Yes, there are spoilers.
“Word in London is that you can be found wandering the streets of Birmingham stark naked, throwing away money. You talk to dead people”
— Alfie Solomons to Tommy Shelby
“Right, boys, just remember they are fucking insane and dangerous and drunk on stuff we’ve never heard of. And they’re worse than us for spirits and ghosts.”
— Tommy to John and Arthur
Two notes are in order here. First, if yourre a member of #TeamTommy&Grace (and I am), then watching the Khlysty scene in 3.5 was not especially satisfying. Actually, it was infuriating. Since accepting that Steven Knight’s plans didn’t correspond with what I wanted, I’ve rewatched the episode and have found the scene compelling and essential to what Knight is doing in Peaky Blinders, Series 3 Second, I’m no expert on Khlysty, and what I’ve written here reflects a bit of cursory research that is by no means exhaustive.
“It’s called Khlysty, a Siberian prayer,” Tatiana tells Tommy.
Actually, Khlysty is a bit more than that. It’s a mysterious ascetic religious sect founded in the late 17th century by Daniil Filippovich. There is some evidence that Rasputin practiced Khlysty.
As Andreas E. Buss writes in The Russian-Orthodox Tradition and Modernity (2003), “Salvation for the Khylsty consisted in the liberation of the soul from the body . . . [T]he method of salvation . . . consisted in calling down the Spirit of God during a religious-ecstatic dance after ascetic preparations. These ecstatic dances, performed in secret with the simultaneous singing of spiritual songs (in contrast to the Orthodox Church where congregational singing does not exist) and with rhythmic movements, led at their height to ecstatic visions, often of Christ, and in some cases to glossolalia.” Buss adds, [T]he Khlysty believed in the repeated reincarnation of Christ in living human beings.”
Buss goes on to make an important point: “The Old Believers can be distinguished from the Russian sects . . . by the fact that they clung to the old rituals of the Orthodox Church, while the sects produced completely new belief systems and rejected all rituals as means of salvation.”
According to Alexander Etkind in “Whirling with the Other: Russian Populism and Religious Sects” (The Russian Review 62.4 ), “The geography and rituals of the Khlysty place them between Siberian shamans and European witches. Their history and religion locate them between the pagan memory of the Russian past and the communitarian desire of the soviet future” (569).
Several points are relevant here. First, Khylsty is about the spirit leaving the body and the possibility of divine reincarnation. Second, this happens only after great suffering followed by frenzied singing and dancing. Third, Khlysty marks a significant and subversive break with organized religion.
Before considering how Episode 5 unfolds, think back to a scene at the end of 3.3. As Tommy leaves Wilderness House, Tatiana catches up with him. After they have discussed the priest, Tatiana comments that Tommy’s ability to return to work so soon after Grace’s death suggests that perhaps he didn’t love her. Tommy’s reaction is immediate: “She’s here by my side,” he says, grabbing Tatiana’s throat, “and she says, ‘Don’t trust these people.'”
Now, to Episode 5.
First, Tommy, Arthur, and John enter another world as they go into Wilderness House. Tommy makes this clear as they get out of the car (“Right, boys. Just remember they are fucking insane and dangerous and drunk on stuff we’ve never heard of. And they’re worse than us for spirits and ghosts”). But as they walk by the waiting Cossacks and then undergo the body check, it’s clear that they have left behind the world they know. The contrast deepens as they visit the dark vault. That dissonance grows as the orgy begins. John seems to be having a good time; Tommy acts as if it’s just more business, though his suffering is always just beneath the surface; and Arthur struggles not so much with the environment as he does with balancing what Tommy expects of him with what Linda expects of him. But the conversation John has with the Peaky Blinders they have planted in the Russian household articulates how unnatural — at least for the Shelbys — this house and these people are. Wrapped in fog, the sex and bodies are almost mundane.
Tommy, drinking, sits on a couch watching with Tatiana before suggesting they leave to fuck in “someplace dark.” They enter a bedroom, Tommy staggers while holding a bottle, and Tatiana begins by saying, “You still love her, don’t you? You want her?” She repeatedly asks Tommy if he loves Grace and if he wants her. Tommy grows angry at her questions.
Finally, Tatiana answers herself: “You want her? You want her.”
Tommy veers between anger and tears, the emotions cascading down his face. Finally, he buries his face in her shoulder.
Then Tatiana explains: “In the palace in Tbilisi, there was a priest, and he would put his hands here. [She puts her hands around his throat.] And with that strangulation, there was also ecstasy. [She undresses.] It’s called Khlysty, a Siberian prayer. You are almost hung over. You are almost dead, but in that moment . . . . Women who had lost men in the war would lay down and they would fuck the ghost. You want her. You want her, don’t you? You want her.”
As Tommy submits, Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker” plays. Tatiana puts her hands on his throat.
And the ghost enters.
Tommy’s making love with Grace in the scene from 2.5. Then he’s back in his bedroom at Archer House. Grace peers in from outside the window wearing the dress she had on when she was murdered; Tatiana looks back at her before turning around. The camera goes back to Tommy. Grace enters the frame and puts her hand on Tommy’s throat. She kisses him and pushes him back on the bed, putting her hands on his throat. He wakes up, clutching his throat and gasps.
Tatiana says, “There. I opened up another treasury for you.”
Tommy puts his arm around her and looks up.
Several things happen in this scene.
First, Tommy is reunited with Grace. Tatiana may be selfish, but she recognizes Tommy’s grief and uses herself as a vessel to assuage his suffering. If you’re on #TeamGrace, the scene is troubling, but taken on its own terms, Tatiana is giving Tommy a blessing. She is allowing Tommy to be with Grace in the same the way widows reunited with their husbands killed at war. Yes, Tatiana gets her own pleasure, but she sees herself as giving him something precious, “another treasury.” As the scene ends, Tommy seems to have found something he lacked.
When the Shelby brothers leave the following morning, there’s a sense that Tommy is more at peace than he was. His grief hasn’t left him, and his business side is still in charge, but the Romany part of him has found something it needed.
Second, it sets up Tommy’s realization at the end of Series 3: That the established order will never let him in and that he will have to find another way, a less traditional way, to get what he wants. (I discuss that idea here.) Just as the Khylsty subverted the orthodox church, so must Tommy undermine the existing order. Tatiana begins to show him the way.
Publication Date: 17 June 2016
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