[This is a review of the Peaky Blinders season 3 finale. There will be SPOILERS.]
If you had your doubts as to whether or not Tommy Shleby was actually the devil, then the season 3 finale of Peaky Blinders might help sway you toward a confirmation. It's a shocking end to a season that was full of surprising moments and sometimes confounding double-crosses that gave a necessary edge to an experimentally large plot held within a familiar story structure. That's not a knock on the series; as the third season demonstrates, the show can spin an entertaining yarn whether it's about the rise of a scrappy family of lawbreakers who aren't afraid to get their hands dirty or the same clan having ascended to the top of the criminal food chain. But no matter how you cut it, stories about expansion have some serious drawbacks, as they often dilute the elements that made the series so appealing in the first place.
At times throughout season 3, Peaky Blinders seemed cognizant of this. The expansion of the setting from the soot-covered, cobbled streets of Birmingham to a Downton Abbey-esque palatial estate was jarring in an exciting way. It was evident in the plot, too. The shift in focus from the misadventures of a localized gang of criminals to the same group's involvement in an international conspiracy concerning Georgian aristocrats and corrupt priests working for the British government doesn't feel like a Peaky Blinders story; it felt like the series was wading into waters in which it didn't belong. But at the same time, it isn't necessarily a misfire: the show assuages some of the major concerns by making the unsuitableness of the storyline part of the text about class and social structures.
The season revolves around the notion of social classes and empires, and how they rise and fall with a startling sort of predictability. As the show suggests, over time, empires become too big, too corrupt, and too complicated to sustain themselves and eventually, they collapse. It's why Steven Knight positioned the ascendant Peaky Blinders against the disposed aristocrats seeking to reclaim their throne. At the same time, the season expresses its fears of expansion by teaching Tommy a powerful lesson about the other sharks skulking around in criminal waters – especially when those criminals are the ones involved in governmental plots with massive geopolitical implications. Essentially, Peaky Blinders embarked on a fish out of water story by moving outside its own comfort zone and taking the risk of expanding too much and too quickly. There are times when that risk appears to have paid off – as with the sudden and shocking death of Tommy's wife Grace, and again at the season's end, wherein Tommy lets the cops drag his entire family off, telling them, "I've made a deal with people even more powerful than our enemies," which is of tantalizingly little comfort to the other characters or the audience.
At other times, though, the risk made it seem as if the season had lost the thread. The plot, involved the government's machinations to use the meteoric rise of the Shelby family as a way to implement its plan to cut off diplomatic relations with the Soviets, while at the same time the Peaky Blinders were meant to aid a family of disposed aristocrats – primarily Princess Tatiana Petrovna (Gaite Jansen) – acquire enough weapons to stage a comeback in their homeland and see themselves returned to a familiar position of power.
Even if you didn't find it all convoluted at times, the various collusions and deceptions, the double-crosses and outright betrayals were sometimes overwhelming. That's the structure of Peaky Blinders, though. Series creator Steven Knight revels in putting the ensemble into impossible situations only to see them emerge victorious in the end thanks to some clever back channeling or a last-minute deal being cut. It's part of the appeal of the show, knowing that every conflict will eventually end in victory and the status quo – at least in terms of Tommy still being head of the Shelby clan, while Arthur and John act as his sometimes-wayward-but-ultimately-loyal foot soldiers, Polly his argumentative lieutenant, and Michael as the heir apparent, now that his hands have also been washed in the blood of the family's enemies – will be maintained.
What the season does manage to do is intimate the upsetting of the status quo is part of another one of Tommy's elaborate plans in which he is thinking five steps ahead of his enemies. As the season ends with Tommy alone in his enormous house, a widower who narrowly avoided losing his son in a hasty and unfulfilling kidnapping plot twist meant to give Michael's storyline some emotional heft beyond just becoming another killer in the Peaky Blinders, the audience is left to question whether this bold move will be the one that sees the still-young Shelby empire fold under the weight of its own elaborate machinations and underhanded dealings. And while the sobering ending serves to make the promise of seasons 4 and 5 all the more enticing, the forward momentum gained as the season comes to a close demonstrates how underserved some of the plotlines and characters in season 3 were.
That is one of the major challenges of a series that runs just six episodes each season. As the scope of the series increases, so too does the breadth and depth of its storylines and the needs of its various characters. Serving them all, then, becomes a daunting task, the limits of which are on plainly evident here. For the most part, Peaky Blinders succeeds in making its plots and various subplots all add up in the end. Season 3 did that for the majority of its storylines as well, but there were still times when the speed with which the season progressed from point A to point B left precious little time to muse on the weight of certain events. Grace's death was handled well – Tommy's trip to Wales, under the pretense of dealing with a cursed sapphire, compartmentalized his grief in a clever way so that, while it didn't overwhelm him or the narrative, it could still bubble to the surface in surprisingly effective ways – but perhaps at the cost of keeping Father John Hughes (Paddy Considine) from becoming anything more than a near-omnipotent boogeyman whose death felt unequal to the extent of his influence.
All in all, though, Peaky Blinders remains as entertaining as ever. Despite the signs of certain growing pains that tend to affect all stories about criminal empires at a certain point, the series is savvy enough in its understanding of expansion that it succeeds by making those concerns part of the narrative itself.
Peaky Blinders seasons 1, 2, & 3 are available in their entirety on Netflix.
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