Peaky Blinders recap: series six, episode three – Stephen Graham, at last

In the standout episode so far, Graham arrived as docker and union man Hayden Stagg, while Tommy set out on a tragic quest to learn about the hex on his family

The flat-capped epic’s final series reached its midway mark with an arrival, a return and a departure. Here’s your postmortem of episode three, Gold …

Hello, Stephen Graham …

“My name’s Hayden Stagg. I hear there’s some men from Birmingham looking for me.” We’d been eagerly awaiting the debut of Stephen Graham as a guest star, an actor who always looked as if he belonged in Peakyland. On the 41-minute mark, he finally arrived. What followed was an electrifying scene that defied expectations. No explosive violence or gangster grandstanding, just the nagging voice of Arthur’s inner demons.

Stand-in boss Ada (Sophie Rundle) sent ambitious young buck Isiah Jesus (Daryl McCormack) to Liverpool to deal with the union conveyor Stagg, who had been dipping into the Shelbys’ opium stash at Salthouse Dock and selling the stolen skag in local pubs for profit. Tommy had left a black star, or kill order, next to Stagg’s name. Ada downgraded it to a beating, instructing Isiah to take Arthur (Paul Anderson) with him.

Only 10 days clean, Arthur was a shaky shambles, but reinforcements came in the shape of Isiah’s cousins Dougie, Gilly and Joe. The new recruits looked dapper in the Peaky uniform but, as Arthur said: “Any fookin’ man can look like this before. A Peaky Blinder still looks like this after.”

Stoically accepting he was due a beating, Stagg didn’t just fearlessly stare Arthur down but got inside the troubled Shelby brother’s scrambled head. Stagg knew about his junk habit and had experience himself, having become hooked on morphine during the first world war. Pointedly calling Arthur “comrade”, he quietly gave a powerful speech about addiction which was half-taunt, half-motivational rehab pep talk. The chastened, shaken Arthur stood his men down and left.

Will we see Stagg again, or is a six-minute Stephen Graham appearance all we get? Let’s hope not. This particular Stagg party was over far too soon. Perhaps failing to come down hard will come back to bite the Blinders.

… Goodbye, Ruby Shelby

Lizzie (Natasha O’Keeffe) and Tommy (Cillian Murphy) in Peaky Blinders
Lizzie (Natasha O’Keeffe) and Tommy (Cillian Murphy) wait for news of their daughter. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions

As the episode began, Tommy (Cillian Murphy) and his wife, Lizzie (Natasha O’Keeffe), were rushing seriously ill daughter Ruby (Orla McDonagh) to hospital. Superstitious Tommy ranted about a Gypsy curses and punishment for his sins. In reality, she had a tubercular lung infection.

Covid comparisons were inescapable as hospital staff wore ye olde PPE and Tommy was told to wear a mask. During his chest X-ray, he was bathed in devilish red light for the second week running. Doctors collapsed Ruby’s left lung. When this didn’t work, they treated her with gold salts, but the disease quickly spread to her right lung, too. While Tommy went off on his wild curse chase, Lizzie was left alone at Ruby’s bedside, wishing her husband was “a normal man”. O’Keeffe excelled in this episode, giving a heart-wrenching portrayal of motherly grief and righteous anger.

Defying dramatic convention, there was no miraculous recovery or happy ending. Ruby died and Tommy missed his chance to say goodbye. We left him standing in the rain, dumbstruck by disbelief and devastation. How will his torment play out over the next three weeks? A furious rampage or another breakdown? And can his increasingly precarious marriage survive more woe?

Ada kicked ass and won hearts

Sophie Rundle as Ada Shelby in Peaky Blinders
Witty and chic … Sophie Rundle as Ada Shelby. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions

“I need you to be me in London,” said Tommy to Ada. The most astute Shelby sibling had been kicking her Mary Jane heels on the sidelines. Now she came into her own, acknowledging: “Although I’m reluctant, I’m actually quite good at this.” Damn straight. Even the insufferably snobby Diana Mitford (Amber Anderson) was impressed, as “the sister” arrived at her Eaton Square apartment. “So she dresses well,” muttered Mitford, instructing her butler to note the label of Ada’s coat. Naturally, darling, it was Chanel.

Barely masking their mutual antipathy beneath a veneer of politeness, the two women swapped delicious barbs about the causes of poverty, Egyptian antiquities and fascist Mitford’s repulsive plans for “the great cleansing”. She clearly loved to shock, boasting about being a pornography-using, amphetamine-pepped bisexual. Ada was pleasingly unbothered.

