Yes, there are spoilers.
I’m hoping Arthur’s storyline will be a surprise to people because he was like a shot-down aircraft at the end of series two and it’s not what people will be expecting. I can say that he is not on the road to hell in a handcart. He’s found some sort of redemption but again the question is, will it work? Will he be able to escape from who he has always been and what fate seems to have in store for him?
— Steven Knight speaking with Dave Golder of MYMBuzz
“You’re my best man every day.”
That’s what Tommy Shelby tells Arthur after a botched best man’s speech at Tommy’s wedding dinner. In that moment, Anderson’s performance is both very funny and horribly agonized. Arthur is complicated, and in Series 3, Knight explores Arthur’s character more fully.
Let’s take a few moments to acknowledge what terrific work Paul Anderson has done in Peaky Blinders as the oldest Shelby brother, ousted by a younger brother who is both smarter and more driven.
When we first meet Arthur, he comes across as violent and a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s also not very smart. (Grace sees this immediately and focuses on gathering information from him, not Tommy. “He’s easier,” she tells Campbell.)
Arthur’s content with the world as it is and the Peaky Blinders as they are. Basically running pubs, running gambling rackets, but his ambitions is where it is. I mean he doesn’t want any more. If he can walk into a club, if his name or the Shelby name is enough of an intimidation and a threat to people, then that’s enough for him. He doesn’t have the ambition that Tommy does.
For him, that’s enough. Tommy, however, has other ideas, and Arthur finds himself in the position of being displaced by his smarter and more driven younger brother.
In the first series, we watch as Tommy takes Arthur’s position. Arthur knows this, even as he and Tommy say things that suggest Arthur still has authority. (Think of his conversation with Arthur Senior — “Tommy helps me out sometimes.’ Tommy gives Arthur The Garrison, but everyone knows it’s really Tommy’s pub. Tommy doesn’t tell Arthur about the machine guns but acts like he’s doing his older a brother a favor by doing so. ) Arthur’s suicide attempt, although wrenching, fails.
In Series 2, Arthur becomes what Polly describes as Tommy’s “attack dog.” Her intention is to help Arthur become less violent, hence the “medicine” she gets for him that calms him down. Tommy decides to speed Arthur up by giving him cocaine instead. Is it dangerous for Arthur? Yes. Does Tommy know this? Yes. And does he do it anyway because it suits his purpose? Yes.
Arthur recognizes his own mental illness: “It’s like a heavy boat full of cargo. The boat slips. I can feel it tipping, but there ain’t nothing I can do about it.” The fight between Tommy and Arthur is something, a visceral acting out of their emotional struggle. But for all his violence, he still defers to Tommy. Arthur’s words to Tommy are clear: “I told Polly you know best.”
And let’s not forget his terrific work with Tom Hardy. “Shalom!” Arthur greets Alfie. That’s why this character is so great. At one level, Arthur is the funniest person in Birmingham; an another level, he is the closet to tragedy.
Series 3 brings a new drug for Arthur: religion as administered by his wife, Linda. Here’s where Anderson’s performance really shines. In the first two episodes of this series, we see Arthur struggling with what to do. He wants to be less violent and more forgiving. Indeed, there is a clear sense that Arthur likes himself better that way.
But, again, this doesn’t suit Tommy’s purposes, and he begins undercutting Linda’s authority by giving Arthur alcohol and cautioning him against listening to her too much.
Two scenes here bear mentioning. The first occurs on the night of Tommy and Grace’s wedding as Arthur kills the Russian spy. After the fighting, which seems very much like the Arthur we’ve known, comes the agony as he shouts, “No!” repeatedly before shooting the Russian. It is excruciating to watch. The second is in the second episode when Arthur goes out to take two Italian pubs with the Peaky Blinders. He sits, alone in a room, rain pouring outside, as he tells Linda he has to go out. She admonishes him about working in the light not the dark, but in the end, he goes out. The symbolism of Arthur washing the blood off his hands is more than symbolic.
Arthur’s demons have shifted, and Paul Anderson shows this in subtle ways. It’s the Arthur we’ve known struggling with himself again. Who will win? Tommy or Linda? As all of the Shelbys see whether they can leave behind where they’ve come from, Arthur fights a similar battle though his is more personal and in some ways more tortured.
As Aunt Polly puts it in her Series 1 morning prayer: “Watch over Arthur because he’s as likely to hurt himself as anyone.”
The web is always full of predictions that this will be the last season for Arthur. He’s just too volatile to survive another season. I disagree — and let’s hope not. Arthur’s character is too rich for an easy elimination. And even in Knight’s writing, Arthur exists, in part, to define Tommy’s character. Simply put, Arthur can’t catch a break, and Paul Anderson’s work is stunning, veering between comedy and tragedy.
Peaky caps off to Paul Anderson.
Publication Date: 13 May 2016
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