Peaky Blinders recap: series six, episode one – Tommy Shelby’s back in business

As the Peaky’s leader gears up to take on the Boston mob, we say goodbye to beloved Aunt Polly, played by the late Helen McCrory

By order of you-know-who, the Brummie outlaws swaggered in slo-mo back on to our screens for their swansong series. Here’s your breakdown of Black Day …

In memory of two Peaky queens

This episode was bookended by a touchingly tender tribute to the late, great Helen McCrory. It’s only right that we begin by paying respects to our own Peaky matriarch: the much-loved journalist Sarah Hughes, a Blinders superfan and previous custodian of this blog. Sarah sadly died of cancer in April 2021 – within 11 days of McCrory, in fact – aged just 48, filing copy from her hospital bed right until the end.

Our friend’s memory lives on, not just in her passionate, perceptive journalism, but via her charitable trust and annual memorial lecture. Her memoir, Holding Tight, Letting Go, is published next month. We raise a large Irish whiskey in The Garrison to you, Lady Sarah.

Tommy came back from the brink

Natasha O’Keefe as Lizzie Shelby.
Natasha O’Keefe as Lizzie Shelby. Photograph: Matt Squire/BBC/Caryn Mandabach

We last saw gang boss Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy) on the verge of suicide in series five’s gloomy finale. The action picked up precisely where it left off: still in the eerie morning mist, Tommy holding a revolver to his temple. He pulled the trigger. There was a click rather than a bang. Well, writer Steven Knight couldn’t kill off our antihero that fast.

Tommy’s indomitable wife, Lizzie (Natasha O’Keefe), emerged from the murk, spitting with fury that he was going to abandon his family in such cowardly style. Elder brother Arthur (Paul Anderson) had removed the bullets on the way back from Oswald Mosley’s rally, when traumatised Tommy stopped at a crossroads (how symbolic) to throw up. Ever-loyal Arthur clearly knew the signs. Tommy learned last series that their mother killed herself but it wasn’t his time to “pass through”.

After grovelling photogenically in the mud, he hauled himself back to the house in time to take a shattering phonecall. The chillingly calm tones of IRA leader Captain Swing (Charlene McKenna in trademark beret) explained that it was their operatives who foiled the Peaky Blinders’ assassination attempt on Mosley (Sam Claflin). The republicans needed him alive, presumably due to Mosley’s vocal opposition to the Black and Tans and qualified support for Irish independence.

To bring Tommy back in line, they dumped three bodies on his driveway: his shellshocked war comrade Barney (Cosmo Jarvis), Gypsy hitman Aberama Gold (Aidan Gillen) and … you guessed it, the mighty Aunt Elizabeth “Polly” Gray, company treasurer and Tommy’s closest adviser. Oh, Poll.

Aunt Polly RIP

Helen McCrory at the premiere of A Little Chaos in 2015.
Helen McCrory at the premiere of A Little Chaos in 2015. Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Bafta-winning actor McCrory was due to star in this series but became increasingly ill during the pandemic-enforced production delays and died from breast cancer before filming began. She now got a poignant send-off, Peaky-style. Polly’s body was burnt in a traditional Romani caravan, funereal black to match her trademark cigarettes. Her oil portrait – painted by artist lover Ruben Oliver (Alexander Siddig) in series three – gazed out imperiously as the flames rose.

This gut-punch sequence effectively represented two minutes’ silence, punctuated only by crackling fire and cawing crows. Considering the circumstances, it was a classy, credible way for Polly’s journey to end. She’ll be reunited with fiancee Aberama in the next life.

We also heard her husky tones echoing throughout the episode, notably her ominous warning to Tommy about her son Michael (Finn Cole): “There will be a war and one of you will die. But which one, I cannot tell.” True to their feud, Michael swore vengeance. We ended on credits accompanied only by birdsong and a simple title card: “Dedicated to the memory of Helen McCrory OBE, ‘Polly Gray’.” Go well, both.

‘I’ve become a better man’

Tommy Shelby, on the march.
Tommy Shelby, on the march. Photograph: Matt Squire/BBC/Caryn Mandabach

Leapfrog forward four years to 5 December 1933, the last day of prohibition. Now greying at the temples, Tommy strode across Miquelon Island, a French territory in Newfoundland, ready to do business. Possibly deadly business.

With the bootleg liquor trade winding up, the natives were restless. Their smuggling boats lay idle. Tommy duly got a frosty reception in the local bar, not least by ordering water. Yes, Tommy was now teetotal – although repeated efforts to make him partake will be wearingly familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to attend a party booze-free. Maybe he’s pregnant or on antibiotics?

