Men in (Long) Black (Coats)

Fans like me around the world waited patiently since 2014. In those longs months of waiting, the only bright notes had been HBO’s Game of Thrones on Sunday evenings and The Killing, a Netflix series starring Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnnnaman.

At last on May 31st we’ve sprang into action again in Birmingham, UK, as the third season (six episodes) became available at Netflix. The year is 1922. WW I is over, Great Gatsby hair styles and dresses are in, everybody smokes too much, and Europe is busy celebrating and enjoying peace once again, when not mourning the fifteen million plus dead.  But peace is not something The Peaky Blinders are used to, even in the aftermath of the First World War. It’s not what the viewers want for them or from them. The Peaky Blinders thrive in turmoil; constant trouble makes us come back for one more episode yet.

Peace is not what the fans expected and counted on either when season III opened with a highly anticipated celebration. Thomas Shelby’s (Cillian Murphy), the Peaky Blinders’ head (brains actually) wedding day. The gang’s muscle are brothers Arthur and John Shelby. Finn Shelby, the baby brother (chubby and short in season I, back in 2013) is still too young for us to know whether he’ll join the muscle or the brains in the anatomy of the immensely popular BBC show. Kids grow fast, and especially so in the somber environment of working-class Birmingham,  against a backdrop of  dark houses and streets,  where no green grows and the cobbler stones in the pavement shine on your TV screen under a fine constant rain. Muscle and brain aside, there is also the feminine Shelby touch, provided by aunt Polly (Helen McCrory), strong and stubborn as ever, but more refined this time; suddenly in love with her own reflection in the mirror, dressed like a grand dame. A dress from Paris?, asks her new admirer, an artist who wants nothing better than to paint her portrait because he never before saw “a face so full of contradictions.” So deep in love with her new image is Polly – a woman of class and substance, to use the artist’s words – she became careless and is making mistakes that may cost dearly to her nephew and boss Tom Shelby.

Back to Tommy Shelby’s wedding night, the identity of the bride is kept secret until the very last moment; her face covered as she enters the church and walks to the groom. The blonde or the brunette? We were left wondering as the last episode of season II ended in 2014. There was a woman, Thomas, whispered to himself, looking up to the sky, savoring a last cigarette before his execution by IRA operatives, standing on the edge of the grave dug for him. And she loved me and I got close… Actually, there were two ladies in that position, Mr. Shelby – we Peaky Blinders viewers are like the North in Game of Thrones – we don’t forget.  Two women had told him they were in love with him. With different words and under different circumstances. I remember every line and scene as if I had watched it last night. And I had been betting on the blonde, considering the past she and Thomas shared. Cheering for the brunette, though, as she appeared to be a more noble person.

Just because Thomas Shelby’s life was saved at the very last minute in season II by a British agent who promised him Mr. Winston Churchill would be in touch soon, it doesn’t mean his troubles are gone. On the contrary. Thomas hates his new lack of freedom and the way the Crown is now even spying on his telephone lines. The war is over, Thomas Shelby is a hero, but the Romanov dynasty in Russia has been decimated by the Bolshevik and somehow a few representatives of the royal family ended up in England, being helped by the government – allegedly – and, somehow, against his own will and intentions, Tommy finds his business intertwined with the affairs of Russian refugees. Aristocrats, posing as nearly bankrupted and paying for his services with impressive gemstones. One in special, a huge blue sapphire, finds its way to Shelby’s wife, to be worn in a gala party. A cursed gemstone, a member of the Russian family reveals. Cursed by a gypsy. So what, the Shelbys are half-gypsy as well, right? Tommy is a horse whisperer, if you remember that from season I. He can talk to animals in the ancient Romani tongue. Gypsy curses are not his major worry as Tommy is trapped again in a maze of secrets, betrayals, and corruption, when all he ever wanted was respectability and independence… The Scotland Yard on his neck, the Russian aristocrats, the Russian spies, the local communists… And we thought the IRA and the local cops were giving Thomas Shelby a hard time last season… Don’t trust these people, Tommy’s wife whispers in his ear; the kind of whisper only a gypsy heart can hear. One last comment about his wedding night: Tommy wishes to please his bride that evening more than anything – the evening has to go flawlessly.  Therefore, quick meeting in the kitchen of his new and fabulous home to distribute strict instructions to key guests, his brothers and friends members of the Peaky Blinders:  absolutely no fighting, no gambling, no drugs, no violence tonight; don’t drink to the point of losing your head (did you hear that, Arthur Shelby?), play nice, be mindful of the bride’s family members. Thomas shouts his commands in the center of a circle of young men as if they were disciplined soldiers. Ha! As if that could be possible…Watch what happens next!

