The woman’s role in a gangster saga is usually thankless. At best, like Diane Keaton in The Godfather, they are wives and girlfriends, placed on pedestals and left out of the business. At worst, commodities to be traded. Showgirls and prostitutes who are the business.
Peaky Blinders portrays a dark, masculine world dripping with misogyny, but one with significant female characters. Along with the violence of organised crime and establishment corruption, the series also takes into account the experience and shifting status of women post First World War.
Writer Stephen Knight greatly expands the female roles in series 4, making Shelby sibling Ada (Sophie Rundle), Arthur Shelby’s pious wife Linda (Kate Phillips), and Tommy’s secretary Lizzie Stark (Natasha O’Keeffe) considerably more interesting.
This is a world governed by fists and bullets. To survive it, the women must be as tough and as devious as the men. Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) led the Peaky Blinders when the brothers were at war. That she was demoted on their return sticks in her craw.
Linda Shelby appeared to have tamed Arthur with her religious devotion, but now that the family is at war and Arthur has his hair cut and blood up, her piety has gone out the window and she is using any means necessary to keep her husband alive, leading to a torrid sex scene in the Shelby factory boardroom.
With the attention of the Shelby men on the Mafia threat, the women seize their chance to move into key positions in the business. Even Linda offers her services making bets. When Polly asks her what God would think she curtly replies: “I’m not the one doing the gambling. I’m just taking the bets”.
Perhaps Tommy’s only sincere ally among the women is his secretary, and occasional lover, Lizzie. Once a prostitute, their relationship appears strictly professional. Among her secretarial duties, she books prostitutes for Tommy. Lizzie clearly has real feelings for him, but as a non-Shelby she is on the outside and regarded with suspicion and condescension.
A new player is Jessie Eden (Charlie Murphy) a firebrand trade unionist fomenting unrest among Tommy’s workforce. Tommy provokes a strike to create chaos in Birmingham, raising a fog of war to hide the bloody war they are fighting. Eden has found out details of Tommy’s past before he came back from the war (“no one came back” Tommy remarks). These include a sweet but doomed romance, and even a rumour he had once joined the Communist Party.
In turn, Tommy has discovered the love of Eden’s life had fought at Passchendaele. He had returned shell-shocked and took his own life. Tommy uses this information against her, but in reminding him of the softer person he once was Eden may have let a glimmer of light back into his dark heart. The question is, in the battle with the merciless Changretta family, will this be a fatal weakness?
Over the past episodes Knight has carefully placed his chess pieces on the board. With Tommy and the family feuding, Changretta was able to take a knight, John Shelby. However, now the game has begun in earnest. Episode 3 sees the opponents manoeuvre their pieces, each endeavouring to place them anticipating their endgame. There is a thrilling suspense sequence in which Changretta henchmen move on Arthur, but the real thrills come from Knight’s razor-sharp dialogue.
Did you tune in for Peaky Blinders series 4 episode 3? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!