The Netflix/BBC show was — and is — always pure machismo camp
Ada Thorne, née Shelby, arrives late to a family meeting. There was an explosion, blocking off a road, but surely a coincidence, obviously nothing to do with her crime-laden family or any of their myriad associates … right? Her brothers look away, and Ada sighs, “It would be nice if just one thing could happen in Birmingham that wasn’t our fault.”
Such is the exhausted plight of the titular Peaky Blinders in Peaky Blinders. Steven Knight’s BBC/Netflix series about a Birmingham gang turned reluctant high society ended this Friday with a bombastic six-episode run to conclude its sixth and supposedly final season. Knight has teased not only a follow-up film as the show’s “seventh season,” but also at least one or two spinoff series based on adventures of minor members of the Shelby family. So is it all over? Only as over as it ever is for the Shelby family, which is to say that if Knight decides they have one last job, they’ll have one last job.
As such, the show’s sixth season feels both conclusive and not, like a program hedging its bets from episode to episode. At its helm still stands the long-suffering Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), the leader of the family, hellbent on one last grasp to solidify the family’s power in both Birmingham and London (and Europe, for that matter, with the Second World War creeping closer and closer). He’s flanked as ever by his wayward older brother, Arthur (Paul Anderson — a different one) and baby sister, the aforementioned Ada (Sophie Rundle), his ever-beleaguered wife, Lizzie (Natasha O’Keeffe), and Aunt Polly (the gone-too-soon Helen McCrory). His bratty cousin Michael (Finn Cole), Polly’s son, hovers on the horizon, eager to grab whatever power he can.
Of course, that’s leaving out a whole host of regulars, from Johnny Dogs (Packy Lee) to Charlie Strong (Ned Dennehy); from Esme (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) to Linda (Kate Phillips) to Gina (Anya Taylor-Joy); the all-star cast of villains, from Maj. Campbell (Sam Neill) to Darby Sabini (Noah Taylor) to Father John Hughes (Paddy Considine) to Luca Changretta (Adrien Brody) to Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin). And obviously don’t neglect Aberama Gold (Aidan Gillen) or Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy). There was magic and there were curses. There were guys walking away from explosions in slow motion. This was a show where Tom Hardy could show up at any second, playing a Jewish mobster (sure), and say the wildest shit you’ve ever heard (in the show’s fourth season, he opens a scene with the sentence, “My little cousin was born blind and now I donate a considerable sum of money to a charity that gives dogs with eyes to blind Jews.” For sure!).
The thing about Peaky Blinders is that describing it often sounds like you’re having a stroke. Everyone has a ridiculous name and there are way too many famous people on it, but the type of famous person known as “British character actor.” Every season, Tommy Shelby promised the family this was as far and as awful as they’d have to go to get what they need, and the next season they’d do it all over again. I came into Peaky Blinders right after the second season aired, and I blew through the show’s first 12 episodes (ah, the sweet relief of a six-episode season) in a matter of days. Part of the initial joy was simple and animalistic; it was fun to see actors I know get mad at each other on television. The other thing was that I generally like Knight’s work, ranging from the romantic and sublime (Eastern Promises) to the ludicrous and obscene (Serenity — not the Firefly movie, the one where Jeremy Strong plays a guy called “The Rules”). Over the years, however, I stuck with Peaky Blinders with begrudging enthusiasm, maintaining it was a good show without knowing whether or not it was. Certainly it dipped in quality in season 3, then rose to bizarre absurdity in season 4, all before spiraling out of control in season 5. Regardless of the villain or the stakes or the politics, there was one constant, and that was the Peaky fookin’ Blinders, the roaches of Netflix. You couldn’t kill them. Any extermination attempt just made them stronger.
Peaky Blinders was always dark, and often cruel, though usually laughably dark to the point of parody. Everyone suffered so much — and for what? Some bootlegging, gun sales, to protect a family pub that got trashed every other episode. In 2019, an academic paper argued that the show glorified toxic masculinity and violence and nationalism, while a spokesperson for the show argued that Peaky Blinders did the exact opposite. It’s a difficult show to watch and say, “This all seems like a good idea,” but the show has become a totem for “sigma male” memes featuring Tommy Shelby. This culture ignored the show’s wryness and irony, that none of this seems all that appealing. The best that sigma males can hope for is a life in gray old Birmingham, where bodies are found in piles of coal? Good luck to them with that.
