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A Tip of the Cap to ‘Peaky Blinders,’ TV’s Swaggering Crowd-pleaser

With the BBC-produced gangster drama releasing its final season on American screens this weekend, it’s time to pay tribute to a stylish, over-the-top, and absurdly fun ride of a television show

Netflix/Ringer illustration

The worst thing ever yelled at me came in Birmingham, England. My wife and I were there for a soccer game just before the pandemic, and before hopping into a taxi to head to Villa Park, I did a quick Google search to see if anything near the train station commemorated one of my favorite TV shows, Peaky Blinders, which is set in the town. I found a tourist trap pub called the Peaky Blinder that had nothing to do with the original gang from which the show gets its name, or, from the looks of it, anything to do with the series whatsoever. But it was called the Peaky Blinder for god’s sake. I had to walk a few blocks in Birmingham to see it.

There were, predictably, murals featuring the show’s stylish main characters on the wall outside the building. As a hugely stupid person who is easy to please, I was in heaven. Despite the lack of authenticity, my wife convinced me that I had to take a picture or else I’d regret it. As she started snapping the photos—I had to take a few to get the hair right, obviously—a car slowed on the street nearby. A man dramatically rolled down his window and shouted at the top of his lungs: “You look like a fucking wanker.” The man, I am sorry to say, had a point. Look at this photo:

Peaky Blinders, for American audiences, ends its Netflix run starting this Friday with its sixth season. It is reductive to say the show is about haircuts, because it is also about nice, long coats. Mixed into that are some lessons on friendship, family, Tom Hardy’s unique ability to yell the word “fuck,” and how these things change over time (though Hardy’s delivery remains mostly the same). Tommy Shelby, brilliantly played by Cillian Murphy, started his journey walking through the ganglands of Birmingham. He ends it as a member of Parliament, having built a criminal empire and turned most of the things he did illegally in backrooms into lucrative, government-approved businesses. He won the ear of Winston Churchill and played an outsized role in British policy. At one point in Season 6 he sits at a dinner table trying to determine the political future of the entire world. But through all of this, one thing never changes: long scenes of Shelby and his friends getting out of a car really slowly while an anachronistic blues rock song blares from the soundtrack. This is a show about big jackets flapping in the wind while an Arctic Monkeys guitar riff roars through the Midlands air. It is about incredibly well-dressed people exchanging quotes about the reality of life that are perfectly suited for Instagram quote cards. It is, in short, the perfect show. As part of loving this series, you get a little bit of what I experienced in Birmingham. Yes, the show can be cheesy. Yes, it can be a bit of a tourist trap. But just smile, and if anyone calls you a wanker, remember that your hair looks great.

Let’s back up here: For those new to the show, Peaky Blinders is a BBC-produced series that found international acclaim following the exploits of the Shelby family and the gang they are a part of. This includes Tommy, the unquestioned star of the show, family, and gang; his rowdy brother Arthur (Paul Anderson); and a slew of other Shelby family members and loyal friends. The bond between the members is what supercharges the show, like a darkest timeline version of Entourage. This presents itself in many forms. A bartender at the Marquis of Lorne pub is giving two younger members a hard time? Time for the gang to burn down the pub to keep up appearances. The Peaky Blinders are not welcome at a nightclub? Time to fight everyone inside and stare down the club manager holding a shotgun.

Tommy calmy taunting a guy in a tuxedo who is holding a shotgun is the basic concept of the show. That ethos never really changes, even if the venues do. A show that starts with Shelby family members walking past trash-can fires progresses to a woman seducing Tommy on the benches of Parliament. A new character in Season 6, Jack Nelson, an Irish American gangster who is a barely concealed version of Joseph Kennedy, asks Tommy if he can introduce him to fascists—but not the ones in boots, the ones in tuxedos. Tommy was, and is, a socialist, but he has risen to the point that he has plenty of access to the tuxedoed fascists. It is a study in change, but also in power—and how to wield it over time.

