For all its sex, drugs and violence, Peaky Blinders is starting to get tired of itself. Its response? A gripping foray into the world of political deal making, so scandalous it makes even members of the Shelby family feel uncomfortable.
Series five of the hit BBC drama follows its protagonist, the now exhausted, frustrated and paranoid Birmingham gangster Tommy Shelby, on his next adventure, as he gives his support to the intensely creepy Oswald Mosely MP (Sam Claflin) and his nascent fascist party. What follows is a top-secret plan to bring down the fascist operation from the inside that leaves both the audience and the Shelby family feeling conflicted. How far will Tommy go to prove he is a good man? And what values might he sacrifice?
In his deteriorating mental state Tommy Shelby ponders his exhaustion. “I need to sleep.” he tells a hallucination of his dead wife. Indeed, tiredness is this series’ dominant theme and in many ways seems to parallel the feelings of the show’s creators. The familiar formula of gang warfare which intensifies over five episodes until its sudden resolution in the sixth has been dispensed of. Quantifiable threat has succumbed to an exhilarating chaos.
In his crusade against the fascists, Shelby’s response must escape the confines of family politics and vendetta. This new context renders the behaviour of the characters and the progression of the plot rather unpredictable. It’s as if we’ve been shaken awake, unable to rely completely on our much-beloved protagonist and uncertain that the writers will show him mercy.
With this new strategy comes new dangers and perhaps an even more profound suspense. Both Tommy and the audience are left increasingly confused about what his values really are. Conflicting feelings about his methods serve to break away from the simplistic, binary morality of the earlier series in a way that is immensely refreshing. More than this, unable to work out just how ‘good’ our ‘good guy’ really is, he can no longer be trusted to win.
Collectively, we have been plunged into a clammy state of anxiety, emphatically alive. We feel wide awake and can be sure that the protagonist does too. It is from this point of heightened anxiety that the liberal use of heavy-breathing sound effects and artificial mist serve to drag us into the character’s eventual breakdown
This downward spiral is far from complete. Tommy’s conversations with ‘Grace’ serve to negotiate his emotions and suicidal impulses. From the outset the brakes are applied to his inevitable mental collapse: “So much to do, Grace…I need to say goodbye.” The energy-sapping misery that characterises the first few episodes dissipates. “I will continue ‘til I find a man that I can’t defeat.” becomes a believable claim.
So we leave Tommy as we found him, stumbling through the mist, lost. Having invigorated the format, he has, in one sense, emerged a hero. Newly energised he shouts, “anyone who is tired of this old-fashioned, backstreet fucking razor gang can leave”. This is a statement directed against accusations of predictability and ‘sameyness’. The show lives to fight another day.