September 29, 2022
'Peaky Blinders': Is Tommy Shelby a Savior or the Devil?

“He’s a god, he’s a man. He’s a ghost, he’s a guru.” Indeed, Peaky Blinders’ Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy) is many things. He can be whatever the situation requires of him, be it a respectable family man, a shrewd businessman, a socialist MP, or a ruthless gangster. What he’s not, however, is either a spotless good guy or a callous villain. He exists somewhere in between, in a sort of gray area permeated with a haze like a chilly misty morning on the streets of Birmingham. As a protagonist he falls under the label of anti-hero but beyond that he resists classification, by the viewers, the other characters, and even himself. It is only until the last episode of the final season that the mist lifts, his past goes up in flames and a new man is reborn from the ashes and the rubble.

Everything that makes up Tommy often goes unspoken – the complexities, the ambitions, the emotions, the contradictions, the ghosts. These are not necessarily invisible, they are always there, present in everything from the subtext of his lines to the smallest nuances of Murphy’s spectacular performance. But as a protagonist Thomas does not invite us into his head, in fact, he keeps us out. Even those closest to him find him difficult to pin down, with the one most capable of deciphering him being his aunt Polly Gray (Helen McCrory) but not even she comes close to fully understanding him. Tommy can be different things to different people; to some he’s a savior to others he’s the devil. Does that make him both or neither? The answer is not so simple.

Tommy is unpredictable and does not – or cannot – always remain constant in his resolution, which speaks true to someone whose mental health hangs on a delicate balance, something that only shows when he’s alone or behind closed doors. This inconstancy can be understood to have begun even before the events of the series. A clear divide distinguished pre-war Tommy and post-war Tommy. Before France “He laughed, a lot” Polly reminisces to Grace (Annabelle Wallis) in Season 1 Episode 6. Like other men who experienced first-hand the horrific events of World War I, he did not come back the same, or, as Tommy himself would say, “no one came back.” He is aware that he was supposed to have died in France. Not only had he one of the most dangerous and claustrophobic roles during the war as a tunneller, but he also may not have survived if Freddie Thorne (Iddo Goldberg) hadn’t taken a bullet for him. In creator and writer Steven Knight’s words in an interview: “Tommy came back from the war pretty much prepared to be dead. I always imagined that just before the series began, he’d put a gun to his head but decided ‘I might as well carry on, why not?’ […] When he got back from the war, the war was still going on in his head.”

There’s always this “why not” mentality with Tommy. Since returning from the war he has been living on borrowed time, and thus he’s fine and even thrives in getting close to the edge and flirting with the fall. Trauma can redefine one’s path in life and disrupt one’s sense of identity. Thomas’ trauma turned him into a man who has fully accepted his own mortality and is hence not deterred by the fear of dying. His human limitations, or rather, his awareness of them waned to the point where he’s willing to take unbelievable – yet calculated – risks. Thomas Shelby is a puzzle of many pieces that he does not help us solve. It is mainly the other characters’ appreciation of him that gives us clues as to how to put together the mystery that is Tommy.

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