We eat your words

Peaky Blinders: Season 4 – Episode 2 ‘Heathens’ REVIEW

Things begin to heat up in Peaky Blinders as forces collide.

Just like last week, we open by resolving the cliffhanger we left off on at top speed: John’s dead, but Michael, despite having taken four to the chest, is holding on. And while this is further upsetting Polly, it also seems to be dragging her out of her funk – we see her furiously demanding that Tommy sets some proper guards over Michael, rather than a pair of kids in flat caps, and later speaking for Michael at a family meeting.

And yes, those of the family still alive and upright do finally get together for the big meeting – where they agree to put aside all the obvious tensions until they’ve dealt with the mafia. On the flip side, there’s also John’s last family meeting – the identification of his body down the morgue, at which Esme once again makes her displeasure with Tommy very clear.

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These two strands finally merge at John’s funeral – a traditional gypsy cremation, at which Tommy reveals the meaning of ‘in the bleak midwinter’, the phrase he and Arthur had invoked over John’s body. The words are their private remembrance of an incident during their service in World War I, where by all odds they should have died, but, via providence or otherwise, they didn’t. Polly sardonically notes that after beating the noose in the first episode, she’s now just like them – with any time beyond that being a sort of nihilistic bonus.

Lest we forget, though, they’re still in a gang war, and being back down Smallheath can only offer so much protection. As the Shelbys mourn, two Italian gunmen set up on them in the bushes, trying to get a clear shot through the smoke – only to be shot, and also stabbed, themselves. To Polly’s ever-increasing disgust, Tommy has used John’s funeral as bait to lure out any would-be button men who fancy a pop at them.

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And their saviours? Another gypsy clan who Tommy’s called in for help, dismissed by Johnny Dogs earlier as ‘savages’ and ‘heathens’, led by Aidan Gillen’s Aberama Gold. Gillen made his name as Tommy Carcetti in The Wire (a cultural outsider who became crooked) and, later, Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish in Game of Thrones (a cultural outsider who was always crooked) – so, clearly fearing being typecast, his initial defining character moment here is swaggering into Charlie’s scrapyard and demanding to buy it. This is only defused when Tommy agrees to toss for it, but suggests the stakes expand to include Gold’s daughter if he loses. South Park once argued that the best way to counter open disrespect is with a vulgar suggestion – here, Tommy is clearly operating on similar lines.

Polly identifies Gold as a bit of a wrong’un – putting this impression down to her unearthly visions, and claiming to see it in the air around him, as opposed to simply seeing it in his face. Her advice to Tommy is to find out what Gold really wants, and it’s something of a relief to see Polly back on the team as opposed to cloistered in her own slow-moving subplot (though given everything, she’d earned that fling with Alexander Siddig last series). Michael probably puts it best when he points out that they’re all lost without Tommy, but Tommy’s lost without her.

As it turns out, Gold’s in this for his son, Bonnie – a would-be boxer. Tommy tests out his chops by pitting him against a former heavyweight from one of the Shelby Corporation factories, and Bobby promptly wipes the floor with the guy despite being half his size. It should be noted that this is basically a straight rip of a scene in Snatch, in which Brad Pitt – having adopted an impenetrable Irish traveller accent – destroys a man-mountain, to Jason Statham’s shock and despair. However, I’m willing to forgive them this on the basis that Tommy and Arthur cite Alfie Solomon’s advice on fighters being sound investments, which – again – points to a reappearance of Tom Hardy and his brick-thick cockney accent at some point.

Of course, given these references to Tom Hardy’s East End drawl, Brad Pitt’s gypsy cant, and Aidan Gillen doing a very, very slightly more coherent version of his Littlefinger voice, this review wouldn’t be complete without talking about Adrien Brody’s Luca Changretta. He finally gets some proper screentime this week, not just looking back at a customs officer with sad eyes – no, he saunters right into Tommy’s office and delivers a villainous monologue while doing the kind of puffy-cheeked mobster voice that wouldn’t sound off coming out of Marlon Brando.

He’s visiting Tommy partially to taunt, and partially to lay down some ground rules for their mob war – no families, no kids, and so forth, which they shake on. The irony here is that the idea of mafiosos as men of honour, with principles, was basically invented out of whole cloth by The Godfather. Naturally, the real mafia loved it, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that these men were professional criminals. Even post-Godfather, Jimmy Burke (the basis for Robert de Niro’s character in Goodfellas) used, as his go-to threat, ‘if you don’t do what you’re told I’m gonna lock your kid in the fucking refrigerator’.

Now, god knows the black hand greeting-card is a lovely, telegenic, fanciful idea. So’s the horse’s head in the bed. And so, indeed, is Cillian Murphy dressed up to the nines, being sexy, meeting up with his bitter gangland rival in his nice shiny office to discuss terms. Francois Truffaut was of the opinion that it was impossible to make a truly anti-war film, because on some level, just depicting war made it look glamorous. The same seems to have happened with media about gangsters – like I said, real mafiosos loved The Godfather, and Peaky Blinders has the advantage of being wrapped in the old-world charm that nobody does quite like the BBC.

A lot of the other standout hour-long crime dramas – The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and so on – have ended with their powerful white male protagonist eventually dying when all their misdeeds catch up to them. This is perhaps why Peaky Blinders can get away with using the ‘Tommy’s lowest ebb, then he pulls something out of the bag’ formula in the latter half of each series – because every time, this could be the big one. And this episode involves a pretty low ebb already.

Of course, all this rough, tough gangland stuff might ultimately prove to be a distraction from the real dangers. Between the boxing and the mafia, Tommy doesn’t have much attention to spare when Jessie calls a strike and his workers down tools. And on the subject of organised labour, Arthur’s wife Linda – staying in Small Heath with the family, to her disgust – gets a late-night warning from the cheerfully crooked local sergeant that now Ada’s back, the intelligence services are after her as a suspected communist.

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