We begin in what appears to be some city’s Chinatown. A man hurries a young woman with a wailing baby along, and when another, older man asks where she’s going, the first guy just says ‘They have asked for her.’ Second guy looks terrified. She hands the baby off to another woman, asking if she’s still able to feed a baby. Yikes, guess she’s not too hopeful of a good outcome here.
Cut to Cillian Murphy (yay! I like him. Not too many actors can pull off roles that require them to be sensitive with the same aplomb as roles that require them to be absolutely terrifying psychopaths, but he definitely can.) riding a black horse bareback through a poorish neighbourhood. Since people literally flee before him, ducking into whatever house is nearest, we can safely assume he’s one terrifying guy. The first Chinese guy approaches with the girl and we learn she tells fortunes. Cillian wants her to tell his. She pours some red powder into her palm and gently blows it into the horse’s face, while the scared neighbours peer out and watch. A little boy tells his friends this’ll make the horse win the race. The fortunetelling or spell or whatever done, the young woman and man dash off, and Cillian tells the seemingly empty neighbourhood to place a bet on Monahan Boy at Kempton Park and not to tell anyone else about it. He rides off and the neighbourhood comes back to life as we learn that this is Birmingham in 1919. And just to provide a tiny bit of historical background: 1919 was the beginning of a fairly bleak time for Britain. World War I had just ended, which was good, but it meant that demand from the factories went down just as thousands of men were returning home looking for jobs. They were mostly met with mass unemployment and poverty. And women, who had only recently been able to take fairly well-paying jobs that didn’t have the word ‘maid’ in the title were being urged to leave the factories and head back to the kitchen. Except there weren’t enough men to provide those kitchens, so basically nobody was happy.
Cillian heads to the docks, and we get plenty of time to admire the set designers and decorators’ work as he rides through smoky streets, being bowed and scraped to by everyone, including the local coppers, who call him Mr Sholby.
Now horseless, he saunters into a rather girlishly decorated rowhouse, where he surprises a little boy sneaking a cigarette. He teases the kid gently and learns that someone named Arthur is mad as hell. He moves a heavy curtain aside, revealing a hidden door that opens into what we can only presume is an illegal betting parlour. A very busy one. He greets some of the men. People come in to place bets and the camera work gets all frenetic as we see coins being counted out and odds being changed on a blackboard. A younger man gives Cillian a name—Tommy—and proudly shows him the book, which indicates they’re doing very well. A slightly older man, evidently in charge, angrily calls for Tommy to join him in his office. Boss pours himself a drink and says he heard Tommy was doing the fortunetelling trick. Word travels fast. Tommy explains that the local yokels need reasons to place their bets, and they believe the Chinese woman’s a witch, so there you go. Seems like fairly sound business practice to me. Boss doesn’t want to mess with the Chinese, but Tommy says he’s in charge of drumming up new business, so this is kind of his decision. Boss, whose name is Arthur—should have guessed that by how mad he is—moves on to another matter: Tommy’s apparently been fixing races as well. Wow, he really gets around, doesn’t he? Arthur’s not keen on taking on the Chinese bookies and someone presumably dangerous attached to the races. Tommy tells him not to worry about it and goes to leave. Arthur says there’s news from Belfast, and then follows Tommy out onto the floor to announce a family meeting that night at eight. ‘There’s trouble coming,’ he says gloomily.
And we now have the most obvious bit of editing as we smash cut to a speeding train carrying Trouble: Sam Neill, who’s reading a folder marked ‘Top Secret’ that says ‘Special Branch, BSA Munitions Robbery: Prime Suspects.’ Inside is all the pertinent information for the Sholby boys, who appear to have served in the war; in Tommy’s case, he was honoured for gallantry. Also: Arthur is Tommy’s brother, just so we’re clear.
Somewhere else, a union meeting is getting underway. The guy in charge addresses the others as ‘Comrades’ and says that they’ve all gathered to vote on strike action. Before that, though, he wants to know how many of them fought in France. Nearly all, if not actually all. He shakes his head in disgust and says that men who shed their blood in Flanders should reap rewards back home. The others, naturally, agree. Seems they’re facing wage cuts. Now that they’re all really riled, he calls for a vote to strike. Naturally, it’s unanimous.
Back with Sam Neill, Mr Comerade’s in his file too: he’s Freddie Thorne, and he’s a communist agitator. No kidding.
