Inspired by the real-life Birmingham gangsters who ran England’s racetracks in the early 1900s, the Peaky Blinders follows the exploits of the Shelby family led by their imposing patriarch, Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy) as they expand their criminal empire. Over the course of the first five seasons, the gang makes its way from the sooty streets of Birmingham to the hallowed halls of the House of Commons.
The first season picks up from the aftermath of the Great War when the Shelby clan clashes with another local gang for control over betting on horse racing. Caught amidst this gang war is Detective Chief Inspector Campbell who has been sent over by Winston Churchill to recover a stolen cache of arms meant to be shipped to Libya. Season 2 sees the Peaky Blinders expand their organization to London, where they enter an uneasy alliance with a psychotic gang leader in Camden Town, played brilliantly by Tom Hardy. It all erupts in an action-laden climax in the season finale, set at Epsom Derby day.
The stakes get bigger and more international in the third season when the Shelbys get dragged into the Russian Revolution. The fourth season sees the Shelbys face a grave threat to their very existence when a mafia family from New York declares a vendetta on the Shelby clan. The fifth season pits them against Britain’s first fascist MP.
I preferred the initial seasons when the stakes were grounded and confined to Birmingham. As the show’s scope kept expanding and the plot shifted from localized gang wars to international conspiracies, it seemed to lose the magic of the earlier seasons. Despite that misgiving, all the five seasons released so far are thoroughly enjoyable. Each season generally follows the same template. There are constantly swirling alliances and betrayals, collusions and deceptions throughout the season. Show creator Steven Knight puts his corrupt protagonists in seemingly impossible situations before some clever backchanneling or last-minute arrivals enable them to emerge victorious in the season finale.
Despite the blatant villainy exhibited by the Shelby clan, you still root for them thanks to the brilliant characterization. They are led by Thomas Shelby, the brains behind the family’s Shelby Company Limited. Tommy and his two brothers, Arthur and John, are revered as war heroes for their role during the Great War. Nursing emotional scars from the war, Arthur, the oldest brother, bursts with fiery rage and passion, but he remains steadfastly loyal to Tommy and will do anything to protect his family. John is violent, reckless, and big on the iconic chanting of the “Peaky f*cking Blinders”, but also has unwavering faith in Tommy. Little Finn, the youngest of the Shelby boys, is one who cannot wait to prove his worth to his brothers. While Tommy’s brothers are mostly loyal foot soldiers, it’s their Aunt Polly who is his actual lieutenant, who questions his decisions. While I like most of the Shelbys, my favorite is Ada Shelby, who has a great character arc from being gullible and wide-eyed to a practical and reliable woman, fond of scoffing at the actions of the Shelby boys.
Considering how the show is set at a tumultuous period, there are some interesting nuggets of history lessons, including the Spanish Flu, Russian Revolution, IRA vs Fenians, and the Wall Street Crash. The football fan in me absolutely enjoyed how the Shelbys vetted their new employees by quizzing them on goalkeepers of Birmingham and their arch-rivals Aston Villa.
The Peaky Blinders is deservedly considered one of TV’s finest crime dramas, while also being a sprawling and immersive soap opera.