The enemies made by Tommy Shelby over more than a decade of criminal ascent could fill St. Andrew’s Stadium, but in season six one looms larger than the rest. “In this series, his enemy is himself,” writer Steven Knight tells Den of Geek. The fabled man that Tommy can’t defeat, as mooted in the season five finale? It’s him. “Tommy Shelby is what scares Tommy Shelby,” says Knight. That’s who the character was facing down when he held a gun to his head in last season’s closing moments, which is exactly where the next episode finds him. And it isn’t the first time Tommy has pulled that move.
“In my mind, before the series began he was going to shoot himself and then thought to himself – and the quote in my mind is the Francis Bacon quote, which is “Since it’s all so meaningless, you might as well be extraordinary” – so he thought there’s no point, but let’s just do it anyway. And he’s reached a point at the beginning of this series where he can’t do it anymore. He just feels completely trapped in life.”
Tommy’s ‘let’s just do it anyway’ nihilism elevated him above ordinary mortals. It’s how the character was able to take the extreme risks that raised him from the streets of Small Heath to the Houses of Parliament, and his family from a back street razor gang to international wealth and influence. After all, what’s left to fear when you’re already dead?
At John’s funeral in season four, Tommy gave a speech that explained the mindset. Fighting in France during the War, his men were on enemy territory, cut off from the retreat, with no bullets left and expecting the Prussian cavalry to finish them any second. They sang ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ and waited for death, but death didn’t come. Everything that happened after that moment, says Tommy, was “extra”.
With his extra time, Tommy the man turned into Tommy the god – unstoppable, unreachable and holding power over life and death. In season six, Tommy the god fears that his gifts may be drawn from a different well. Though Peaky Blinders is set against a real period backdrop featuring people and events from history (characters include Winston Churchill and Oswald Mosley), curses and demons are never far from its world. The Shelby family’s gypsy roots leave Tommy with a sincere belief in prophecy and bad omens, so when a feverish character in season six utters the Romani words “O Beng”, or ‘the Devil’, Tommy spirals. Who is the devil in season six?
“It depends who you are,” says Knight. “Tommy’s biggest fear is that it’s him, but it’s not. Tommy in series six, and to an extent series five, discovers that he’s a good man when he comes across something more evil than him. And when he does come across that evil – which is Fascism – he discovers that actually, he will do things against his own interest, to prevent that from happening, which I think is one definition of being good.”
Tommy’s entry into the political world has brought him closer to his sister Ada, actor Sophie Rundle tells Den of Geek. Ada started out as his conscience, but in season six becomes more of a confidant. “He realises that this sphere that he’s moved into, Ada’s already there, and so he’s got a ready-made ally in this world, someone who knows how to conduct themselves and who knows how to repartee with these people, and understands the finesse and the nuance of what he’s trying to do. Ada’s a very valuable commodity to him.”
Rundle sees similarities between the two. “Obviously, there’s no-one like Tommy Shelby but they’re a really good example of siblings. They’re different but fundamentally really similar. Ada’s just not intimidated by Tommy, which is incredibly frustrating and irritating for him, but it allows them to find this mutual trust. When you’re a man like Tommy Shelby, who could you possibly trust? There’s this forever stone wall with Tommy.”
Tommy’s stone wall is down to his time fighting in WWI, says Rundle. “It was France that damaged him irrevocably and that theme has always been there in the show: Who might Tommy Shelby have been had it not been for the War? And who might all these men have been if it wasn’t for the trauma that they experienced?” Not weapons perhaps, and not gods or devils, but men.
Peaky Blinders series 6 starts 27th February on BBC One.