Tommy arrives very dramatically at a local pub and gets a drink on the house. He leaves some money on the bar anyway, because he’s decent like that, I guess. A group of men in the corner eye him, and finally one (I think it’s Freddie) joins him at the bar, nabs one of Tommy’s coins, and uses it to pay for his refill. The bartender’s eyes dart back and forth, half, ‘oh, no, you di’int!’ and half ‘is my place about to get trashed?’ but Tommy ignores it. Freddie, who clearly knows Tommy well, admires the razor blades sewn into Tommy’s cap (hence the name, Peaky Blinders, which sounds kind of cutesy until you realise what they must have been doing with those caps to get that name) and tells Tommy he’s been speculating lately. Tommy rather wearily takes the bait and asks him what the news is. Apparently one of Freddie’s comrades has a sister who works in the telegraph agency and has noticed a lot of traffic coming through from London and going to local law enforcement. Telegrams from Churchill himself, about a recent robbery. Both of their names were on the list of suspects. So much for top secret. Freddie can’t imagine why a Bolshevik and a bookie would ever appear on a list together and Tommy basically calls his cause a lost one. Freddie says there are times he wishes Tommy had taken ‘that bullet’ in France, and Tommy returns the sentiment.
Before things can get any more passive aggressive, the doors burst open and in comes a man who’s either taken some really bad drugs or is flat-out out of his mind. He starts rampaging and Freddie and Tommy jump in, wrestle him to the ground, and we learn that he suffers from the latter problem. More specifically, he’s seriously shell-shocked and periodically thinks he’s back in France, under attack. Tommy manages to talk him down and he and Freddie get him back to his feet. The guy, Danny, asks if it happened again, so I guess he loses it fairly frequently. Tommy says it’s fine and tells Danny to go home to his wife. Oh, Jesus, that poor woman. Danny leaves, apologising, and the barman, Harry, tells Tommy he really needs to do something about this. Freddie agrees, since Harry pays the Peaky Blinders a lot for protection. He suggests Tommy put Danny down, like a sick horse. Tommy tells Harry to send the bill for Danny’s rampage to the Blinders and they’ll take care of it.
Sam Neill arrives in Birmingham, in slow motion, so we know it’s important.
Meanwhile, a young man is surprised when he turns a corner and finds Helen McCrory holding a pistol to his head. His gun, apparently. Seems Helen’s his mum or aunt, I didn’t quite catch it, and she’s pissed off because he left his loaded gun lying around the house and another kid, presumably a sibling, started playing with it and nearly blew some woman’s tits off. The boy’s excuse is that he was drunk, and she says that happens often. She agrees to keep it between the two of them as long as it never happens again, and then hustles him off to the meeting.
Family meeting time. Apparently, in Belfast they’re recruiting men to come to Birmingham and act as special agents, to clean up the city under CI Campbell (Sam Neill). Tommy pipes up that Campbell’s been clearing IRA out of Belfast for the last five years. Arthur asks how he came to be so well informed and Tommy says he asked the cops on their payroll. Smart. Why is Arthur in charge instead of Tommy? He figures Campbell’s mostly there to deal with the strikers. Helen’s (Aunt Polly’s) smartass kid says they don’t worry about cops, and if they bother them, they’ll just slice their throat. Arthur asks Polly what she thinks, because apparently she ran things while the boys were away at war, and she says they do everything openly in their family, so does Tommy have anything else he’d like to say? Tommy says no.
Campbell is driven through the city in a cab, passing a street preacher and numerous rough drunks either half passed out in the streets or fighting amongst themselves or vomiting on the sidewalk. The driver says he doesn’t dare go any further.
Polly’s in church, praying, and is joined by Tommy, whom she’s summoned to tell her just what he’s hiding. He admits that a recent robbery went kind of awry. His men were supposed to steal a few motorcycles from a factory, but they took the wrong crates and instead some really impressive munitions were pinched. You want something done right… They hid them in some stables. Polly angrily smacks him and tells him this is almost certainly why Campbell’s coming to Birmingham. She tells him to leave the munitions somewhere the police will find them, in the hopes they’ll drop the search for the thieves. He tells her they can’t move the stuff for at least three days, because it’s a full moon, but he’ll get rid of it then. She has to be satisfied with that.
