There is nothing like a good death threat to bring a family together again. That’s what it takes to start the various members of the Shelby clan spinning back into one another’s orbit; a vendetta in a greeting card sent from America by Adrien Brody’s Luca Changretta. And with that, Peaky Blinders season 4 is off to a very different sort of start, one that changes the typical slow-burn strategy series creator and writer Stephen Knight has employed in the past.
This time, there’s an immediate sense of urgency in the premiere (which, yes, we know the full season has already played in the UK). The exigency of the Shelby family’s situation, having a Black Hand issued against them by the aforementioned Changrettas — the mafia, in other words — pushes the series away from the familiar sense that it’s business as usual and that the events of the past would be just another set of circumstances Tommy could construct an elaborate scheme to escape from. It’s a welcome change of pace for the series’ fourth season that lays out a clear and distinct path ahead, and in doing so demonstrates its seriousness by killing one of the Shelby brothers at the end of the first hour.
The death of John Shelby (Joe Cole) is a surprise at such an early point in the season, but as shocking as it is, Peaky Blinders treats it more like a statement of purpose. There is no real need to shake-up the series at this point; after all, part of the appeal of watching the show is not only seeing the characters snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, but also how, when all is said and done, none of them are really that much worse for wear — physically anyway. Sure, there’ve been deaths before; Tommy’s wife Grace certainly comes to mind, but even her unfortunate demise didn’t feel nearly as declarative as John’s, especially after the season’s opening hour so skillfully ratcheted up the tension of Luca’s impending arrival in Birmingham, like a black cloud rolling in on an otherwise sunny day.
Knight may be fiddling around with the typical structure of a season somewhat, but he’s still using the same tools. John’s death at the end of ‘The Noose’ is so effective at kickstarting the plot it’s easy to forget the premiere spends a great deal of time addressing the events of the season 3 finale, which saw everyone dragged off to jail thanks to Tommy. The premiere, then, follows through on that in familiar Peaky Blinders fashion. This time, a literal stay of execution is declared thanks to a seemingly inconsequential piece of the puzzle being turned into a get out of jail free card. It’s par for the course as far as Peaky Blinders is concerned; Knight puts nearly everyone in a noose and prepares to see them executed before waving it off as another victory for Tommy Shelby who turns his family’s near death into an even bigger win for himself.
The effort to lull the audience into a familiar sense of comfort is just one of the many things the premiere does well. By now, discord among the group is nothing new, but the introduction of a short time jump — one year, to December of 1925 — shows just how fractured the Shelbys have become, with Michael (Finn Cole) the only one who appears to be on regular speaking terms with Tommy, and that’s just a mix of business and a tepid reprimand for bringing cocaine into the now (mostly) legitimate Shelby Corporation Ltd. It’s the first indication that season 4 isn’t going to be on to the next stage of the Shelby family’s evolution; it’s going to be a step back as they fortify against a particularly destructive threat.
The devolution of the Shelbys isn’t really seen until episode 2, but there are hints it’s coming in the premiere. Knight spends just enough time with Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory), the brothers, and sister Ada (Sophie Rundle) to see hints of regression all around, but the necessity of their backsliding isn’t made entirely apparent until later. There is a particularly effective set piece when Tommy discovers his home has already been infiltrated by the Italians, as the Christmas feast that was intended to bring the family back together is being partially prepared (well, the potatoes, anyway) by an assassin. Tommy’s not in any danger really, but Knight doesn’t play the sequence as perilous, instead he lets the inevitable violence unfold amidst the carcasses of what was intended to be a unifying meal. As a precursor to what’s about to unfold and an acknowledgment of all that’s about to come back to haunt him, Tommy shakes hands with a reluctant, treacherous chef, assuring him he too has blood on his hands. It is the sort of theatrical moment Peaky Blinders employs and makes such good use of so often: a reminder that its characters’ bloody history and willingness to get their hands dirty is worn like a badge of honor.
The Black Hand and John’s death send the family back to Birmingham and back into one another’s company. It’s a brutal way for Knight to get his characters in one another's company after tearing them apart last season. But being cruel to his characters saves them and the viewers from the disservice of simply undoing the events of the show's knotted past. Instead, Peaky Blinders brings the past back with an impressive vengeance.
Peaky Blinders season 4 is available in its entirety on Netflix.
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