We linger on a shot of a stag. A creature that is the symbol of power and Alpha-male ‘Lord of the Manor’ masculinity.
And you know it’s about to die.
Yep. BANG. A creature of majestic dominance in its natural surroundings is felled, all as an act of remembrance for Tommy’s dad, the deadbeat swindler we met back in Season 1.
It’s an act of memorial, but by the time the credits roll we’ve come to realise just how powerfully symbolic that moment is. That stag, all horns and steaming flanks, is the avatar for Tommy’s story this week. It doesn’t matter how successful you are, or how much testosterone is wafting off you, you’re not too big to be brought to the ground.
‘When there are no rules, women take charge’, purrs the Duchess Tatiana, and in doing so she hits the whole theme of the episode on the head. As this season has rolled on, Tommy’s grip on events has become weaker, and in the gaps of Tommy’s grasp, people have snuck in. This week it’s the ladies prying control away from the head of the Shelby clan.
Arthur’s God-fearing wife Linda leads the disgruntled ladies of Small Heath in strike action. And not just any strike action. It’s strike action in super-stylish slo-mo. Their walk down the street is outrageously shot, like a Marks & Spencer ad for a range of gangsters’ molls Autumn-wear. In any other show it would be ridiculously OTT.
But this is Peaky Blinders – OTT was found dead, garroted, in an alley years ago. Here that walk is fabulous, but it’s principally fabulous because it’s backed up with solid character work.
We’ve barely seen any of Linda but she quickly establishes herself as a thorn in Tommy’s side. Her sweet piety sheathes a razor-sharp mind. When Tommy meets with her she runs rings around him, first upping the cut Arthur will be getting from the tank robbery, and then telling him that she and Arthur will be moving to California for Quaker work. Not making the delicious breakfast oats, but taking part in the religious movement.
It’s a scene that shows the power she has over the family through Arthur, and also her disdain for porridge. She’s no Aunt Pol, but in the shadow of Grace’s death it’s a relief to have another strong female voice who isn’t there simply to be bent over a desk or win a shouty argument against.
Contrary to her, Duchess Tatiana feels like a character of little substance, dropped in to titillate and thrill with her lingerie and bizarre antics. Her mad ranting leaves us just as confused and off-balance as it does Tommy. Gaite Jansen plays lunatic-rich convincingly, but her character’s place in the story jars as much as Tommy sleeping with her does. For God’s sake man, you just buried your wife.
With the crazy rantings of Tatiana and The Last Shadow Puppets’ ‘Bad Habits’ ringing in his ears, Tommy goes to kill the man of particularly bad habits: the child chasing Father John Hughes. Here is where I, and no doubt you, encounter the Considine Quandary.
I do love Paddy Considine – you can never watch enough of the man – but he does such a good job of making Father John Hughes utterly repugnant that I look forward to seeing his character killed. But then that would mean there’d be no more Considine in it… See the problem?
It’s not going to be solved this week though. In one of the show’s most brutal scenes (and that’s really saying something), two of Father Michael’s thugs beat the bejeezus out of Tommy, culminating in them snapping something inside him. God only know what. It’s a rare piece of brutality articulated entirely in sound and, I mean this as praise, I never want to hear again. I’ve taken paragraphs to lay praise on the show’s sound designers before, but that cartilaginous howl is their new magnum opus.
Held together with just cocaine and the clothes he’s wearing, he’s made to apologise to Father Michael and recite contrition in front of the Russians. Cillian Murphy trembles and sweats and barely holds back the vomit, and you suffer every second with him.
It’s the sort of dismal scene that draws you right in, like another guest at the table, so that you can’t take your eyes off it no matter how much you’d like to look away to the silverware.
He’s bleeding internally. His skull’s fractured. Like that stag, he’s been brought down. Suddenly he can’t see anything except his dad, suggesting he’s at Death’s door and wiping his feet on the mat. We’re left lingering on the shot of Tommy Shelby; a man of power and Alpha-male masculinity. And you just hope he’s not about to die.
Of course he won’t. Right? He’s no stag. He’s not going down like a sack of nutritious porridge oats. But it’s a strong drama that can slide that thin blade of doubt between what you’re watching and what you’ve read in next week’s TV guide. And this was strong, in a way that previous episodes haven’t been.
Season 3 hasn’t been as taut or coherent as its predecessors, and as a result it’s been that little bit harder to stick with. But if you have been sticking with it, tonight was the night that it proved your time’s been well invested.
Aired at 9pm on Thursday 26 May 2016 on BBC Two.
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