Thomas Shelby still walks facing the ground – long black overcoat flapping behind him (the long overcoats worn by Tommy, Arthur, and John Shelby top the elaborate elegance of their attire), huge blue eyes hidden by the woolen cap, a thousand things burning in his brain as the furnaces in the factory he is touring. He needs to pay a visit to the foreman. There is this particularly large storage room – large enough to accommodate heavy weaponry (really heavy) – to which Tommy needs access. From there he goes see the Russian aristocrat who wears a chest full of medals, does not pay his bills, and devours caviar as if the world was ending tonight. The Russian aristocrat’s niece is a handful too; pretty, spoiled and twisted. Tommy still speaks sparsely, asks more questions than answers, the shadows only leaving his face when the wife is around. When things take a bad turn, Thomas Shelby hops on a gypsy cart with his old friend Johnny Dogs and rides from Birmingham to Wales, to consult with a gypsy fortune teller – the businessman in him never really erased his Romani background. For an individual who has serious issues with rogue authority figures, be them corrupt police officers (Sam Neil played the best villain a cop could ever be in seasons I and II) or the bad priest in this third season (father Hughes, played by Paddy Considine), despite owning a medal for bravery in the war (which he tossed away), after saving a bunch of his comrades’ lives, is a pool of contradictions. Like Aunt Polly’s face. It’s hard to be Thomas Shelby.

Here is UK’s The Independent on Thomas Shelby: “Too many glossy TV dramas lack that powerful, gripping subtlety, but (Cillian) Murphy helps make Peaky Blinders a rare exception. Tommy is a criminal and his brutal behaviour is not softened up for appeal, but Murphy’s charismatic performance, along with masterful scriptwriting, means you find yourself rooting for him regardless.”

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/peaky-blinders-season-3-why-you-should-catch-up-on-seasons-1-and-2-ahead-of-the-may-release-date-a6979186.html

And as if trouble with the Scotland Yard and the Russians were not enough, the rival Italian gang is back. In my teens, American movies on Italian gangsters dominated the big screen – to me the realm of organized crime belonged to the Mafia only. Never knew of gypsy-English gangues and a most noticeable difference is the role women play in The Peaky Blinders versus The Godfather. There’s no trace of the Italian women’s well-behaved recalcitrance, silence and, ultimately, resignation. The Peaky Blinders ladies are as explosive as the men in their lives. John’s gypsy wife Esme (a marriage arranged by Tom by the way, and which seems to be working) is every bit courageous and bold; Aunt Polly and Shelby’s new wife – who are not very fond of one another – follow the same pattern. Arthur’s wife Linda (don’t be fooled by her quiet and soft manners), knows just how to order her husband home in the middle of the night, when he was supposed to be fighting Italian gangsters at one the Peaky Blinders clubs alongside younger brother John. Powerful Linda. Ada Shelby, the only sister among four brothers, after marrying a communist agitator who was killed at some point between seasons I and II now raises her kid named Karl (in honor of Karl Marx, her late husband’s idol) is feeling restless at her present job as a librarian. She misses some action as much Esme misses traveling with her gypsy family. Ada, you used to hunt rats with a pistol, Thomas Shelby recalls, setting the scene for the job he is about to offer his sister. Just like in the Italian Mafia plots though, family is everything for the Shelbys.

As we all know no family is a rose garden. Arthur Shelby, for example, has always been a bit suspicious of the close relationship between John and Tommy. Arthur is now jealous too of Michael, the once-stranded son of Aunt Polly, who went to accounting school and seems very influential on the family business. Michael is the legitimate piece of the business, Thomas explains to make amendments with Art. We need to keep him clean so the business can be legitimate. And so we can be respectable. Somehow, someday… Or is it on their tombstone that the name Shelby will ever be, if not respectable, at least in peace? Anyway, to make Art Shelby even angrier but much to the fans’ delight, on episode # 4 we have an old acquaintance back: Alfie Solomons (Thomas Harding, from The Revenant just to mention his latest big hit).

Summoned by Tommy for a meeting in the house, Alfie’s presence is as enigmatic (the confusing language he uses is just one of his weapons) as we remember from season II. Unpredictable, intelligent, imposingly large and pale, with a reddish long beard that makes Harding almost unrecognizable under a wide brim black hat, Alfie Solomons, Jewish businessman and gang leader from Camden Town was once a potent enemy of the Peaky Blinders. Before Solomons and Shelby united against the Sabini – the Godfather guys. Arthur Shelby still can’t stand him and his discomfiture amuses Alfie as they sit side by side in Tommy’s impressive office discussing the Russians. Alfie Solomons too has good reason to dislike everything about the foreign aristocrats except their Faberge eggs.

But the thing is, as Grace – Tommy’s girlfriend – used to say in season II whenever she was to deliver a bombshell line – were the Peaky Blinders respectable and their business legit, chances are I would still be craving for a good show to watch after Sunday’s Game of Thrones. Were they respectable and their businesses legit, BBC would not have renewed the show for a 4th and then a 5th season. We root for the bad guys this time just because they look strangely a lot like the good ones. When ordered to shoot an elderly Italian lady from their school days, John Shelby refuses. He defies Thomas’s command because Tom is over his head with anger and pain, blinded by his craving for vengeance, and, mostly, because “that’s not who we are.” That’s it! Right there, John Shelby gave me (and viewers around the world) permission to keep on cheering for their family. Explosive and violent – not cruel though – the Shelbys surely are. Theirs is the saga of the underdog striving to win a spot under the sun. Good, I just convinced myself I can keep on cheering for the Peaky Blinders!

 

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