‘Peaky Blinders’ review: Season 3’s opener wasn’t as gripping as the show can be

Unashamedly swaggering back into the Thursday night BBC Two drama slot that still has the cordite smell and police tape of Line of Duty hanging around it, you might think Peaky Blinders has big boots to fill.

But Peaky Blinders doesn’t give a fuck about boots. It’s striding in, sitting down, taking off its razor-blade lined cap, and plonking its dirty great hobnails on the table.

Although it seems like it’s now wearing a better class of boot, and not just because everyone’s dolled up for Tommy’s wedding. It’s 1924 and the Shelby family are demonstrably doing well for themselves. Cillian murphy’s Tommy has apparently upgraded from his smoky terraced hovel and now lives in a house, a very big house, in the country, and has a big painting of himself and his horse, #squadgoals.

He’s also got a wife. Two years after he ended Season 2 with the shock announcement ‘I’m planning on getting married’, we rejoin him on the day he’s getting hitched. And who could it be but Grace (Annabelle Wallis), the woman who, last we saw, was pregnant with his child. He’s fulfilled his plan of making an honest women of her. Well, as honest as you can get, marrying into the Shelby clan.

Peaky Blinders 3 1 Ruben Oliver (Alexander Siddig)

Surrounded by Cavalry Guards, Tommy plans on having a wedding free of his usual clandestine activities, and tells the Shelbys to behave, in a profane speech that also acts as a reminder how much swearing this show has in it. Am I misremembering, or is there suddenly more? I’m all for a bit of effin’ & jeffin’, but Peaky Blinders uses ‘fuck’ as another form of punctuation. It goes periods, commas, fucks, exclamation marks, question marks.

A well-placed profanity can be devastatingly entertaining – any time Aunt Pol (Helen McCrory, being five shades of fabulous) lets one out from between the cigarette drags, for instance – but it feels like it’s all being overused now. After some excellent dramas over the past year, where we’ve been shocked, moved, and elated all without salty language, Peaky Blinders kicking the door in and yelling ‘fucking yes!’ feels like a teenage kid trying to prove himself a grown-up. I don’t know, maybe I need to re-acclimatise to it.

There’s that aphorism about swearing being a weak mind trying to express itself forcefully, but Peaky Blinders isn’t not a weak-minded show in any respect. Writer Steven Knight certainly makes sure it isn’t.

Peaky Blinders 3 1  Aunt Polly Gray (Helen McCrory)

Despite Tommy’s warning, soon the wedding descends into an event that betrays the family’s roots, and the show becomes a sort of down n’ dirty Downton. There’s horse racing and bare-knuckle boxing to bet on (crumbs, most people are happy with a chocolate fountain), and when his taught buttocks aren’t quivering in the gaslight, Tommy is dealing with a Russian who isn’t all he says he is.

It turns out Tommy’s been working for Churchill, selling weapons to Russians who are fighting Bolsheviks. It’s the Reds vs the Whites. Peaky Blinders is doing GCSE History. And just like when I did GCSE History, Tommy’s worrying that he’s in over his head.

The Russian turns out to be a Red and an impostor. Arthur, who’s reigned in the drugs and drink, found himself a nice lady and God, in that order (and in doing so has created an even more interesting character for Paul Anderson to play) is ordered to kill him.

Cue the kind of thing that we do watch Peaky Blinders for: a beautifully constructed montage of fighting, sex, and death. One that shows this is a family enjoying the excesses and excitements that come from being in a position of power.

Peaky Blinders 3 1

The Shelbys may be in a different location, may have a lot more cash in the safe, but they’re still the stock we remember. The repercussions of that montage are bound to ricochet around for the rest of the season. You can take the gang out of Small Heath, but you can’t take Small Heath out of the gang.

As they return to the industrial miasma of Birmingham in the final minute, I didn’t realise how much I’d missed the fire and grime of Small Heath, and how much that location adds to the character of the show. If this opener felt like it was lacking something (and it did) then maybe it was this place. It was a bold move to reacquaint us with the Peaky Blinders in a completely different setting than we’ve been used to.

Maybe it was the location, but even with mention of some troublesome Russians, it didn’t feel like there was enough of the immediate threat and struggle that we’ve associated with these characters as they’ve clawed their way up to power. It wasn’t all as gripping as the show can be.

The Shelbys are currently at the top of their game. Tonight’s Peaky Blinders, though beautifully shot and filled with strong performances, wasn’t quite. But we’re only at the opener. There’s plenty of time yet for the show to raise both its game and its red right hand.

Sorry, its fucking red right hand.

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Aired at 9pm on Thursday 5 May 2016 on BBC Two.

> Buy the complete Season 1-2 box set on Amazon.

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  • kram girse

    i watched season 3 opener with anticipation, but agree with Smedley that it lacked something…maybe it was Birmingham, or too much Sopranos values or the two year gap in time that, for a layered, linear tale, didn’t quite work, played down the interplay between characters, rushed into something obvious and out of character, or maybe its the influence of the Weinsteins who may have encouraged the Show Runner to lose his way and skip a few steps…well there is always room for flashbacks and flash forwards to make up for this stutter step episode. But it’s already in the can and a fait accompli….