie Eden (Charlie Murphy) leading the march.
Mere manoeuvring, though, would never be enough for Peaky Blinders, a show that, much like its protagonists, never knows when enough is enough. So they cap off a pulsating first episode with the Italians making their first move on Christmas Day. A gun attack on John’s house leaves John and Michael riddled with lead.
The first blow has been struck. It’s time to go to the mattresses. Gang-Brum style, indeed.