It was almost disappointing when the men interrupted. Ada introduced the “next prime minister” Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin) to Uncle Jack Nelson (James Frecheville). The Boston mob boss had his niece Gina (Anya Taylor-Joy) in tow, all air-kisses and snarky asides. Ada issued an invitation to Tommy’s house, where political business would be conducted and Nelson could meet “like minds from Dublin who’d like to discuss the future of Europe”. This potentially history-altering summit presumably looms next week.

Explaining Tommy’s absence, Ada bonded with Nelson over the fact that he’d lost two siblings to TB (Joseph P Kennedy Sr, the character’s inspiration, had two family members die of cholera). Ada had a crackle of flirtatious chemistry with Nelson – as she did earlier with Isiah. Acting leadership of Shelby Co Ltd is clearly a great aphrodisiac. Sophie Rundle worked her chic suits and sharp wit with style.

‘He’s gone up a mountain, looking for a miracle’

Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) in Peaky Blinders
Tommy sets out on a western-style quest. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/BBC/Caryn Mandabach Productions

While Lizzie trusted medical science over “horse thieves and sorcerers”, Tommy embarked on a cowboy-style quest to discover who’d put a hex on his family. First stop: the estranged widow of his late brother John, Esme Shelby-Lee (a welcome return for Aimee-Ffion Edwards’ windswept hair and jangling bangles).

Tracking her down via “patrin” signs (arrangements of leaves, placed at the roadside to mark the Travellers’ course), Tommy got a distinctly hostile reception. He was called a “dirty didicoi” (not of pure Romani blood) by her male campmate. When Tommy asked if any of the unwelcoming committee were her man, the ever fiery Esme snapped back: “What use is a man? The horse pulls the wagon, the dog keeps me safe, the cat keeps me warm at night.” Consider yourselves redundant, fellas.

The bickering duo embarked on a road trip – first via Rolls-Royce, then horseback – to a remote Gypsy graveyard. Which of Tommy’s many enemies was buried here? A surprisingly obscure one. Three series and 10 years ago, he took a sapphire necklace – payment from Arch Duke Leon Petrovich Romanov and worn by Tommy’s wife, Grace, the night she was shot – to wise old woman Bethany Barwell (the estimable Frances Tomelty), convinced it was cursed. Bethany gave it to her sister Evadne, who in turn hung it around the neck of her daughter Connie. She began to cough, and died that night.

Evadne duly laid a curse for when Tommy’s own daughter turned seven, so he’d know how it felt. At Connie’s graveside, desperate Tommy vowed to track down Evadne, despite the Barwells being a “wild tribe”, who “roam from the border to the sea”. He’d pay her handsomely to lift the curse and spare his daughter. Tragically, it was too little, too late – although “Sapphire” happens to be the title of next week’s episode. A hint that the Barwells will have a further role to play?

Half-term report

For me, this was the standout episode of the series so far. There were several killer scenes – Tommy’s standoff with the Gypsies, Ada’s drawing room jousting, the storming of Liverpool docks – before the emotional sucker punch of Ruby’s death. But, is it just me or is this series yet to fully catch fire?

So far, it has felt as if Steven Knight is merely setting the stage. Mosley, Mitford, Michael Gray, Captain Swing and Alfie Solomons all wait in the wings. Ada is creeping on the come-up. Gina and Esme are back. Linda’s on her way. Churchill and even Hitler could yet have a part to play. I have faith that this is the calm before the climactic storm.

Line of the week

I enjoyed Tommy’s “horse kicking its crate” analogy but it was pipped by Ada’s sardonic reply when Diana asked why Tommy was so “emotionally mutilated”: “Because he’s a character in a novel, of course. One of those novels that ladies like you read, all about wild men.” Small Heathcliff, anyone?

Anachronistic soundtrack-spotting

Anna Calvi and Nick Launay’s atmospheric score has rarely sounded so spaghetti western-esque. For sheer punk swagger, though, the standout was Idles’ Kill Them With Kindness as Arthur’s posse strode into Liverpool Docks.

Notes and observations

  • This marks the third time that Stephen Graham has appeared in a Steven Knight series, after playing Atticus in Taboo and Marley in A Christmas Carol.

  • It made sense that the racially diverse new recruits hailed from “the streets of Alum Rock”, an area of Birmingham with a rich migrant history..

  • London’s Eaton Square and hospital exteriors were actually filmed in Le Mans Crescent, Bolton – becoming a familiar location after appearing in It’s a Sin and The Ipcress File.

  • Gold compounds were indeed used in treatment of tuberculosis, popularised during the 1920s, due to the work of the trailblazing bacteriologist Robert Koch. Their toxicity was eventually found to outweigh any therapeutic benefit.

By order of the Peaky Blinders, please share your half-term reports, Stephen Graham thoughts and Ruby lamentations below …

• This article was amended on 15 March 2022. An earlier version misnamed the Barwells as the “Boswells”.


Michael Hogan

The GuardianTramp

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