The Red Right Hand

By Reyshimar Arguelles

Obsessive is an understatement to describe my love for the BBC-produced series Peaky Blinders. Comparable only with Breaking Bad and The Sopranos in terms of narrative complexity, the show has cultivated a devoted following on account of its impressive production value, impeccable writing, and stylish costume design juxtaposed against the abyss that is 1920s Birmingham.

I wrote a (sort of) review about Peaky Blinders last week. And like all pseudo-critics who think they can come up with a genuine deconstruction of a show whose brilliance requires no amount of movie punditry to understand, I might have made the error of not giving the show the thorough examination it deserves.

People already get that Tommy Shelby is a “man of contradictions” and a type of Ozymandias with a peak cap. It does not require a genius to explain the main character’s lust for power. If anything, we are only wasting ourselves by scrutinizing Peaky Blinders using an elitist lens, which is what many self-proclaimed pop culture critics are guilty of doing.

Apart from the numerous incidents of drunk fighting, kidnapping, murder, sabotage and endangering the British monarchy following the end of the First World War, the series also pushes two underlying tropes as it progresses: retribution and redemption.

The show’s theme song itself, “Red Right Hand” by Melbourne-based Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, is obviously a reference to God’s vengeance in John Milton’s poem “Paradise Lost”. The term “Red Right Hand” also describes a figure who is an agent of divine wrath tasked to cleanse the world of evil and punish those who side with the corrupt, the slanderers, and the fornicators, all of whom can be found in every member of the Shelby family.

In the series, we are made to believe that the Red Right Hand is Tommy Shelby himself and his family of Romani Gypsies who run the area of Small Heath, Birmingham like a private enterprise. But the Shelbys are nowhere near Messianic in their ways. They rob, kill, intimidate, burn, and bribe their way to be the most feared family in the Midlands. Whoever crosses them will face the Red Right Hand of Tommy Shelby himself or his brothers, the violent Arthur Shelby and the cocky John Shelby.

We are tempted to vouch for Tommy who, drained by the horrors of France and the working-class conditions in his own city, attempts to escape the horrible trap of law, religion, and morality. He rejects them altogether, thus allowing him to operate the family’s illicit activities without much consequence or fear of consequence.

It’s important to note that this rejection is not absolute. Tommy retains a semblance of morality and shows a mercilessness relative to the gravity of the wrongdoing done to him or any member of his family. His vengeance is selective, but extensive; he will even go so far as shooting the wife of a gang leader in retaliation for an attempt at Tommy’s life.

So, it would seem that Tommy is already the master of his fate, having formed allegiances with ruthless gangs in the UK and the US and handling clandestine operations on behalf of the Crown. By the third season, the Shelbys’ illicit activities have built the foundation for a legitimate enterprise as Tommy frequently expresses his aim to sever the family’s criminal ties and chart a path towards a decent and dignified future.

They fail when new grudges attempt to dismantle the Shelbys’ empire and push them back to their criminal roots. In the process of surviving the threats of their enemies, however, the Shelbys only create new grudges that open up new confrontations.

Tommy finds himself in yet another inescapable trap, that of sin and of his own desire to play the Red Right Hand. He is aware of the implications of such power, but as he is driven deeper into the bowels of damnation, he embraces the fact that he is lost, but at the same time, realizes the need to give his children a decent life.

There is no telling where the Peaky Blinders are going in the next season, but we can only be sure of more beatings, killings, and hedonistic acts that the family is notoriously known for. We are also assured that Tommy himself will not play the Red Right Hand for long as he seeks to slowly escape the trap of damnation.

We should know, because redemption is always available to those who have lost their way. But who are we to decide on salvation when there exists the True Red Right Hand.