Perhaps this is why the show’s sixth and apparently final season feels so outrageously grim and miserable, and at times, even shockingly violent: to make sure that once and for all, the show’s fans have the right idea about the type of man Tommy Shelby is. He acts with rampant cruelty and chaotic politicking, hobnobbing with the sneering fascists from the show’s fifth season. After watching Spencer, a film written by Knight, I wondered if the show’s last season would angle towards historical revisionism, if maybe Tommy Shelby would kill Hitler before he came to rise. But alas, in order to topple the fascists, he must first link arms with them in a series of moves almost too sickening to watch. “Tommy, you have been on a journey. From the back streets to the corridors of power,” a character tells him as Shelby points a gun at his head.
The thing is: We know that. We know that the Peaky Blinders were once a street gang and now Shelby is an MP. Peaky Blinders has always tripped over itself to announce its themes, its wants, its goals. The Peaky Blinders are in it for the Peaky Blinders. That I thought the show might build toward something more holistic, something where the Peaky Blinders provide a public good, makes me just as susceptible to Peaky propaganda (Peaky-ganda) as the fans who worship Tommy as a sort of men’s rights icon. The journey is not that of England, or the Peaky Blinders audience, and it’s not even a journey at all. It’s a wheel, turning in the same direction over and over again. The Peaky Blinders have traveled there and back again for themselves and themselves alone. I can’t blame them for not taking me along.
What comes of the final season feels like a punishment, or at best, a time out for its most zealous supporters. The sixth season is hobbled by death and destruction, new characters floating in and out with hardly a sense of place or purpose. What is Stephen Graham doing there? Or Oswald Mosley’s bisexual mistress Lady Diana (Amber Anderson)? I barely know. Maybe we’ll find out in the yet-to-be-confirmed movie, but until then, this new entry feels like it’s biding its time, forcing us to care about an in-family rivalry that never held much weight to begin with. The show is desperately missing the presence of the Blinders’ Aunt Polly, played by Helen McCrory, who passed away in real life before the sixth season was set to film. Polly’s absence in the show is handled tactfully and thoughtfully, but the space she leaves behind is used to fuel a halfhearted feud between Tommy and Michael. There are several musical interludes set over scenes of needless suffering; there is a subplot about a mole in the organization that is barely coherent enough to follow. In loading itself up on new characters and wanton asides, the pathos of not only Tommy, but also Lizzie and Arthur and Ada and Michael, are left on the sidelines. No wonder these characters don’t feel human anymore; we don’t even see them. They exist only archetypically.
Scene after scene reminds you that this is bad and the Peaky Blinders are bad ad nauseam until you’re left hating all of them and everything they’ve ever done. It’s certainly a way to go out, and it’s a firm hand for Knight to play in light of what the show’s reputation is outside of itself. “You,” Alfie Solomons grumbles to Tommy Shelby, “who, on judgment day, is probably fucked when the other shoe drops” — but is that ever really true? Every season the Peaky Blinders have been fucked when the other shoe drops, and they manage to pull it out.
Still, movie or now not, it’ll be a shame to be carried out with Peaky Blinders as we comprehend it. At its fine, Peaky Blinders operated as a sort of machismo camp, no longer unlike Sons of Anarchy, wherein each little bit of misbehavior and misogyny become justifiable. Even the girls acted like men. Reckless ingesting, relentless drug use — all in the call of getting a terrific time. Stealing? Gambling? Whatever it takes to put meals on the desk. And homicide, properly, that’s simply what’s requested to shield the own family. It’s all infantrymen’ paintings, and Peaky Blinders became usually brief to remind you that those men were soldiers in the First World War. That’s why they’re terrible, the trauma, of direction. Don’t you see? It became a completely unpredictable and regularly silly show, in which a individual will be shot within the head on the stop of one season and seem in the season highest quality of the subsequent season. It changed into a soap opera, if not only a ordinary opera, heightened and absurd.
What was there to get out of Peaky Blinders? That was the question that churned in my head as I watched. Television doesn’t have to have a purpose, but what was the reason I gave my time to this show about heightened and maligned male trauma and not a dozen other shows about heightened and maligned male trauma? The answer, I suspect, is the women of the show: the wives and sisters and aunts. There was rarely if ever a woman on the show unless she was a relative of a man, but still, the women stood strong as not only the voices of reason but the bastions of good politics. In the show’s first season, little sister Ada Shelby makes waves going off with her communist boyfriend, the gone-too-soon Freddie Thorne. Her politics and her judgment made Ada kind of a drip in early seasons, or was it that strong moral character feels like a drag in the Blindersverse because none of them possess that type of fortitude? As the show progressed, I felt certain they’d write Ada off; she’s too good, she’s too uninvolved. But Ada stuck through it, and in a rare moment of earnestness in the final episode, Tommy tells her perhaps she is the one who ought to be the real politician, that she is the one with real human interests at heart. So perhaps Peaky Blinders knows it is a demon-drenched world and within that world, there are pillars of hope and change. It just can’t be found in the Blinders themselves.