A young woman who was also at the family meeting—Ada—meets up with Freddie under a bridge and suggests a movie, or a trip to the pub for their date. He’s not in the mood for a movie and says her brothers have all the pub owners in their pockets. She pouts that she’s dating him because he’s one of the only people not afraid of her brothers. He promises they’ll tell her brothers about their relationship soon, which is a line as old as time. He asks about the family meeting and she tells him about Campbell coming. Freddie already knows about him, so no news there.
Daytime. A well-dressed young woman walks down the street and into Harry’s bar. She’s played by Annabelle Wallis, whom I’ve seen very little of since Pan Am and The Tudors. Hi, Annabelle! She announces she’s there for the barmaid job and Harry tells her she doesn’t want the job there. She stands firm, so he tells her she’s too nice and pretty. She responds by producing her references. They briefly bond over having roots in Galway, but he repeats that she’s too pretty. She sells it by singing while emptying spittoons and claims that in Ireland her singing made the men stop fighting. Guess she’s hired.
Campbell arrives for his first day on the job, joining the local constables in their common room. He takes a moment, then starts to tell them about all the horrible things he’s seen and tells them the Peaky Blinders and others like them are all responsible for it. He tells the men they’re worse than the gangsters for taking bribes and looking the other way and soiling the good name of constable. He goes on to say that they need to nip this corruption in the bud, before the filth spreads all over the world. He won’t trust any of them until they earn his trust. The door opens and a crowd of men come in as Campbell introduces them as the men who will be joining their ranks. All men from good, god-fearing families, of course. They’ll be on the streets by the next day.
Arthur takes two girls out to the cinema, skipping the line entirely, because apparently when you’re a Blinder, you don’t have to queue. They settle down in the empty theatre and he announces that he’s expecting a blowjob from both of them. What a charmer. I can see why he’s the man in charge. In come two policemen, who nab Arthur and take him to a basement for some rough interrogation. Campbell joins them, examines Arthur’s injuries almost tenderly, and then punches him hard in the face and uses Arthur’s cap to wipe his hand. He tells Arthur that this is his way of introducing himself. Consider yourself introduced. Campbell moves on, asking about the robbery, but Arthur’s clueless, as we know. He gets a finger broken for that. Arthur insists he’s not lying, and Campbell says he knows and reminds Arthur that he has the power to have Arthur and his whole family tossed in the canal. Or, he and Arthur can help each other. Arthur seems slightly interested.
Harry’s is hopping, because there’s a football match on. Tommy shows up and asks the new barmaid—Grace—for a bottle of rum. Harry reminds her it’s on the house and she goes to fetch it. Tommy asks her if she’s a whore, and then tells her that if she’s not, she’s in the wrong place. She stomps back to Harry, who tells her not to rock the boat with Tommy or anyone he ever speaks to. And for those interested, apparently being in the war put Tommy off all forms of sex, though whether that’s for physical or emotional reasons we don’t yet know.
Ada and Polly are tending to Arthur’s wounds (and Polly’s smartass kid gets a name—John). Tommy comes in and hands Arthur the bottle of rum. He takes a swig and Tommy starts bathing Arthur’s face wounds. Arthur tells him that Churchill himself sent Campbell to Birmingham, something about national importance and a robbery? Campbell wants them to be his eyes and ears in the criminal underworld and Arthur agreed to a family meeting so they could take a vote. He has no problem keeping an ear to the ground about this theft, since that’s not really their business anyway.
Grace is keeping Harry’s patrons enthralled with her pretty voice. Wow, she’s like the Drunks Pied Piper. They even start joining in on the chorus, until Tommy comes in. She keeps singing, and Tommy leans against a pillar to listen. After she finishes, Harry comes over to him and comments that they haven’t had singing in the bar since the war. ‘Why do you think that is, Harry?’ Tommy asks, a bit coldly.
Ada and Freddie are just finishing up a tryst. Freddie, ever the charmer, asks her what kind of a deal Campbell offered Arthur. Like any sensitive girl, she’s not pleased that this is his idea of pillow talk and she gets up to get dressed. He persists, asking what Tommy said. Tommy said nothing, as always. She comments that Tommy would definitely have something to say if he ever found out about the two of them. He knows, but he also thinks that someday he and Tommy will be on the same team again. Not if he finds out you’ve been disrespectfully banging his sister, Freddie.
