From a story perspective, it feels like it is, but the following statement probably isn’t a true one.
If you look deep enough into history, any super-wealthy family has a criminal past. By most accounts, John D. Rockerfeller’s dad was a con artist and all around cad. Joseph Kennedy may or may not have been a bootlegger, but he definitely conducted business with some shady fellows. There’s all the stories of the various robber barons, such as Carnegie, Gould and Fisk. And, rumors continue to swirl around Bill Gates, who probably isn’t really plotting total global domination.
Don’t get me started about politicians. How can you leave a relatively low-paying office wealthier than when you were first elected? Things just don’t add up, at least not in any way that doesn’t involve unethical or illegal dealings.
Which brings us to the fictional story of Thomas Shelby, O.B.E. (Cillian Murphy), and his family.
As with his real-life counterparts, Tommy Shelby isn’t immune to forces outside of his control. Like the economy. This season of Peaky Blinders begins on Black Tuesday, October 24, 1929, the stock market crash that kicked off the Great Depression. The story so far has been about the post-WWI rise of a Birmingham crime family to a position of power in both legitimate business and in the English government. The Shelby family fortunes take a steep downward dive as their legitimate business holdings in the United States are virtually wiped out by the stock market crash. This necessitates a return to some of the less-than-legal activities that allowed the family to accrue its fortune in the first place.
Tommy Shelby has always been portrayed as a visionary with a nearly supernatural ability to foresee potential futures and to make the moves necessary to ensure his victory. Tommy also read the portents of the stock market crash, but the family’s losses were multiplied because Tommy’s cousin, Michael Gray (Finn Cole), failed to sell off their holdings before the collapse. Which, of course, makes the losses of the Shelby Company Ltd. his fault, if blame must be applied here. For the sake of dramatic storytelling, it must.
By the way, Tommy’s ability to foretell the stock market crash wasn’t so supernatural or unprecedented. It seems John D. Rockerfeller, one of the super-wealthy Americans namedropped earlier in this post, also had a touch of precognition and managed to emerge from Black Tuesday wealthier than ever. Truth is often stranger than fiction.
Tommy Shelby is the keystone character that binds all individual story arcs together. As our protagonist antihero, it is his personal torment that is not only the most important component of the show’s drama but also the goal of the series writers. It is the duty of the writer to pile on the obstacles and setbacks in the path of the protagonist. Season 5 definitely continues that trend.
Tommy is still contending with his grief over the murder of his wife, Grace Shelby (Annabelle Wallis), left to raise their son Charles alone. Meanwhile, he’s developed an impressive addiction to opium that causes him to hallucinate his dead wife, among other things. In spite of these things—or, perhaps, because of them—Tommy acts quickly to secure his power base and shore up public support of the Peaky Blinders in Birmingham. The stock market crash may have wounded the family, but it didn’t destroy it. At the same time, Tommy fulfills his duties as the MP of South Birmingham. For my fellow Yanks, MP is an abbreviation for “member of Parliament.” An MP is an elected representative from a certain area in the House of Commons.
As expected by this point in the series, the drama and conflicts are multi-layered in the story. Tommy will never be without enemies, something all of us have realized by this point. Tommy’s enemies are both internal—as within himself and his family—and external.
I’m impressed by how much story is packed into only six episodes.
In the internal antagonists column, Michael Gray is high on the list. Tommy hears the rumors that Michael is actively plotting against him, perhaps wary of Tommy’s retribution for losing the family fortune. Michael returned from the USA with a new bride, Gina (Anya Taylor-Joy), who comes across as particularly ambitious and greedy. She seems to be manipulating Michael behind the scenes. Tommy’s suspicions about Michael affect his relationship with his Aunt Polly Gray (Helen McCrory), who is Michael’s mother.
Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson), who has had his struggles in the past, has emerged as Tommy’s staunchest supporter in the family, but even this has dramatic consequences. When Arthur’s wife Linda (Kate Phillips) loses what tenuous control she had over her volatile husband, their marriage falls apart in some unexpected, and especially violent, ways.
Tommy himself is now married to former prostitute Lizzie (Natasha O’Keeffe), and the two have a daughter together. Lizzie feels Tommy pulling away from her, with her main romantic rival being Tommy’s dead wife, and she—like Linda—is contemplating divorce. It’s not easy, it turns out, to leave the Peaky Blinders once you’re a part of the gang.
If the family drama isn’t enough to sustain your interest, the show offers plenty of external antagonists for the Shelby family as well.
Jimmy McCavern (Brian Gleeson) and the Billy Boys, a rival gang to the Peaky Blinders, flex their criminal muscle in this season, straining the relationship between Aberama Gold (Aiden Gillen) and Tommy after attacking Aberama’s son. As actions lead to reactions and consequences, Aberama’s character arc is completed after he married Polly and attempts to exact his revenge upon McCavern.
The main antagonist of the season is Oswald Mosley (Sam Caflin), who is, like Tommy, an MP. He is an ambitious politician who is attempting to rally support for his new political party: The British Union of Fascists. Tommy seems, early on, to be a tenuous ally to Mosley. But, the ever-prescient leader of the Peakys sees the threat posed by Mosley’s actions. So, does Winston Churchill (Neil Maskell), who becomes aware of Tommy’s plans to thwart the nascent Nazi Mosley and encourages them. Things, of course, don’t go exactly as planned. People die, but not necessarily the right ones.
Series creator Stephen Knight has indicated that the overarching plan for the story of the Peaky Blinders was to cover the years between WWI and WWII. The show may only have a couple of seasons to go, with its penchant for skipping years between the seasons. The introduction of Oswald Mosley serves to lay the groundwork for the rise of nationalism and fascism, and of course Nazi Germany and WWII. We are inching ever closer, on the big stage, to the culmination of our story.
Season 4 was a difficult act to follow, but I think Season 5 did an admirable job of reestablishing the core motivations of our main characters. Thomas Shelby and his family are back in this season, somewhat returning to their hardscrabble roots while fighting to hold on to what they’ve earned, through both legal and illegal means.
Firewater’s Don’t-F***-with-the-Peaky-Blinders Report Card: A
I nearly went with an A-minus grade to differentiate this season from the previous one, which I still believe was more entertaining. However, upon reflection, the same grade seemed more fitting. While this season doesn’t feel as resolved as previous seasons did, it does set up more exciting things to come.
Plus, it features the surprise return of a fan-fave (including mine) character. I mean, a real surprise.