Peaky Blinders has evolved considerably from the backstreets gangster saga it was in Season 1 to become the intriguing and altogether satisfying series about power, family, and wealth that it is today. But there have been times throughout its impressive run that I think I preferred the U.K. import when its world was a bit smaller, its violent conflicts still mostly confined to the streets of Birmingham. The broader focus of the story over the last few seasons made it difficult to connect to the characters and left me wishing for a tighter focus. It seems that my reluctance to let go of the past and look to the future means I am a bit like Cillian Murphy's Thomas Shelby in that regard (only I do not have jealousy-inducing cheekbones or a baffling ability to make literally any haircut work).
With each passing season, Tommy, the ambitious and cunning leader of the Peaky Blinders and head of the Shelby family and its many enterprises, has risen to greater and greater positions of power. As a natural byproduct of his ascent — he's now a well-liked member of Parliament, appealing mostly to the working man — the story has at times drifted away from the intricacies of the Shelby family or even the family business, and thus the characters we love. Its story has become more complicated in the process, sometimes to the point of convolution, as new enemies have been revealed and alliances have shifted. Not every narrative decision made by creator and showrunner Steven Knight has been great for the series, or even all that memorable — please don't ask me to explain the Soviet plot of Season 3 — but in Season 5, which is now airing on Netflix after a successful run across the pond, the gangster series has gone back to its roots in a sense, with an increased focus on the family and Tommy's compromised mental state, and it is all the better for it.
The season opens with the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and the Shelbys, who are still living the extravagant lifestyles of the wealthy and privileged thanks to Tommy's many successes, have lost a great deal of their income as their ill-gotten wealth was heavily invested in the American stock market. This forces Tommy and Arthur (Paul Anderson), now the chairman of Shelby Co. Ltd. in Tommy's absence, to rely more heavily on the family's more familiar criminal enterprises, including making cash deals with high court judges to take out vile men or striking deals with the Chinese to transport pure-grade opium. It also opens the door for what is, unfortunately, a very timely story about the rise of fascism in the years leading up to World War II.
But financial woes and fascists are the least of Tommy's worries this season, as much of his turmoil once again stems from his internal scars. Tormented by suicidal thoughts brought on by his own swirling, guilty conscience, Tommy's death wish makes him increasingly unstable as the season progresses. Relying on laudanum to dull his lingering grief and the pain his rise to the top has ultimately caused him and those he loves, he's not sleeping, hallucinating apparitions of his murdered wife Grace (Annabelle Wallis), who appears to him and accuses him of not only killing her but also attempts to persuade Tommy to join her in death.
Contributing to Tommy's uneasy mental state this season is the fact he has also become convinced that someone close to him is after his crown, namely his cousin Michael (Finn Cole), who ignored Tommy's order to sell their stock before the crash. His fears are understandable, at least to an extent; the more power you have, the more people want to be you or take what you have — or even take you down, as is the case when a reporter from Birmingham confronts Tommy about his rise from Small Heath bookmaker to MP. But Tommy's growing paranoia is a far greater threat, both to himself and to his place at the top of the Shelby family, than many of the other flesh-and-blood enemies he's come up against over the years, and his mistrust of Michael, now married and expecting a child with an American with ties to her own crime family, nearly puts him at odds with Polly (Helen McCrory, who looks better than ever) too. It's difficult for Tommy to accept that Michael's ideas for the company might actually be a path toward greater success in the future — and might relieve some of the pressure from his own shoulders — so he and Arthur continue to cling to the way things have always been done because, well, it's the way they've always operated, and it keeps them in charge.
But Michael isn't the only person who wants something from Tommy. The Billy Boys from Scotland want his racetracks in the north, while Sir Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin), a fictional version of the very real, very controversial Member of Parliament who founded the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, wants to use his popular support to help launch a new party. It's hard to ignore the brazen similarities of Mosley dramatically rousing support in the wake of the stock market crash with what's going on in our own world today. His message is "Britain first," which parallels concerning aspects of our current political climate, both in the U.K. and the U.S., and it helps to draw the series out of the past and into the present in a stark confrontation of reality. In once instance, Mosley even derides the press, citing reports of "false news," and although Tommy wants to bring him down because he believes it's the right thing to do, a number of roadblocks are also created by his own hand in an attempt to do so.
Knight has said he has plans to continue the Shelbys' incredible story through Season 7, culminating in the beginning of World War II. Prior to the start of Season 5, I would have questioned whether there was enough story for two additional seasons spanning 10 more years, but the decision to return to the show's roots has given me hope for the future. By focusing on Tommy's deteriorating mental state, the cost of continued violence, and the interpersonal relationships of the Shelby family and how everything they touch eventually turns to ash rather than simply relying on yet more forgettable villains for conflict, Peaky Blinders is a better, more complete family saga than it has been in recent years. (It's also pulling in its best ratings ever in the U.K. following a move to BBC One.) So even though the show's world has continued to grow over the years, and may likely continue to grow alongside Tommy's political career or Michael's own ambitions, this season proved the show could evolve without losing its focus on the intimate, inner workings of the Shelby family. And after the shocking events of the finale, I can't wait to see what happens next.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Peaky Blinders Seasons 1-5 are now streaming on Netflix.