“How fortunate we were who still had hope I did not then realise; I could not know how soon the time would come when we should have no more hope, and yet be unable to die”
Vera Brittain, “Testament of Youth”
On the surface Peaky Blinders is simply an entertaining gangster show with a hint of the American Western: we follow the charismatic Tommy Shelby (the brilliant Cillian Murphy) and his family from the rough streets of Birmingham to the Houses of Parliament as they attempt to expand both their legal and illegal empire. From the gory murders and bombastic shootouts to the trademark slow-motion walks, the show, now in the middle of its fifth season, has all the tropes we usually associate with the gangster genre. But to think it is merely about beautiful people looking cool while smoking and drinking whiskey is to do it a great disservice.
Peaky Blinders is a compelling story of power, class and ambition, with many aspects of it taken from the real-life experiences of the writer and creator Steven Knight’s Birmingham family, albeit with an added “mythical quality” for entertainment’s sake. But it’s important to note that it is also inspired by the tales Knight’s mother has told him of how the men were like “back then” after coming home from the First World War: “horrible”, “hard as nails”, “couldn’t show emotion”; how sometimes they would suddenly stop walking and bend down to tie a shoelace that wasn’t even undone because they thought they were under fire and couldn’t be seen ducking in the middle of the street.
Many of the characters in Peaky Blinders — specifically Tommy Shelby and his brothers, Arthur and John — served in France. “The war” or being “in France” is something that is mentioned often, even as a source of camaraderie between foes. We even see what it means to the women who were left behind, like Polly and Ada, and the toll it has taken on the men who didn’t go, like the Shelby’s youngest brother, Finn. “I wanted [the show] to be about a family between the wars,” says Knight. “It starts at the end of the first and then it ends with the second. That’s not a well-trodden path. Those years are not examined so much. I think it’s fascinating. It’s what caused us [as a country] to be us.”
Cillian Murphy has talked often about how there are two very distinct Tommy Shelbys: one before the war and one after the war. The iconic haircut, the ice cool veneer, the swaggering walk, the smoking — these are all the quintessential ‘Tommy Shelby Things’ that fans have gleefully lashed onto. But Murphy has never given the impression that stepping into the gangster’s shoes is particularly easy or fun. Despite the role being an “actor’s dream”, almost everything about Tommy, according to Murphy, seems to feel heavy or ill-fitting, from the haircut that has never grown on him to how “exhausting” it can be to inhabit the man’s physicality and mindset.
While post-war Arthur sometimes self-destructs or has violent outbursts, Tommy instead becomes ruthless and relentless. Violence is “a form of expression” for him now, Murphy states. “He could have died at any point [in France]. He’s not afraid of death. Everyday is for free, so why not?” With this unquenchable ambition also comes a hardness: Tommy retreats into an “emotional shell”, especially after the death of his first wife, Grace, and becomes careless of other people’s feelings, sometimes disdainful of their inferior intelligence, and is emotionally unavailable to his loved ones.
In season five, Tommy is worse than he’s even been, self-medicating, hallucinating and suffering from suicidal urges. He is also lashing out and making riskier moves than usual, paranoid that someone is after his crown. But his recent acquaintance with fascist leader, Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin), can prove to be very significant. Will he choose to play along with Mosley for his own benefits? Or will it trigger his pre-war self — someone with strong ideals of equality and justice, who used to smile and laugh a lot, and was very romantic — to reemerge?
Just as Tommy’s enemy, Luca Changretta (Adrien Brody in a deliciously villainous turn in Season 4) says, “Everything here [in England] is about the war”. Everything in Peaky Blinders, too, leads back to it, and to how the characters carry the damage from it and how much that can cost them. What happens when someone, like Tommy, has lost all faith but still have so much left to lose? What happens when, to borrow Brittain’s words, you “have no more hope, yet be unable to die?”
Of course, despite the damage done to them, Tommy, his brothers and his gang members are certainly not men we should worship or idolise. (Unfortunately, some fans’ misunderstanding of the show has resulted in unfair hatred directed toward the female characters, particularly Lizzie and Linda, who usually stand in opposition to the Shelby brothers.) But they are not men we should completely scorn or crucify either. Knight, with his intention to make the show about “men and their flaws and faults and heroism”, have made these characters fully-fledged and well-rounded enough that we care about their well-beings.
Just as Harry, the bartender of The Garrison, tells Tommy: “You’re bad men. But you’re our bad men”. We, by design, are supposed to feel conflicted about them. How much bad can we forgive? If Tommy should be redeemed at the end of the show as Knight has intended, what would this act of redemption have to be? If a bad person does a good act, does the good act become bad? What if a bad act is done in service of goodness? Or what if the bad is born from an indescribable anguish caused by injustice? What then?
Tommy can only describe what France has done to him in vague but evocative terms: the dust and mud of it; “the shovels against the wall”; the silence; that one soldier’s minute, “of everything at once”. Even the haunting refrain of “In the bleak midwinter”. Polly chalks it up partly to their “gypsy blood”, causing them to “live somewhere between life and death, waiting to move on”. Yet the word ‘trauma’ is never mentioned once. And somehow it feels inadequate and insufficient, paling in comparison to the total enormity of the experience.
“You want me to write this down?” asks Tommy defiantly when his wife, Lizzie, confronts him. “Do you want me to write you a fucking letter? Me and Arthur can’t write it down cause they haven’t invented the fucking words. We don’t have the fucking words”. The show, however, seems to be trying to find them for him.