It’s time to return to the streets of Birmingham to get re-acquainted with the infamous Shelby family in the BBC’s gritty 1920s gangster drama Peaky Blinders.
Be careful, there are spoilers below.
The end of series three saw Tommy, played by Cillian Murphy, betray his family and get them arrested, after a messy series of criminal deals which culminated in a jewel heist, a train bombing and Tommy’s son Charlie being kidnapped. Series four begins two years later, as Tommy’s brothers John and Arthur, his Aunt Polly, and Polly’s son Michael are in prison and about to hang for their crimes.
The nooses are around their necks and the levers are about to be pulled when a last-minute reprieve comes. Tommy has done a deal – he has a stolen letter that proves the king was involved in their criminal dealings, and he’ll make it public unless his family are saved from the gallows. Tommy may have saved his family from execution, but the Shelbys remain fractured and separated by his betrayal.
Aunt Polly, played by Helen McCrory, is in a bad way – self-medicating with alcohol and pills while claiming to be communicating with spirits. John and Arthur are out of the gang and both living separately in the countryside with their families, Ada is working in the Shelby Company’s Boston office, and Tommy is running the UK business alone. Only Michael and Lizzie remain on good terms with Tommy, both of them trying to restore some kind of peace within the family.
Meanwhile, Tommy has an encounter in his factory with a union convener called Jessie Eden, who wants Tommy to agree to pay his male and female workers the same wage. Tommy attempts to outmaneuver her, but she hits back with a threat to take the entire workforce out on strike, hinting that we will see more from this smart and fearless unionist in future episodes. Jessie and Tommy definitely have an interesting antagonistic dynamic, and I’m going to call Jessie as a future love interest for the head of the Shelby family.
We also catch a glimpse of the newest big Hollywood name to join this cast, in the form of Adrien Brody. He’ll be playing Luca Changretta, a member of the mafia family with whom the Shelbys have an ongoing and bloody feud, and which has lead to deaths on both sides. Brody only has a couple of lines in this episode, but Luca looks like he’s going to be a sinister villain, and one who might turn out to be a match for Tommy.
The Shelbys are about to be reluctantly and abruptly reunited, as each of them receives a ‘black hand’ in the post from the Changretta family. The death threats send the family into a panic. Ada (visiting for Christmas from Boston) and Tommy believe the family are safer if they stick together and so call a family meeting. The other members of the family are still stung by Tommy’s betrayal and do not want to meet with him, even in the face of imminent death.
As Christmas Day approaches, Tommy uncovers a mafia member working among his house staff, and we see respectable businessman Thomas Shelby replaced by the old gangster Tommy, as he brutally kills the man in the kitchens. Tommy attempts to get in contact with the rest of the family to warn them, but he cannot reach John and his wife Esme. Michael goes to collect them and bring them to the family meeting, but as they stand arguing outside John’s house, a cart pulls up and mafia assassins shower the men with bullets.
Before this episode aired, I was thinking that the Shelby family were probably due another death, so this episode climax wasn’t entirely a surprise to me. I would be surprised, however, if both John and Michael are killed off in the first episode of the series. It’s awful, but I am kind of looking forward to seeing Esme, who is volatile at the best of times, react to the tragedy in the next episode.
Are John and Michael both dead? We’ll find out next week…