Disclaimer: Contains major spoilers for Season 6 of Peaky Blinders
“It means you f*** people. F*** people over. Don’t give a f***. It means you covet and steal and burn all principles for the sake of self-interest. Well, I’m changing,” says Thomas Shelby, sipping a glass of water, to a woman representing the Irish Republican Army. Steven Knight’s gang of backstreet thugs has, for a while now, been lounging in country estates, riding Bentleys and shaping the political trajectory of Britain. Every other season, one of them is sacrificed, only to allow for a bombastic display of blood soaked vengeance in the next one. A formula that has proved entertaining so far, but how much longer will it hold us?
This season’s flurry of six surgically salvaged episodes feature Tommy Shelby, MP, OBE, (still excellently portrayed by Cilian Murphy) dodging and digging some of his demons in a final quest for freedom. Quite a few of the perennial Peaky suspects are still around, too. An arrogant but incompetent Michael (Finn Cole), is eager to usurp power, Arthur (Paul Anderson) is now a perfunctory opium-addict, Tommy’s baby sister, and arguably one of the best female character arcs in television, Ada Thorne (Sophie Rundle) holds her own as always, whereas Lizzie (the vibrant Natasha O’Keeffe) drudges impeccably through the job of being the only Shelby wife still voluntarily living with her better half. Crazy Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy) shows up out of the blue as per protocol, back in the opium trafficking business with the East Boston Jews. He’s not changed one bit, “Tommy, if you are about to express profound emotion, you might be better served expressing it to someone who gives a f***,” he says to the ragged Shelby patriarch.
While there’s never a dearth of testosterone and machismo being sloshed around, it’s usually the strong female figures that have kept the extended plots palatable and the savage men remotely human. Despite a sentimental and earnest homage, the writing betrays hints of struggle as Helen McRory’s (Aunt Polly) untimely passing leaves a palpable hole in the narrative. Elsewhere, a sporadic American antagonist in Jack Nelson (James Frecheville) is unsatisfying at best, Thomas Shelby’s son, from a sexual encounter decades ago, shoddily appears out of nowhere and Lady Diana Mitford (Amber Anderson), wife of the problematic Sir Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin), blackmailing Tommy into sex (and Tommy obliges) is one of the bizarre scenes we find.
Amidst the frenzy, the writing brings forth the many paradoxes the show thrives and drowns in. The Peaky path to alleged peace has been incorrigibly violent—it’s always one more terrible deed, one more ounce of conscience sacrificed for business and profit, one more betrayal in the hope for retribution from a life of bitter criminality. But the rise of fascism has paved way for the Shelbys to be reborn as some sort of antiheroes in a world suspended between World War 1 and the next that is to come. There’s some good and plenty of bad, and there are absolutely no lines that separate one from the other. The Blinders aren’t the nicest guys in town, but neither are those ratified by society—the judges, the politicians, the police, the communists, the fascists—they’re all despicable, or at least their methods are. Dark, raw and almost humorously gory, the titular gang are now painted as the lesser of two evils, in a fight against genocide.
One can’t help but wonder whether the narrative condemns or romanticises the bloodshed that’s pervaded all seasons of the show (Knight seems to like it, his film ‘Serenity’, is one to watch). But we do know that he does have a softer side as a writer, (‘Eastern Promises’) and if generously viewed, perhaps Knight shows the consequences of greed and revenge for what they really are—offering no simple escape, no respite and no closure. At some level, one empathises with these savage Shelby men, scarred by war, learning to be whole again, ailing with nightmares and addiction and betrayal and guilt. The message, I guess, is not that there’s no redemption in the world, it’s probably just not with, or for the Birimingham gang and their associates, anytime soon.
There’s been progress though—Tommy has sworn off some of his bad habits and expanded his drug business to Canada. Now teetotaller-come-cold-blooded-strategist, his growing awareness of his invincibility smells uncharacteristic. The whole, ‘only person who could ever kill Tommy Shelby, is Tommy Shelby himself,’ and “I have no limitations,” departs from his hitherto stoic, do-what-needs-to-be-done-and-shut-up-about-it persona. What makes it all so ironic is that Tommy’s only alive because of a thwarted suicide attempt in Season 5’s chilling finale, and he’s just lost his daughter to what he believes is a gypsy curse. Jeez.
The excess this show throws at you feels something like a young Hendrix toying with an electric guitar. It may be overwhelming, but is still brilliantly good. The mistakes are forgotten and the experience is what is remembered. Visually and sonically, the show remains an absolute delight. The clever use of colour to capture the characteristic haze of coal-stacked, dreary Birmingham, the diverse and atmospheric soundtracks, the impeccable costumes and properties make sure the show excels in its little details. The gruff, low voice in which Murphy purrs (that isn’t his natural tone, mind you) chillingly beckons us back for more of his antics every time.
The concoction, over the years, of brilliant acting performances from a star-studded cast, unforgettable dialogues and fantastic screenplay that the show has offered, does render my pen mild in admiration. But the disappointment lies, I suppose, in all the half-baked adjustments to the story with Aunt Polly gone, and only a partially resolved closing. One wasn’t sure whether to expect more, or to be content with Tommy riding away on a white horse, and then found out that this isn’t the real finale; Knight will have another chance to tie up loose ends and finish with a flourish in the final film. In the 6th and final episode, we see Tommy spare the life of someone that he would most definitely have shot a few episodes ago. ‘Armistice. Peace at Last,’ he says. My hope would be that Knight listens, and doesn’t reduce Small Heath to a burial ground again.