It's 1924 and four women — one heavily pregnant, one severely hungover — are sat in a Birmingham betting office. It's Good Friday, one of the busiest days of the year, but the men have left these women behind to handle the workload. Worse, they've sent a teenage boy to boss them around.
One woman makes a suggestion. Other female workers in the city are on strike. There's a political rally being led by staff steward Jessie Eden at the Bullring. Should they... ?
Glances are exchanged, coats are grabbed. Seconds later they push past the punters and saunter Reservoir Dogs-style down the street, ready to raise a fist for female empowerment — if only for an afternoon, love.
It's scenes like that, and strong-willed characters like these, that have helped me reconcile my obsession with BBC Two's Brummie gangster drama, Peaky Blinders, which is right in the middle of its fourth series at the moment. Do I have some sort of primal fixation for bloodlust and gore? Yes — and this series may be the most violent and thrilling of the lot. But equally captivating is how the period piece weaves in women who can stand up to Cillian Murphy's chilling Tommy Shelby.
Sure, we've already had some incredible additions this season, including Adrien Brody playing a New York gangster with a vendetta against the whole Shelby family. Then there's Aiden Gillen playing an Irish traveller (!) hired as a mercenary by Tommy Shelby to protect his family against the gangsters. We can only wait for Tom hardy to pop up again at some point.
But it's still the women who are particularly bad ass.
Helen McCrory's Aunt Polly is the bad bitch of the bunch: calculating and capable of the darkest acts but, like her nephew Tommy, guided by her parental instincts. Last season saw her acknowledge her vulnerabilities and find romantic love, only to forsake it when Tommy suggested her artist lover was a mole. He wasn't, but she didn't hesitate to slice through his portrait of her. This is a woman who lashes out when the things she values — chiefly, her son Michael (Finn Cole) — are put in jeopardy. Series 4 will give her new motivation to let that vindictive mama bear loose. Watch out.
Sisters-in-law Esme (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) and Linda Shelby (Kate Phillips) couldn't be more dissimilar, save for the fact that neither wilts in the face of male (read: Tommy Shelby's) authority. Esme is reckless, and occasionally coke-addled, but she's fierce and quick with an opinion. Arthur's wife Linda takes a more strategic approach, making the family decisions and then coolly implementing them as a sort of agent. She out-negotiated Tommy. She suggested the women go on strike. At this rate, she could auction off Tommy's favourite race horse to Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy) and he wouldn't find out until Cheltenham.
Sole Shelby sister Ada (Sophie Rundle) has evolved into a full-fledged girlboss. Former sex worker and occasional recipient of Tommy's grunts, Lizzie Stark (Natasha O'Keeffe) could undoubtedly benefit from an Oprah intervention, but her resolve to not be portrayed as a victim shows a steely determination.
That leaves plenty for female fans to chew on. But as the series 4 action progresses to 1926, the Shelbys are about to encounter their first true-blue feminist: the aforementioned trade unionist and real-life Birmingham ball-buster Jessie Eden, played by Happy Valley's Charlie Murphy. Eden fought for equal pay and better working conditions, and it's delicious to see her call out Tommy Shelby for screwing over his female factory workers and referring to her as "sweetheart".
Like Tony Soprano and Sons of Anarchy's Jax Teller before him, Tommy is a character we can't help cheering on despite the instinct that he's exactly the sort of ruthless, power-mad man we'd be protesting in real life. Jessie Eden may only be a fly in his ointment, but it's satisfying to see a strong woman challenge him. Because, like Tony and Jax, Tommy operates best when he's going toe to toe with the Carmelas and Dr. Melfis and Gemmas and Taras and Aunt Pols who defy him.
And who knows? Maybe Small Heath is ready for a mini gender revolution. We could think of a few Shelby women who'd no doubt join the cause. Here's to seeing how Jessie shakes things up this series. Mind you don't get caught by one of those bullets whizzing by, sweetheart.
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