Tommy is tortured throughout the show by PTSD from his days as a tunneler in World War I, and over the course of the series he morphs into a sort of Tony Soprano mixed with Liam Neeson from Taken: a brooding, introspective gangster who battles with himself most of all but never loses a fight to his enemies. The show’s legacy is as a crowd pleaser. The story was never really finished until Tommy had outsmarted his foes and beaten some people up. Is there a point of diminishing returns in seeing a cool guy beat up dickheads? Not that I’ve found. Imagine an entire series built out of the “Now youse can’t leave” scene and you get the sort of roaring satisfaction that being a Peaky Blinders fan provides. It ends the way it lived: giving viewers what they wanted. This did not always make for prestige television but it always delivered what it promised.

Season 6 begins by more or less answering all of your lingering questions from Season 5. For all of its highs, Peaky Blinders never makes the audience work too hard (in most instances this is a good thing; I do not need more fan theories and hidden meanings in my television life). A botched assassination attempt of Oswald Mosley—one of the aforementioned fascists—meant someone had betrayed the gang. Who did it is answered exactly four minutes into the first episode, via a cold call from the perpetrator. Within this scene, we find out how the show will deal with the real-life 2021 death of Helen McCrory, who starred on the show as Tommy’s Aunt Polly. Tommy, who is of Romani descent and like everyone in his family believes he can talk to the dead, consults with the voice of Polly throughout the season as a sort of guide, using old footage and audio. Jumping forward four years after the cold call, we meet Tommy, who is headed to Canada as Prohibition is ending in the country. He’s meeting Michael (Finn Cole), Polly’s son and Tommy’s cousin, who is now based in the United States and working with his wife’s uncle, the aforementioned Jack Nelson. The basic premise of every Peaky Blinders season is that there’s a new group to vanquish, allegiances shift and morph, and the season rolls along from there. Arthur is in a bad way this season. Tommy’s daughter Ruby is sick. Tommy’s sister Ada (Sophie Rundle) is more empowered than ever in the family politics arm. Mosley, one of the villains of Season 5, is back, and Tommy is keeping his enemies close by attending his events and hanging out with him and Mosley’s new, shared love interest.

Throughout the series, the acting has kept the show on the right side of a very thin line. Once, in the Ringer office, a handful of us were discussing various components of the show—Tom Hardy as an over-the-top, unkillable Jewish gangster, Adrien Brody as a vengeful Italian mobster, some of the deus ex machinas that allowed Tommy to improbably escape harm and for characters to rise from the dead at any time. A Ringer staffer, who’d never seen the show, asked the group, “Wait, is this a comedy?” The more you think about it, the more the question makes sense if you just hear a simple summary of the series. It is almost unbelievable that the show never became a farce or a joke. It almost always pulled off taking chances without getting too weird. Part of the reason why is that the show was always self-aware enough to be ridiculous, but a bigger part is that the producers simply hired good actors (Brody’s Italian accent is the closest the show gets to parody). Murphy is superb the entire run. Hardy is maximum Hardy, alternating between suave spurts of fast talking and breathy screams of expletives. Anya Taylor-Joy pops up in seasons 5 and 6 as a villainous American wife of a Shelby family member. Sam Neill is the show’s first main villain, and one of the best.

Hardy’s character, Solomons, is a good encapsulation of the vaguely ludicrous journey the main characters are on: At different points in the series he has Tommy’s brother sent to prison, betrays Tommy multiple times, gets shot on a beach by Tommy and is left for dead, and survives with not a ton of explanation—and somehow the two are still close by the time the final season rolls around. This sort of voyage makes sense in the world that Peaky Blinders has built: an underworld where logic and realism take a backseat to familial bonds and a skewed sense of loyalty. Trust me, it’s good. They do terrible things and their only saving grace is they find worse people and kill them.