Tommy’s in his room, preparing to take a hit off an opium pipe. He breathes in, and settles back. Then he flashes back to being in the war, I guess, and being in what appears to be a mine and stabbing someone. He comes to, gasping, and looks out the window, where two cops are walking the beat.
Poor Danny’s having another rough day. He makes his way down the street in a decently nice looking part of town, sobbing and gibbering and takes a seat at an outdoor table at a cafe. The owner comes out and tries to chase him off, and then, when he sees he’s dealing with someone not all there, he unwisely pulls a knife. Danny sees that and freaks out even more, attacks, and kills the man as people nearby scream and flee. Danny looks horrified by what he’s done and runs off, as two men nearby calmly take note.
Campbell arrives at the train station for a whistlestop meeting with Churchill. Churchill compliments Campbell’s hat and asks him how he’s settling in. Campbell gives him the rundown of what he’s been up to. Churchill asks who stole the guns, Fenians or Commies? Campbell promises to find whomever it was that stole the munitions. Churchill reminds him that this isn’t Belfast, so he can’t just toss people in the river. He has to bury the bodies deep. And he needs to keep this theft out of the papers.
Tommy’s finally moving the guns. He meets with a man at the docks named Charlie, who tells him where they’re planning to leave the munitions. Except now Tommy’s got other ideas. He wants them taken to an old tobacco wharf and stash them for the time being. Charlie thinks Tommy’s lost his mind, since there’s a frigging army out looking for these guns. Tommy thinks the police have shown their hand now, and it’s no good plan to dump something so valuable. Tommy, you’re an idiot. Charlie says this’ll bring hell down on Tommy’s head, but Tommy doesn’t seem to care about that, or about the war he’s practically provoking.
Campbell heads to a museum to admire the art and meet with Grace, who’s his undercover agent. She tells him she’s shocked at how these people live and asks if he’s found anything out that could help her. He tells her about his interrogation of Arthur but says he knows nothing. She says Tommy really runs the family. She also thinks the IRA stole the guns, because she thinks the local gangs and communists are too weak to have planned this thing. In a clunky bit of exposition, she mentions her father having been killed by the IRA. Campbell gives her the name of someone to tell if she sees any drops, and then says that her father was one of his best officers and would be very proud of her.
Danny and Tommy have a confab while two men watch from nearby, and Tommy tells Danny that the man he killed was Italian, and the other two men are his brothers. If he turns Danny over, they’ll probably castrate him and let him bleed out. But he can’t have a war breaking out between them and the Italians, so he offered to dispatch Danny himself. Danny nods, understanding. They step to the edge of the water and Danny says he died over in France anyway, leaving his brains in the mud. Tommy asks if he has any last requests and poor Danny asks him to look after his wife and boys. He looks up and figures he ought to pray, but the guns blew God right out of his head. A boat approaches and Tommy says they’ll have to get his body out of the city, what with the new copper in town and all. Danny asks him to bury him somewhere nice and tell his wife where he is. Tommy tells Danny he’s a good man and a good soldier, and they shake. Danny turns towards the water, and as the boat pulls up alongside, Tommy dispatches him with a single shot to the back of the head that drops Danny into the boat and spatters Tommy with his blood. The Italians are satisfied.
Tommy returns to the betting parlour, where Arthur’s in a rage, because apparently the horse Tommy told all the poor people to bet on in the beginning actually won the race. Tommy tells him this is a good thing, because now everyone thinks the powder trick actually works, so the next time they do it, it won’t just be one street betting, but the whole area, and then the whole of Birmingham. Think big, Arthur. Arthur drinks instead.
Remember that boat Danny was being taken away on? Uh, Danny emerges from the cabin, wondering what the hell happened. Apparently Tommy fired off a shell full of sheep brains. I’m not sure how that would work, but I’ll go with it. The boatman’s taking Danny to London, because Tommy has a job for him. Danny’s a Peaky Blinder now. And I do appreciate the visuals of this scene, with the boat (or, small barge, really) with one lit lantern moving through a rather close tunnel, the light reflecting off the damp walls and the water. That, with the world-weary ferryman gives this a real mythical rowing across the River Styx/crossing over feel to the scene.
Polly asks Tommy if he did the right thing, on the new moon the night before. He said he did and heads out into the snowy night, exchanging a glance with Grace as he passes Harry’s.