Warning: contains spoilers for the Peaky Blinders series 5 finale.
“There will be a war and one of you will die, but which one, I cannot tell.” So predicted Aunt Polly to Tommy Shelby in the Peaky Blinders series five finale, and as fans know, Aunt Polly’s predictions never miss. In series six (a seventh and final series is also planned), Polly’s son Michael and nephew Thomas will do battle.
Cracks in the relationship between the two first appeared in series four, when Michael opted not to warn Tommy that Polly seemed to be planning to betray him (in fact Polly was working with Tommy all along as part of a strategy against the Italians). “You knew I was going to be shot and you chose not to tell me,” said Tommy, to which Michael replied “I chose my mum.” A two-year banishment to Detroit followed, from where Michael returned with a new wife (the mysterious, headstrong Gina, played by Anna Taylor-Joy) and a new scale of ambition.
Ambition isn’t all the cousins share, actor Finn Cole told Den Of Geek at the series five press launch. “Michael sees a lot of Tommy in himself, or the other way around, however you want to see it.” Both, he says, suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that originated in different experiences. Tommy’s was caused by fighting in the First World War, while Michael is still living with the after-effects of being sexually abused as a child in the care system. “They recognise that in each other,” says Cole.
“[Michael] got taken away from his family because his mother was a drunk, he was abused as a child and grew up with a family that he knew weren’t his, and now has been thrown back into it. What does that do to a child’s psychology?”
Nothing good. Helen McCrory, who plays Aunt Pol, sees Michael’s real flaw as his thirst for money. “He’s greedy, Michael, in a way that Polly isn’t. I don’t think that Polly really cares about the trappings.”
Ultimately, safety is what Polly wants for the Shelbys, says McCrory. “Polly wants the family to be together and everyone to be … as safe as you can be when you’re carrying razors around with you. Her relationship with Michael is desperately trying to protect him, even though it’s clear to everyone around him that that door has now opened for him.”
Would McCrory say that Polly is losing the battle to protect Michael? “I think she’s sort of lost it,” she says. According to her, Polly’s thinking now is along the lines of “but at least then don’t be caught with the blood on his hands.”
Not wishing to be caught with blood on her hands in the coming war could be the reason Polly handed in her letter of resignation in the series five finale. Preparing to marry Aberama Gold, she planned to step away from “the life” and take early retirement. Now that Aberama’s dead, Polly’s plans will likely change, but in a fight between the two men who loom largest in her life, where might her loyalties lie?
“She’ll always be on [Tommy’s] side”, actor Helen McCrory told Den Of Geek back in August. “But for the first time in this series, the son and Tommy become much more divided so she’s in the middle.”
Polly’s feelings about Michael’s role in the family have always been torn. She loves her son and so wants him near, says Peaky Blinders producer Jamie Glazebrook, but she also knows that “the best thing for anyone is to not be close to that family.”
In series two, Polly’s dilemma played out in a scene where she told Michael that she would give him cash to get away from the gang and stay safely out of the way. “She starts to put money on the table – quite a lot of it,” says Glazebrook, who asked creator Steven Knight what Polly really wanted at that point. Knight told him “ ‘She’s saying this, but actually the hidden message is ‘Mmm, look at all this money!’ The hidden message is – ‘if you stay, you’ll get your hands on all of this’.”
The ploy worked. Michael turned down the pay-off and told Tommy he wanted to stay and “make some real money.”
In series five, real money was most definitely on the table thanks to a new opium distribution deal promising to bring in millions each year. The new revenue stream, reasoned Michael and Gina, wouldn’t just be enough to repay the £500,000 he lost the company in the 1929 New York Stock Exchange crash, it would be enough for the older family members to retire in comfort and leave him in charge.
Michael’s proposal didn’t go down well with Tommy, whose drug-fuelled paranoia about traitors in his midst had been growing all series. It earned him a slap from Polly and a stand-off with Tommy, who threw him out of the family, leaving him and Gina “forced to take the second option,” i.e. war.
As for Cole, where would he like future series to leave Michael? “Maybe at the top,” he says. “Maybe at the top.” Kicking Tommy off his perch, he means? “We’ll see.”