[This is a review of the season 3 premiere of Peaky Blinders. There will be SPOILERS.]
Steven Knight’s period gangster drama Peaky Blinders is as much about atmosphere as it is anything else – and the copious cigarettes smoked by the cast create most of that atmosphere. Beyond the chain-smoking gangsters with razor blades sewn into their caps, though, the series – which began its third season in the UK on May 5 and is now available in full on Netflix – remains one of the most strikingly composed programs on television today. With its skewed angles, soft lighting, modern soundtrack (that includes P.J. Harvey, The Arctic Monkeys, and Radiohead), and love of slow motion to capture the raw, unflappable essence of the members of the Shelby clan, Blinders is the sort of stylish crime drama that you get when Boardwalk Empire and Sons of Anarchy are blended together with something altogether cooler.
In addition to its love of cool, Peaky Blinders takes a heightened approach to its various settings. Set for the most part in Birmingham, England in the 1920s, the CGI skylines are awash in smoke billowing from various chimneys. The sky is often an oppressive grey, but rarely from inclement weather. This is a world enveloped in smoke, where nothing is ever quite clear – intentions and plans least of all – and that is how Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy), the leader of the eponymous gang, likes to keep things.
Creator Steven Knight likes to keep things a certain way, too. The series has been punctuated by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ 1994 song ‘Red Right Hand’ – which has made appearances in such films as Scream and, more pointedly, Hellboy – since it first began, with the tune serving as a sort of theme song. ‘Red Right Hand’ is at its most effective whenever it is used to underscore Murphy traipsing through the hellscape of early 20th century industry. The series loves to accentuate its protagonist’s ascent through the criminal underworld by symbolically sending him back to its beginnings as frequently as possible. When Peaky Blinders started, the Shelby clan operated in pub near a steel mill that accentuated the setting and the characters’ nefarious purposes by routinely belching fire and smoke onto the cobblestone streets. The steam and smoke and flame, mixed with faceless men toiling endlessly, as petty gangsters became wealthy criminals, set the tone for the series right away, and even as Blinders enters its third season, Knight and director Tim Mielants (who handled all six episodes) is certain to use that imagery again and again.
It doesn’t pop up in the first episode, though. Instead, season 3 begins by descending into a hell of another kind. It starts with a reminder that Tommy was spared from execution by the Red Hand Gang thanks to the largess of Winston Churchill (supposedly), who had conscripted Shelby into dealings he would only learn the nature of later. The quick recap marks the perfect time for the series to do a time jump, which it does moving forward two years to the day of Thomas’ wedding to his season 1 love Grace (Annabelle Wallis).
Time jumps are usually reason to be suspicious that the series has ostensibly painted itself into a corner. Here, though, Knight uses the time jump as a way of eluding the need for too much exposition. There’s a bit of sleight of hand work at play that calls back to Thomas’ last words from season 2 in which he announced to Michael (Finn Cole) he was getting married. Back then, Thomas was also romancing horse trainer May Carleton (Charlotte Riley) and although Grace had only just re-appeared late in the season, May made her intentions and her desires known: she and Grace wanted the same thing. So Knight keeps the audience guessing as to the identity of Thomas’ bride, while the circumstances of his dealings with Churchill and the lavish new estate he lives on are allowed to trickle out as the episode progresses.
The decision is a smart one, as the episode immediately appeases the emotional question left unanswered from the previous season and lets the larger plot of season 3 build throughout the festivities of Tommy’s wedding night. And given what Churchill has gotten Tommy and his family involved in, larger is the optimum word. Season 3 sees the Peaky Blinders expanding their reach on a global scale, selling weapons to the Russians fending off the Bolsheviks and killing spies for a handsome $10,000 fee that Tommy plans to use toward his purchase of a wharf at Boston docks. So whereas the dreaded time jump has developed a bad reputation as shorthand for some series hitting the reset button, Blinders uses the time that passed off screen to create a genuine sense of intrigue and to introduce a number of new adversaries for Tommy and his gang.
One of those adversaries is the terrific Paddy Considine – who appears in the second hour as Father John Hughes – but, as is usually the case, some of Tommy’s most powerful adversaries come from within his organization, from the place he draws his strength: his family. The Shelby clan is essentially a great rumbling machine that lacks an off position on the conflict switch. This time around, Tommy’s big brother Arthur (Paul Anderson) has found a godly woman in Linda (Kate Phillips), who may have helped the rabble-rouser put aside his drinking – except for a few nips here and there – but she’s also got him pondering the moral consequences of his violent actions. It’s a dramatic turn for the character that promises conflict down the road, but also delivers conflict in the present, as Arthur’s struggles with sobriety and calm seem greater than any foe he’s faced yet.
Meanwhile, there promises to be more internal conflict from younger brother John (Joe Cole) and Michael (Finn Cole), the formerly long-lost son of Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) who became the legitimate face of the Shelby criminal empire. Hotheaded John joins Arthur as a powder keg just waiting to explode, while Michael seems to hiding something else altogether. “I put it all together, but I don’t partake,” he tells a young wedding guest eager to have a little fun before she finds herself hitched to a military man in the near future. There’s a sense of self-control in Michael the other Shelby boys lack. Tommy knows its there, too. But if Michael’s temperament is putting him in line for something greater, will it see him at odds with Tommy’s brothers if an outsider is favored over them?
One thing Peaky Blinders does well is to keep several pots simmering until such a time they all boil over simultaneously. So far, season 3 has done a remarkable job getting all those posts arranged and steaming away, while still giving the series and its characters a welcome sense of progression. Now the only thing left to do is sit back and watch those pots boil over and everything goes to hell.
Peaky Blinders season 3 is available in its entirety on Netflix.
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