A penny for your thoughts makes it very hard to get by in this economy.
I want to like Peaky Blinders more than I do. The premise and setting is one of the most interesting on TV today. Everything from its costumes and set design to the cinematography and editing make it a technical marvel, and one of the best shows produced in Britain in many’s a year. The characters and acting are also a tour de force and it’s no wonder it has achieved the cultural impact it has, but there are just too many smaller issues, that over time have built up, to stop me from loving it.
Season 5 sees Thomas Shelby (a near iconic Cillian Murphy) struggling with internal demons while he supplements his duties as head of the Peaky Blinders with that of an MP. Added to this are the simultaneous challenges of the Wall Street Crash, rival gangs seeking to usurp the Peaky Blinders’ dominance and a sinister politician who could change the course of the country’s history. But where most shows of its gangster ilk get stronger with each passing year, for me Peaky Blinders has never surpassed its opening season.
The most obvious reason for this is the streamlined scope. The Peaky Blinders, named so for the razors they hide in their caps, are an upstart street gang in post-WWI Birmingham, where the main threats are a bigger gang boss and a police inspector closing in on them. In this most recent outing, as in the poorest season to date (Season 3), they are rubbing shoulders with some of the most influential and dangerous people of the era. Raised stakes are no bad thing, but it does sacrifice some of the rawness that were the show’s roots.
It’s almost as if the show has become a victim of its own success, each year needing to outdo itself, but there’s one constant element which for me means the Peaky Blinders are never the underdogs the show tries so hard to paint them as - Tommy Shelby. After all these years he has become almost superhuman with his intellect and scheming. He even casually mentions that apparently he foresaw the Wall Street Crash coming. The show is so keen for him to be the genius antihero that they have removed all threat of him ever being defeated.
I say this in the full knowledge that he “loses” at the end of this season’s finale, but that was not of his own doing. There is some mystery as to who foiled him (though not by the looks of it, any of the main antagonists), but for sure it was one of his associates or family who betrayed him, for Tommy himself never fails. This is where the show aims to reveal Tommy’s weaknesses, in his relationships with those closest to him. He is distant and often unappreciative of the people who have got him to where he is, but it is hard to empathise with him when he is equally closed off to us as viewers. He is shown, very obviously, to be having suicidal thoughts, personified by visions of his dead wife, but beyond that you never get much chance to see inside the man. Tony Soprano was so relatable as he had the same troubles and flaws as us, but Thomas Shelby is always indecipherable. You never see him formulate his plans, or have any semblance of a normal life, hell I forgot he even had children at points this season. He is always the enigma in the long black coat.
This is a greater issue I find with the show, it often becomes too interested in being cool at the expense of story. It is a visual masterclass, however some of these don’t make sense. For example, there is a scene where Tommy approaches a scarecrow, only for a note to reveal he is standing in a minefield. The following sequence is brilliantly tense, as he treads his way back through the explosive ground (how did he get to the scarecrow no problem? Doesn’t matter), before his son runs into the field as well (why does he do that? Doesn’t matter, Tommy’s indestructible but his son may not be!). He catches his son in time and leads him away, danger averted. However he immediately marches back into the field with a machine gun, ignoring the seemingly now harmless mines and shoots the scarecrow and the mines, though not the ones he has now walked through three times. Was it cool? Yes. Did it make a lick of sense? Not one!
This was the major issue of Season 4. It smartly took the characters back to their roots against a small scale, but believably terrifying force in Adrian Brody’s New York mafioso. He kills Tommy’s brother in the opening episode - holy shit! stakes! - gets in a room with Tommy and threatens that he will kill him only after he does the rest of his family. He then kidnaps his family, and doesn’t kill them, before making the shoddiest attempts at Tommy’s life, ignoring his previous purpose. Phenomenal setup, underwhelming payoff.
Season 4’s antagonist also felt an organic development of the story, as a consequence to Tommy’s previous actions. The Season 5 antagonists though, of which there are plenty, seem to just be drawn from contemporary elements and then smashed together against the Peaky Blinders. Oswald Mosely, the real life British Fascist is the main villain, who Tommy decides to target unprovoked, though as many of the supporting cast themselves ask, why? Because he’s a fascist, and fascists are bad, and Tommy Shelby needs an enemy? He often treats Tommy with unnecessary antagonism, presumably to try and stoke the conflict. Same with the Billy Boys, they come from nowhere and then almost as quickly fade back to being no more than a name dropped plot device (side whinge, dreadful Glaswegian accents and the worst onscreen depiction of Glasgow - at the time bigger than Birmingham - as a single track country road).
As for the other characters this season, none of them really seemed to develop since they all live in Tommy’s shadow in terms of significance. Arthur is squandering all sympathy by reliving the same storyline he has for the last few seasons, and it’s getting tiresome, Pol, again, is given criminally little to do. The show has also indulged in my pet peeve of any interwar British drama having to include Winston Churchill. Alfie Solomon is back, not through any sense of logic, but because Tom Hardy is so fun in the role. The main standout was Michael, who now backed by his clearly smarter wife Gina is looking positioned to become a major rival to Tommy in coming seasons.
That is once they resolve the loose plot points from this season, being the first one to not definitively end. It’s not an issue that they are building a multi-season storyline, in fact several of the issues I’ve griped about could be aided by having longer seasons, but it does mean this season feels pretty inconsequential, a lot of plate spinning for resolutions that we won’t see for another year.
There is so that Peaky Blinders does so well, the camerawork (one scene where an entire bullet extraction was shot in one take was remarkable TV), the editing and its world building all deserve mentioning again, as does the often brilliant dialogue (“I’m glad I didn’t shoot you, it would’ve been a kindness.”). But then it misses too many opportunities to prevent it from moving beyond a good, stylish show to challenge the top tier of American gangster shows which at some point it could have done.