Once he’d seen off hostile Jean-Claude (Spiral’s Grégory Fitoussi) with a switchblade (not that much “calmer and more peaceful”, then), Tommy had a sit-down with newly moustachioed Michael and his Boston-Irish mobster allies. Once again, the ambitious cousin’s outsider status to the Shelbys was reflected sartorially: fedoras and spivvy suits rather than flat caps and traditional tailoring.

Tommy’s proposal? Replace one illicit cargo with another, using the infrastructure to smuggle the five tonnes of Chinese opium that the Blinders secured from the Triads in the last series. They’d ship it from Shanghai to Liverpool to Miquelon, then into the US and Canada. That required the approval of east coast kingpin Jack Nelson – the feared uncle of Michael’s wife, Gina, (glorious to see Anya Taylor-Joy back, despite ascending to the A-list since her last appearance).

A tense standoff saw Tommy reciting poetry, refusing more whiskey and informing Nelson’s sneering henchman Connor (Love/Hate’s Peter Coonan, who’ll surely get his comeuppance) of an FBI informant in their ranks. Tommy gave Michael a 5lb sample to take home to Uncle Jack, before tipping off the border police. Sneaky. The cousins’ blood feud looks like being one of this series’ driving engines.

Bad Santa, bad juju

Back home, Lizzie and Ada (Sophie Rundle) had been saddled with the extended Peaky brood, who were running riot. Lizzie was due to be taking young Charles and Ruby across the Atlantic for a holiday with their father, hence hosting an early Christmas party. Unfortunately, Santa, AKA Arthur, was merry to the point of catatonia after over-indulging in opium. Again.

There was no sign of his estranged wife Linda (Kate Phillips), although word is she’ll return at some point this series. Instead, longsuffering Ada was reduced to picking up the pieces – a waste of the politically astute Shelby sibling’s talents. How long before she’s brought back into the fold? Her teen son Karl (after Marx, naturally, and played by Callum Booth-Ford) also seemed interested in entering the family business. We know how that usually ends.

Festive travel plans were derailed when young Ruby fell ill with a fever. Tommy was seriously spooked when Lizzie mentioned what she’d said in her delirium: “Tickner maura, o beng.” Ruby was having visions of the Romani devil. He told Lizzie to call in Gypsy protection and vowed to hurry home on the next steamer. He’s already haunted by his mother and murdered wife Grace (Annabelle Wallis). Now the lights flickered and Tommy spoke to his aunt’s ghost: “Polly, they’re coming for me.” They’ve been coming for six series, Tom.

Tommy outsmarted the upstarts

Finn Cole as Michael.
Finn Cole as Michael. Photograph: Matt Squire/BBC/Caryn Mandabach

Michael was languishing in Norfolk prison (nowadays known as Massachusetts Correctional Institution), blaming the FBI mole identified by Tommy – who’d since been shot in the head and slung into Boston harbour. Gina, power-hungry but rattled, was furious he’d gone back into business with “the devil”.

She was even more rattled when Tommy visited her cavernous art deco apartment. Dancing to jazz and gulping whisky (all a bit Queen’s Gambit), Gina was every inch the flapper girl. Tommy was on her turf, so she relished delivering the message: no deal. Uncle Jack was moving in A-list circles nowadays and couldn’t dirty his hands with the heroin trade.

As (nearly) always, though, Tommy was several steps ahead in this game of mental chess. If Nelson didn’t do the $5m deal, he’d instead sell to the Eastside Jewish mob run by the family of his old frenemy Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy), firmly tipping the balance of Boston gangland power against Nelson. What’s more, Tommy knew Nelson was currently heading to Britain to secure whisky import licences – joined by Gina.

With the incandescent Michael stuck behind bars, Tommy strutted off to flirt with his wife and parlay with his boss. Thomas Shelby OBE MP is sailing back to Blighty with a glint in those icy eyes. The series is beautifully poised to kick off in earnest.

Line of the week

“There’s a man out there having his face stitched back up,” said Michael, to which Tommy drily replied: “Just a misunderstanding.”

Anachronistic soundtrack-spotting

This episode’s elegiac feel meant tunes were lower in the mix. We heard Anna Calvi’s cover of Ain’t No Grave, while Gina was jigging to Count Basie’s Sixteen Men Swinging. The highlight, however, was Disorder by Joy Division. A rare week off for Nick Cave, but we daresay he’ll be back next week. In his dusty black coat. With a red right hand.

Notes and observations

  • Tommy recited the opening lines of William Blake’s A Poison Tree, a parable about repressed anger and the dangers of revenge. I fear Michael didn’t get the message.

  • Black dogs, black cats, shot pigeons, cawing crows … The animal imagery didn’t augur well.

  • The Shelbys’ projector was a gift from Charlie Chaplin, whose cameo in series two fuelled speculation that he was a Smethwick-born Gypsy.

Please share your thoughts, theories and tributes below. All speculation and no spoilers please – or Arthur Christmas will get you.


Michael Hogan

The GuardianTramp

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