I arrived late to the historical fiction about Birmingham’s fictional Shelby gang, but arrive I did.
The show comes out of the gate swinging with Stephen Knight’s crisp, crackling dialogue and unflinching lens. Everything oozes style: from the fictional hair-cuts to the beautiful, inescapable stylists of the cinematography, Peaky Blinders is a success. Mostly.
Spoilers for Peaky Blinders ahead.
Season one is a wild, unpredictable ride. It’s unclear if we’re supposed to route for Tommy and his comrades, but ultimately the show endears us to the array of misfits that make up the gang. Tommy is the linchpin: he is war-wounded, inaccessible to the outside world, and constantly, inevitably, comes out on top, only to get himself into deeper trouble.
Excellently, the first season closes, and Tommy does not, in fact, get the girl. The push and pull of Grace and Tommy’s relationship becomes the emotional core of the show when other players spin wildly out of control.
But for all its sharp monologues about justice and broods on morality, Peaky Blinders has a problem that’s hard to diagnose: a sort of hard-to-place issue that afflicts the successive seasons of the show.
Thomas Shelby is a bad dude.
He cheats people out of their money, threatens, racketeers, extorts and kills, but at his core, he’s likeable. Through a bizarre combination of Cillian Murphy’s odd looks and charm, Tommy’s acts of contrition feel as if they outweigh his crimes.
I find myself rooting for Tommy — he is, even more bizarrely, the only sane one in his whole family and gang. His intelligence exceeds those around him, Shelby or otherwise. He is capable of out manoeuvring his opposition, rather than defeating them through force or fear (read here as how the show presents him, Tommy does some pretty dumb things). While he brings these tools to bear on problems, its rare for the show to have Tommy succeed through anything but cunning and sheer force of will. But mostly, he wins because he has his family behind him.
The Shelby clan want Tommy to succeed, because his success is their success. The story strikes a careful balance in this regard: the members of the Shelby family want Tommy to succeed, but they don’t necessary agree with Tommy’s methods.
This balance is achieved through a handful of rhetorical devices, but the most prominent tool is dramatic tension. We, the audience, rarely know the full extent of Tommy’s plan. The Shelby family are almost always in the same boat. They argue with Tommy, call him insane behind his back, and scoff at his inscrutable tasks, but, invariably, carry out his orders, only for Tommy’s hidden plan to fire-off, Rube Goldberg-esque, and succeed.
Each victory comes with a price, of course. As the seasons progress, Tommy becomes further and further embroiled in conspiracy, and mired in criminal vendettas and even the IRA.
But for all that, the Shelby family is easy to barrack for. They’re downtrodden. They’re outsiders. Because the “gypsy” is portrayed (accurately or otherwise) as the lowest class in England, any opposition the Shelby family faces is, automatically, burdened by politics of condescension.
Literally everyone is better than the Shelbys, so all foes are automatically punching down, rather than punching up.
The family itself, mostly, stick together. Dissenting opinions vie for Tommy’s interest throughout their many misadventures, and increasingly, when Tommy is ignored, things go wrong.
Not to say he is always right. Tommy’s misdeeds get the whole family into strife, regularly, and even result in Tommy becoming a widower mid-way through the story.
The point I’m getting to is that this family dynamic — the shared goal of backing Tommy’s vision within reason — is what makes the Shelby clan sympathetic.
Season Four… ditches this. And the story is far worse for it, almost to the point of tedium.
At the end of the third season, the family comes together. They seem to have defeated their common enemy, thanks to Tommy. Everyone is free to depart: Arthur and his wife are going to America to have their child. Michael has abandoned his potential normal life to double-down with the Shelby family business. Polly is ready to shack up with her painter friend, once and for all. Everyone is ready to rest, finally, now that the Russian business is closed, not to mention, they’ve all paid their price.
Tommy has suffered for his audacity. In his desperation to save his son, he is forced to confront the tunnels of his past.
Arthur and John undergo a fate worse than death: damnation, having needlessly killed six innocent workers as part of the plan to recover Tommy’s son.
Michael kills Father Patrick, a man who, the story intimates, molested Michael as a child. The catastrophe of this revenge incites Michael to abandon his girlfriend and unborn child, buying revenge at the price of his humanity.
Polly, for the first time, actually comes out on top by following Tommy’s orders. She ends up burdened with the potential of a good man, and must strike out, and make the most of her future — a price of its own for a woman who has never allowed herself to live.
John Boy must make peace with his wife (finally), and face the eternal punishment of family life, the only thing he always dreaded.
In a way, all of our main cast pay a price for their part in the heist. It’s subtle, indirect and electric.
The family gathers in the drawing room.
Tommy hands out huge wads of cash: the gang’s takings from their most audacious heist, one that nearly cost the life of Tommy’s infant son. Then Tommy announces he had to make a deal with the police. The family is arrested, and sentenced to death, all but Tommy.
The season ends with the dramatic commotion of the Shelby family being dragged from Tommy’s house, leaving him alone, unharmed.
The season closes with no time to address nor reflect on this calamity.
It’s a bizarre, epilogue-twist that does nothing but create a cliff hanger to draw viewers back for the next season. It effectively adds nothing to the episode, all of our players have paid for their sins within the narrative.
I was expecting the following season focused on how this might be resolved.
As mentioned earlier, the Shelby family are gypsy — they believe in curses and hexes and the like, and are treated as a lower class in England based on their ethnicity.
There’s an automatic tension found in Tommy’s power, then. He is the lowest rung on the ladder with a huge, big, bad boom-stick of power, the uprising from the bottom. The idea of having Tommy slowly legitimise his criminal enterprise proves compelling as the seasons go on, but season 3’s twist begs a large, unapproached question: how can Thomas Shelby, gypsy crime-lord, approach and tackle the unwieldy criminal justice system.
This is a rich storytelling vein, ripe with exploration of the embedded concerns of the Shelby clan as both members of proletariat, and to some extent, the rulers of Birmingham. Tommy’s dogma is never quite challenged by the incarceration of his family because we’re never offered the opportunity to explore the impact of this event.
Granted, we are told Tommy is reeling from the impact of his family’s arrest — he only sleeps with prostitutes, he doesn’t contact anyone in his family if it doesn’t relate to his work, and so on.
Isolation is the price Tommy pays for his misdeeds, but… then things sort of go back to normal.
John is killed by Italian Mafioso and the family reluctantly reforms, only now they don’t trust or like Tommy.
All the wind in the show’s sails is reduced to a bluster, as every conversation is driven by the same, simple conflict:
Tommy wants X person to do something, and they have to trust him like they always have. X person doesn’t want to do it because of what happened, but sure enough they’ll do it anyway.
I’m generalising, obviously, but this flavour of conflict repeats, over and over, for more or less the whole season.
It is by no means uninteresting, but pails in comparison to the diverse, rich conflict of the earlier seasons, where every character has a history with each other, and their actions are driven by huge, electric desires that collide, creating shock waves and collateral damage.
All to say, these challenges are faced by every show as it goes along. I suspect this is a symptom more so of narratives that are not quite sure when they will be ended (TV shows on streaming services are notorious for this quirk).
Peaky Blinders breaks this formula later on (season 5) with varying degrees of success.
But the problem of not knowing when to end a show is not new, but certainly growing increasingly obvious.