Murphy once said that when he does not have the Peaky Blinders haircut, he can walk onto a bus and not be bothered all that much. This is instructive about the type of character he’s built. An old barbershop of mine in Los Angeles inexplicably played the first two seasons on a loop for a few months in 2018. It would be unfair to say the show ever ventured into style-over-substance, but there is a type of viewer who can infer that style matters as much as substance. The show is far too good to be reduced to a few YouTube clips of Tommy speeches and Alfie screaming sessions (though the YouTubers have tried). I am sorry to say that while researching this piece, I saw that one of the most viewed pieces of Peaky-related content was by a channel called Charisma on Command that instructs viewers on the Tommy traits that will be valuable if they apply them to their own lives (calmness in all situations!). The reality, of course, is that Tommy is a tortured World War I vet who constantly suffers from flashbacks and once had a meltdown on a golf course. If any of the millions of viewers switched places with him they’d probably want to go back within 90 seconds. But he does look cool throwing a cigarette away. This is indicative of a culture Peaky helped build, though—one in which many viewers want to be a Peaky Blinder, right down to the cap and the uncomfortable waistcoat.

Once in a small English town, my wife and I happened upon a vintage store that claimed on its chalkboard sign to have assisted Peaky with wardrobe design. This was their claim to fame (I have no idea whether it’s true). To a certain sect this show serves the same function as Mad Men, an attempt to tell men how to dress while they learn the wrong lessons from the main character. The writer Michael Lewis has said that after he wrote Liar’s Poker, which he felt was an extremely negative portrayal of Wall Street culture and the lifestyle around it, he started to receive hundreds of letters from young people who saw the book as a how-to guide for building a career on Wall Street. You can’t force-feed lessons to people. In that regard, Tommy joins Don Draper, Jordan Belfort, and Jay Gatsby as guys who can be reduced to caricatures and become aspirational figures for young men who just want the haircut, the money, or both.

The ending of the TV show was spoiled, somewhat, by the announcement that there will be a Peaky Blinders movie instead of a seventh season, which in theory means the cast couldn’t be killed off en masse. It is not a particularly powerful ending either way, though a handful of loose ends are tied up throughout the season. In a weirdly touching moment, a down-and-out Arthur and Tommy discuss why Arthur is so different from Tommy, who speculates it’s from a fight they had when Tom was 9 and Arthur was 12. Tom says he clobbered Arthur too hard; Arthur says it was a draw. This sort of brotherly bond always helped the show along. Arthur is an indispensable character (when he appeared to be dead earlier in the show, I’ve never been more upset during the series’ run) and the interplay between the two defined the chaos of the early seasons. That never really fades, even if Arthur had a mostly secondary story in the final season. The season is not infallible. Tommy finds himself on a journey with an old character in the countryside that I found far less compelling than what was happening in the factories and the backrooms of Birmingham and London. The purpose of such a journey was to send Tommy off stage for a bit and give some of the other characters time in the spotlight, but that can be a mistake: Murphy’s singular magnetism is the attraction of the show, and how characters interact with it is crucial. He cannot be offstage for long. That’s been the story for six seasons.

None of this is to say the show did not change since its 2013 debut: The two-season fascism arc built around the real-life British fascist Mosley is no doubt a reflection of our political times. In Season 6, Tommy’s wife, Lizzie, asks him why he’s not wearing a mask around his sick kid. A mopey Tommy replies, of course, that he already is wearing a mask. The White Stripes songs gave way to Idles songs. The show’s theme, “Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, no longer introduces the show in Season 6; in fact no song does. But the general soundtrack ethos remains. It is still a stimulus package for bluesy rock bands. At times this overreliance on music can be gimmicky, especially if the song doesn’t hit, but when it does—an Idles–Joy Division–War Pigs back-to-back-to-back cue in Season 5 sent me to another realm—it adds a dimension that no other modern show has.

That dimension will continue into a movie, and hopefully more loose ends will be tied up there. You can, however, take Season 6 for what it is: The cap on a long journey up Britain’s power ranks. The show started on horseback and now features Rolls-Royces. Tommy has ridden in both, and in an airplane in the last episode. Think Scarface if Tony ever ran for Congress and made it an additional three decades. Tommy got more legitimate as the years went on, his businesses got more legal, his hands got less dirty, and the killings generally less frequent. But the music never stopped. Goodbye to a big, dumb, and brilliant show.