For three seasons now, Steven Knight’s (“Locke”) “Peaky Blinders” has led viewers in with the opening verse of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’s “Red Right Hand.” However, as the Shelby clan expands their operation and their world and foes grow in both size and power, the final lyrics may speak the most to the gang’s situation: “You’re one microscopic cog / in his catastrophic plan / designed and directed by / his red right hand.”
More so than any other season, the third entry of the British gangster drama asks the question of who the Shelbys are as they try to find their place in a world that firmly resists shifts in the status quo. While the family may accrue wealth and consolidate power, they still struggle to be perceived as legitimate by the rich and powerful. As the opening shot of season three attests, the Shelbys will never be more than poor Irish gypsies to the class-obsessed British elite, who see them as a twisted joke, unworthy of existing on their tier of society. Meanwhile, after the events of season two, they find themselves working for the people that aim to keep them at the bottom rungs of society.
Led by Tom (Cillian Murphy, “In the Heart of the Sea”), the Shelbys have certainly graduated from their humble Birmingham origins, now living in a grand palatial estate. However, crime, luxury and business are hard to juggle as most of the Shelbys try to find out where their interests lie. Some, like eldest sibling Arthur (Paul Anderson, “The Revenant”), at the urgings of his religious wife, try to steer their paths into a more peaceful direction, only to tumble back down into the abyss. In contrast, cousin Michael Gray (Finn Cole, the upcoming lead for TNT’s “Animal Kingdom”) begins to embrace his darker side to further entrench himself within the family business.
All this is presented with the slick visual flair and rock ‘n’ roll the show has become known for in its past iterations. Tim Mielants (“Cordon”) handles the directorial duties this year and continues to capture the beautiful imagery and eye-popping, slow-motion brutality that surrounds the Shelbys. There’s always been a distinct larger than life feel to “Peaky Blinders” and with grander locations (and probably a larger budget) the series grows even larger in scope, but sometimes it sacrifices its own narrative and characters to do so, having a bit more of style than substance.
Featuring exiled Russian nobles, anti-communists, multiple heists and perhaps the most intimidating priest (Paddy Considine, “Macbeth”) on television, the narrative of the season becomes almost too big for the show to handle. Counting only six episodes, season three is the same length as its predecessors but is trying to cover far more ground while attempting to keep up with the series’ breakneck pacing. In between introducing new threats and potential allies, “Peaky Blinders” loses focus on some of its core cast.
Murphy remains the backbone of the series as the ice cold Tom Shelby, and other performers like Anderson and Helen McCrory (“The Harry Potter” series) continue to earn their due; however, it seems like other actors got the short end of the stick. Notably, the character of Michael is given several strong ideas to work with but many are never given the time they need to develop into significant plotlines. His need to fully enter the Shelby family serves as a strong driving force, but several interesting facets of the character, such as his past with Considine’s Father Hughes, never grow beyond their initial introduction. Furthermore, a particularly large event early in the season holds weight, but it never seems to be addressed to its full potential as it gets swept away by the pace of the show.
With its few episodes and ever-twisting plot, “Peaky Blinders” is a series that relies on narrative concision to operate at peak performance — no episode or plotline can be wasted. Unfortunately, season three stumbles at points to achieve this goal. While “Peaky Blinders” remains a jaw dropper in terms of visual style and consistently delivers knockout performances — guest star Tom Hardy (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) practically steals the final two episodes of the show — its narrative struggles to come together at the end. The series still packs a particular punch on an emotional level, and it’s far from a failure, but in the end struggles to live up to the heights the series previously reached.