Warning: contains spoilers for Peaky Blinders season 5 and the creator’s plan for the overall finale.
Two episodes into Peaky Blinders, the Birmingham-set gangster drama that thundered onto screen in 2013 and grew into a global obsession, Tommy Shelby says that he has a broken heart. He’s drunk and melancholy, talking to Grace, the woman he’ll eventually love, marry, and lose to a bullet that was meant for him. When Grace warns Tommy that the sad song she’s about to sing will break his heart, he tells her, “Already broken.”
In 1919, Tommy’s heart isn’t the only thing about him that’s broken. He’s just back from France, where he and his brothers Arthur and John killed for King and Country. They returned physically intact but mentally shaken loose, carrying the brutality of war back to the streets of Small Heath.
With little understanding of psychological trauma in the population, and no state care provided for the men whose minds never really left the battlefield, a generation struggled to reintegrate. Some, like season one’s Danny Whizzbang, struggled out loud, mentally reliving battles with only their community to look after them. Others, like season five sniper Barney Thompson, were institutionalised and locked up out of sight. Many more kept their pain silent until it erupted out of them in violence.
Tommy Shelby was one. His character was totally rewritten by the trauma of war. Tommy went to France as a young member of the Communist party with a love of nature and horses, and grieving a girl he’d lost to illness. After the war, he emerged as a nihilist, a kind of ghost floating above the real world, not caring whether he lived or died. He took opium to dull the pain and his emotional detachment became a kind of superpower that let him scheme a largely conscience-free and brutal path to power and wealth.
Tommy’s first quest was to escape. He plotted to amass wealth and influence to carry his family out of Birmingham’s slums and into the kind of cushy security he’d seen the officer class enjoy while serving in the army. He’d use criminality to get them out, buy them big houses and places in society. Once settled, they’d go straight. There’d be no more ‘sport’ for anybody named Shelby.
The scheme went well and may even have worked if the Shelby family had lived in America, where money talked, and not England, where the ruling classes were as vicious as a razor gang and never let anyone forget where they came from. No slouch, Tommy looked around him and settled on a new plan: to keep going. To keep amassing money, and power, and favours from people with influence, to get more than anybody else, because… why not? If English society would never welcome a gypsy-born racetrack bookie, he’d ascend higher, taking their white horses out from under them as he went.
The new plan was working. His emotional detachment had redoubled after the crushing death of his wife (happiness through the aptly named Grace was a potential escape ramp taken away from him either by fate, or a Russian curse, or – what he suspects deep-down – by Tommy himself), and on he ploughed, led by pragmatism, not loyalty or personal conviction. He became a millionaire industrialist and a member of parliament. He started using his brain to win debates and pass legislation. Powerful people began to take notice of him, wanting to use his talent to further their cause. And that’s when everything changed.
In the House, Tommy had caught the eye of Sir Oswald Mosley, a man whose fascist philosophy was so reprehensible that it awakened something inside gypsy-born Tommy Shelby, to whom Afro-Caribbean British solider Jeremiah was a brother-in-arms, and whose best frenemy was Jewish bootlegger Alfie Solomon. This numb schemer with no beliefs or attachments, who acted only to gain power, felt the uncomfortable and unfamiliar tug of morality. Tommy had spent so long doing bad things because, after the war, good and bad were one and the same. Taking the King’s shilling had taught him that ends justified brutal means. Mosley’s poisonous bigotry though, sparked Tommy’s conscience.
Awakening after numbness is always painful, and that pain of waking up is what we watched Tommy go through in season five. For want of a better word, he went mad. He became paranoid, doubted himself, ranted in riddles about black cats and saw visions of his dead wife luring him to the other side. He self-medicated with opium and isolated himself from the people who loved him. In the finale cliffhanger, after his assassination attempt against Mosley had failed and it looked like for once, Tommy Shelby wasn’t going to come out on top, he stood with a gun to his head and screamed. Out of his mind and out of control.
That moment was a climax in Tommy’s rebirth story. The question for season six, after which Peaky Blinders will end as a TV drama (though its creators promise it will continue in other forms), is where he goes from there: up or down?
A prediction: we’ve spent five seasons watching Tommy turn himself into a kind of god. In the sixth and final run, we’ll watch him turn back into a man, with all the agony and joy that comes with it. Because that’s been the true story of Peaky Blinders, beneath the gangster intrigue, rock star style and fiendish plots, this show has been telling a story about the painful return to life of somebody dehumanised by the trauma of war.
‘Tommy’ was a WWI slang name for British soldiers, making this extraordinary character representative of a vast raft of men who returned from fighting in France missing a part of themselves. Their lives weren’t as glamorous or eventful as Tommy Shelby’s, but they shared his trauma and those lucky enough to survive and regain their past selves went through the same arduous journey from numbness to feeling, death to life.
The end won’t be quite as simple, or as uplifting as that. Not unlike his most famous character, creator Steven Knight is always at least one step ahead of everybody else. Knight has a long-announced plan for the drama’s closing scene that would undermine any sense of recovery or closure, and continue the show’s pacifist critique of how working men were treated by war. After all the pain and struggle to reverse the psychological effects of WWI, what do you think we’re going to hear in the closing moments? The sound of the first air raid sirens of World War II. Brutal, perfect and very Peaky Blinders.
Peaky Blinders’ sixth and final season is currently filming.