The long-awaited fifth season of the British crime drama Peaky Blinders, now on Netflix, opens in 1929 with the financial crash that crippled the world – the Shelby family included. There’s a lot of scrambling as they quickly find their feet again. Meanwhile, Tommy’s grappling with his tortured mental state, even as he ascends the political ladder against his arch-enemy Oswald Mosley.
Michael returns to Birmingham
Perhaps the most determined member of the Peaky Blinders at the beginning of this season is Michael Gray (Finn Cole, Animal Kingdom).
“We’re not the Peaky f****g Blinders unless we are together,” he once said. The once-estranged son of Polly Shelby (Helen McCrory) and the cousin of Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), Michael is a powerful and high-ranking member of the Peaky Blinders, and the chief accountant of Shelby Company Limited. When he gets back to Birmingham, it’s with an opportunistic American wife Gina (Anya Taylor-Joy) in tow – an indication of how the younger generation is stepping up.
“There seems to be an air of mistrust from the family when Michael and Gina return home. There is this feeling that Michael and Gina represent a new generation of what the family could evolve into,” says Cole. “I don’t think the older members of the family are ready for that change to happen but the younger generation are. They have plans and aspirations of their own.”
Tommy’s PTSD continues to haunt him
As always, dominating the series is Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), darker and more mentally tortured than ever, and at the centre of many moody scenes in bleak landscapes – a continuation of what modern psychiatry recognises as post-traumatic stress (from his service in the Great War), but was a mystery at the time. Are his visions real, or are they dreams?
“He is asking himself ‘do I want to carry on?’ When he came back from the First World War he was damaged and at any moment he could have died but he survived,” explains Steven Knight, creator, writer and executive producer.
“From the outside Tommy looks hugely successful in terms of his financial and political achievements but inside he is a bit smashed and broken.” – Cillian Murphy, who plays Tommy Shelby
“Tommy has this disbelief that he is still alive, which now has turned into a kind of nihilism where he is not sure he wants to carry on. There is a recklessness about him that the family start to notice,” says Knight. “Tommy is of the mind that if you are prepared to die, you are invulnerable. He is prepared to go bigger and take massive risks in his pursuit of power for him and the family.”
Tommy’s an MP now, a socialist speaking on behalf of the working class, using his position inside parliament to wield great power over the “ones who make the rules”.
“From the outside Tommy looks hugely successful in terms of his financial and political achievements but inside he is a bit smashed and broken,” says Murphy.
In previous seasons, Tommy resorted to alcohol and substance abuse to cope with his damaged mental state, but, as McCrory, who plays his supportive Aunt Polly, says, “Now, however, it’s started to affect his private dreams, his inability to sleep and his inability to face himself and his inability to come to terms with the things he has done. Now he actually wants to do things for other people and he now realises the power of doing good. The consequence of doing good for people is that you have to come to terms with the bad you have done, which in his case is most of his adult life.”
Yes, that’s right – Thomas Shelby has grown a moral compass. Who’d have thought?
Oswald vs Tommy: a fierce and fateful sparring
Speaking of Tommy’s nemesis, Oswald Mosley, Knight says, “Tommy is approached by this charismatic politician who has a bold vision for the future of Britain. Tommy realises his response to this and his approach will affect not just the Shelbys’ future but could have significant impact on the entire nation.”
The intriguing thing about Tommy and Mosley’s relationship is that neither really understands the other, says Sam Claflin, who plays the character of Mosley. “They are two men from two very different worlds but are almost on a level pegging. However, Oswald has more of a firm footing in this specific world of politics whereas Tommy has the street smarts. Oswald needs Tommy’s help but Tommy also needs Oswald’s help with growth within the parliament. Seeing the power struggle between the two of them is quite something.”
They spend the entire series trying to suss each other out, says Claflin. “We’ve never really seen Tommy afraid before but something in Mosley scares Tommy beyond any enemy he has faced previously.”
Pulling the strings behind the halls of power
The move into politics is not as surprising as one would think. Effortless even, says Murphy. “It’s familiar territory, a forum of gangs, wars and truces. Nothing he didn’t know before. Tommy can operate in that world very comfortably. The corruption is second nature to him.”
“It’s a breath of fresh air to see characters that are unapologetic and not easily frightened by anything or anyone.” – Helen McCrory, who plays Polly Shelby
His aunt Polly has always been the person Tommy trusts the most, and the two of them are usually pulling the strings behind the curtain; the rest of the family are not privy to much of this, and they themselves are sometimes at odds.
“Polly and Tommy have a certain cruelty in them but they’ve both been through a lot,” says McCrory, observing that the Peaky Blinders audience has probably also been through a lot so will be able to relate to the characters.
“They still keep going so there is a tenacity in them that is respected and there is a style and edge to them that we just don’t get to see on the screen.
“That’s something that is particular to Steve Knight’s writing and to this piece but also because they don’t apologise or whinge and it’s a breath of fresh air to see characters that are unapologetic and not easily frightened by anything or anyone.”
What’s in store for Tommy, Polly, Michael, Gina and Mosley? Talk of Season 6 has already started circulating, and it seems the Shelbys will be around for some time yet.