For somebody who doesn’t believe in religion and is completely godless, Tommy is an incredibly superstitious man. I think people who have that belief in superstition don’t really use it when things are going well; it becomes something to blame or a way to justify something that has gone wrong. In this series things go wrong quite quickly and Tommy uses the gypsy superstition as a means of getting himself out of a situation.
— Cillian Murphy in The Killing Times
In Peaky Blinders, the Shelbys’ Romany heritage is central to their identity. I’m not an expert on Romany culture, but consider these comments from Julia Eksner and Tim Mueke in The Dictionary of Race, Ethnicity, & Culture (London; Sage, 2003):
There are several cultural elements that distinguish the many groups composing the Romani people from the majority population: Roma recognize and emphasize the distinction from the majority populations (gadze) and from other Roma groups. The language Romanes and its varieties also serve as a sign of social difference. . . . Their religions blend Christian (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox), Muslim or free-church elements, with elements of a different origin.
There are three points worth noting. First, the Roma are a people set apart; second, language is a key to signaling their otherness (this is something I want to write about at length later); third, elements of organized religion have been absorbed into this culture.
In Peaky Blinders, Tommy Shelby has always been clear that he’s an atheist. In 1.4, when Zilpha Lee asks him to swear on the Bible, Tommy answers, “I don’t believe.” Despite his rejection of organized religion, Tommy continues to adhere to beliefs passed down through his Romany heritage, even though they would appear to outsiders (and often the audience) as superstitions. Often, Curly acts as his teacher. (Steven Knight has noted that Charlie and Curly are based on real people.) I would argue these cultural tensions are essential to his character in Peaky Blinders.
Whether Tommy lost his faith before or during World War I remains uncertain, but that he was trained in Catholicism is clear. He enters churches with a sense of familiarity even though he does not worship there, and he marries Grace in a church.
In Series 3, Father Hughes forces him to confess and then perform penance by reciting the Act of Contrition with Hughes substituting his own name for God. It is one of the most unsettling scenes in all of Peaky Blinders. Even suffering from a skull fracture, Tommy is able to recite a prayer taught to him in childhood.
A number of factors are at work here: Father Hughes is perverting the prayer and he is forcing Tommy to do something that is contrary to his belief system, effectively forcing him back into a faith he has rejected with Hughes inserting himself as the godhead. It is a moment of spiritual violation.
Series 1: Curses
Tommy’s adherence to his Romany beliefs first becomes clear in 1.2 with the horse Tommy won from Johnny Dogs. After it becomes sick, Curly explains, “It’s a curse, Tom. You bought it at the fair in bad feeling. The Lees put a bad seed in the hoof. Got an old woman to put a spell!” Tommy never questions Curly’s diagnosis, saying, “So those Lee bastards cursed him.”
This seems out of character for very pragmatic Tommy Shelby, but it also suggests that there’s more going on with his character and that he doesn’t easily conform to being a stereotypical British gangster.
Series 2: Witchcraft
Series 2 is less interested in the Shelbys’ Romany beliefs, but one scene stands out: Tommy’s lack of faith in medicine and reliance on traditional healing.
After Sabini has beaten him nearly to death, Tommy checks out of the hospital and goes to Charlie and Curly at the boatyard. He asks Curly for “that oil you put on [the horses’] legs when they go lame. . . . The yellow stuff” and for “the black powder.” The conversation he has with Charlie is instructive:
Charlie: “We pay for a bloody hospital and you’re using witchcraft?”
Tommy: “I need to sleep in the open air and feel he boat under me, Charlie.”
Charlie: “You’re just like your mother.”
Granted, part of Tommy’s reasons for leaving are out of concern for his safety; however, he puts his faith in traditional Romany healing, and his statement that Curly will be his doctor again calls attention to Curly’s importance as a keeper of Romany traditions. Charlie’s reference to Tommy’s mother, a woman about whom the audience knows almost nothing, reinforces his close relationship to her and his heritage.
Series 3: Absolution
In Series 3, Tommy’s reliance on his Romany heritage takes center stage. When Father Hughes attempts to scare Tommy in 3.2 by locking him in a cell and threatening him with his dog, Tommy falls back on his Romany heritage: “I can charm dogs,” he says. “Gypsy witchcraft.” And then he does just that.
Later in that episode, when he is told by Tatiana that the sapphire Grace is wearing has been cursed by a Gypsy, he doesn’t question her. Rather, he tries to remove the necklace. Still, he fails, and Grace dies, shot with a bullet meant for Tommy. The sapphire does, indeed, seem cursed.
In 3.3, Tommy, Charlie, and Johnny Dogs travel in a caravan to Wales. His conversation with Madame Boswell is instructive. Johnny tells her that Tommy has come for “absolution.”
Tommy shows her the gem, and the following conversation takes place:
Tommy: “Would you take it?”
Madame Boswell: “I’d take it.”
Tommy: “Would you wear it?”
Madame Boswell: “Why would I not?”
Tommy: “That’s my question. My wife was wearing it the night she was shot, and I lie awake at night at 4:00 in the fucking morning and I blame myself for her death. I pushed some people too far.”
Madame Boswell: “You want me to tell you this jewel is cursed, and then her death won’t be your fault.”
Tommy: “If I believed in the priests, I would confess and ask for forgiveness, but all I have is you, Madame Boswell. I have a son. I have a business. I need to get some sleep.”
Madame Boswell: “It is cursed. I feel its curse burning through my heart. Bless you, Tommy Shelby. You’ll have good fortune from now on.”
Even though Tommy is desperate for forgiveness, a part of him acknowledges that what he has done is meaningless in the empirical world. He explains to Johnny as they are leaving, “All religion is a foolish answer to a foolish question.” That said, Tommy needs his own “foolish answers” even if a part of him understands that those answers are fictions.
This all comes together in the khlysty scene in 3.5. When the Shelbys enter the party at Wilderness House, Tommy says, “And they’re worse than us for spirits and ghosts.” After all, Tatiana, too, believed in the curse. In the course of the episode, Tatiana uses khlysty to bring Grace back to Tommy. On one hand, this seems utterly fantastic, the result of too much vodka at the Russian orgy. But given Tommy’s predisposition to embrace the Romany beliefs that are his heritage, Grace’s return becomes real – at least to Tommy. This scene is essential to providing closure for him after Grace’s death. In the world of the Catholic church, the one corrupted by Father Hughes, his reunion with Grace is impossible.
As Tommy, Arthur, and John leave the next morning to The Kills’s “Monkey 23,” there’s a sense that Tommy, in fact, has lost a monkey on his back. He has come to terms with Grace’s death, and because of Madame Boswell’s absolution, he is able to return to his life as a father, family member, and business owner. The church may have failed him, but his Romany heritage hasn’t.
In their essay, Eksner and Mueke make another important point:
Historically the labeling of all Romani people as nomadic ‘wanderers’ served to place them in an ‘evolutionary opposition’ to the ‘civilized’ people among whom they lived.
As Steven Knight has said repeatedly, the thematic question at the heart of Peaky Blinders is whether it is possible for the Shelbys to change their place in Britain’s rigid class system. By focusing on a Romany family, Knight has taken the ultimate outsider group, one with a centuries-old history of persecution, and brought them into the British elite. With his lavish estate, Tommy is far from a caravan. In other words, the question is deeper than money or class; rather, it encompasses culture. Tommy Shelby’s Romany heritage is another way in which he is an outsider who will never be accepted. It is, however, as Tommy puts it, “Who I am.”
Publication Date: 25 June 2016
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