October 4, 2022
On the Peculiar, Cultish Appeal of Peaky Blinders

Suddenly, the good crime shows are all ending. The dark, deeply serious, auteurish sagas—the shows that helped define crime drama in the 2010s—they are coming to a twilit close: Ozark just concluded, Better Call Saul is about to, Gomorrah (the best of the bunch) finished earlier this year, and now we have the endgame of Peaky Blinders. But watching the latter’s sixth and final season, now streaming on Netflix, is a reminder that this particular blood-soaked epic—the early 20th-century story of the Shelby crime family from Birmingham, England, who rise from street toughs to empire-builders—is perhaps the weirdest of them all.

Do you watch Peaky Blinders? We’re a niche but deeply committed bunch. Over in the U.K., where this show was created a decade ago by Steven Knight for the BBC, it’s an undisputed hit with soaring ratings and a cottage industry of themed pubs, a capsule clothing line, and guided tours. The idea is that the world of Peaky Blinders is cool—men with under-buzz haircuts, natty wool suits, West Midlands accents, razor blades sewn into caps. The show is a romanticization of a kind of eminently British working class ideal: profane but honorable, hard-living but heroic. The Shelby family, led by the show’s poetry-quoting antihero Thomas Shelby and played by the irresistible Irish actor Cillian Murphy, has everyman swagger and a hidden supply of sophistication. Tommy, as he’s called, is able to trash a pub and rise through the ranks of Parliament. He’s salt-of-the-earth crossed with fleur de sel.

And the music! The debut season of Peaky Blinders attracted attention, and a bit of snickering, for its anachronistic needle drops: The White Stripes or the Arctic Monkeys or PJ Harvey over slo-mo sequences of the Shelby gang striding down a Birmingham street. The title-credit song is by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds—Cave is apparently a fan, as was the late David Bowie. (Later seasons would add bands like Radiohead, Foals, Idles, and Savages to the mix.) The music helped make the style of Peaky Blinders topic A in the early going. It also made it hard to take the show that seriously. Tommy was an appealing crime boss and the ensemble cast of Shelbys—among them Helen McCrory (who died of cancer in 2021), Paul Anderson, Sophie Rundle, and Joe Cole—were committed and swaggering and sharp. The whole thing was fun to watch, but also felt perilously close to an extended music video.

But something happened as Peaky Blinders progressed through its seasons. The story added scope—rival gangs and turf wars—and gained respectability, especially through its casting. The addition of Tom Hardy as Alfie Solomons, the hilariously effete and savage leader of a Jewish London gang, was a stroke of brilliance. Actors like Paddy Considine, Adrien Brody, Aidan Gillen, and Anya Taylor-Joy have each made their mark. And through it all Murphy has held our attention with his pained, handsome, watery-eyed charisma. No one delivers articulate tough-guy speeches with a glass of whisky and a hand-rolled cigarette like Tommy Shelby.

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