When “Peaky Blinders” aired its first season in 2013, the first viewers ever saw of Tommy Shelby (played by Irish actor Cillian Murphy) was him astride a great black racing horse in the dusky streets of Birmingham, England. It was 1919 and Tommy had just come home from World War I.
Five seasons later, the small-time gypsy gang (loosely based on the real-life Peaky Blinders—racketeers who never made as much of their careers as their television counterparts did) have now penetrated into the upper echelons of England society.
When “Peaky Blinders” aired its fifth season in August, the first viewers ever saw of Tommy Shelby was him astride a great black horse in the misty gray-green fields of Lickey Hills. It is Oct. 29, 1929, and Wall Street has fallen—the amassed Shelby fortune with it.
The sly beat of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand” welcomes not only a new season, but also a whole slew of new troubles for the Shelby family. From fascist gangs and grandstanders to exiled cousins and Chinese pushers—there’s a foe for every palate.
Chief among them is real-life fascist Oswald Mosley, who is played with vile aplomb by Hollywood darling Sam Claflin. Brian Gleeson of the Gleeson acting clan plays Jimmy McCavern, who serves as muscle to Mosley.
As riots crash and break in an England on the cusp of the Great Depression, art imitates life with the masterful weaving of political turmoil—not unlike that of the present—into the narrative.
Helen, Paul and Cillian
But the heart of the show, the font of great drama, is the working-class Romani family’s never-ending quest for wealth, power and legitimacy—and the slow dissolution that follows it.
For all its defects (new characters, surprise deaths and resurrections can lead one to question the sustainability of an extensive cast with no room to explore any meaningful character arcs), “Peaky Blinders” never fails to play to its strengths: great cinematography, great atmosphere, great music and above all, great acting.
Cillian Murphy blows everyone out of the water, no surprise there. The only thing outrageous about his acting at this point is the utter lack of recognition for the work he’s done with the Tommy Shelby character. The once tightly checked control of the “man for whom forbidding is forbidden” is ruined by his reliance on opiates to quell a mysterious illness. Visions of his dead wife Grace pervade every moment of rest, enticing him into the lull of easeful death. The fierce emotionality burning beneath the cool blue-eyed stare—this is Murphy at his best.
Equally great is Helen McCrory in her role as aunt and family matriarch Polly Gray. Much can be said, to its discredit, about the show’s fixation on the masculine, the machismo of it all. But perhaps the only character rivaling Tommy Shelby’s place in “Peaky” the pantheon is Polly. McCrory serves as the much-needed dose of Woman in Control on the show—and she does it with scorching relish.
Paul Anderson’s work this season as Tommy’s older brother Arthur, however, is especially superb. Anderson’s performance is the culmination of an entire series’ worth of coiled anticipation. Arthur Shelby is a grenade wrapped inside a fist with the pin pulled out. What is constantly contained within Tommy is almost never so in Arthur. But for all the literal face-slashing hail of machine-gun fire, Anderson tempers his portrayal with great depth, at once mercurial and pitifully childlike.
As the finale draws to a dread-inducing close, the fate of the Shelby family is left ambiguous in a tense cliffhanger even more trying than the third season’s.
No news on a renewal for Season 6 yet, but fans can look forward to more of deliciously stylish visuals and choice track listings, which include the likes of the late great David Bowie, Nick Cave, the Arctic Monkeys and Anna Calvi, in the future.
Birmingham-born showrunner Steven Knight intends to bookend the series with the two World Wars, ending the show “with the first air raid siren in Birmingham in 1940.”
“We are definitely doing six and we will probably do seven,” Knight told Birmingham Press Club in 2018.