Netflix lags behind HBO when it comes to producing high-quality shows, but the gap is getting smaller. Look at Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Black Mirror, The Crown, The Queen’s Gambit, The Last Dance, etc. Alas, I’d take Peaky Blinders over any other Netflix hit. One of the great British dramas, Peaky Blinders alternates between despair and hope. It juggles flashes of intimacy with a cold, cynical, lawless disposition. It serves as a nexus between the old world and the new world, carefully tackling a setting that proved a paradigm shift in the infrastructural and sociopolitical development of modern society. Indeed, this is a paradigm of good television: wildly entertaining, full of cliffhangers, and—most strikingly—as ignorable as it is immersive (i.e. you can cruise through episodes without having to commit to seeing every scene). And now that the last episode of Peaky Blinders is set to come out tonight, let’s reflect on this surprisingly accessible show.
With the six-season series set in post-WW1 England around a Birmingham gang and its burgeoning leader, Thomas Shelby, we see the physical landscape of the world around him change as the country rapidly industrializes. But no changes are more evident than those of Mr. Shelby himself: a war hero, a brilliant polymath, an emotionally & intellectually textured protagonist, and a supervillain who gradually consolidates power—via his gang’s risky, clandestine dark money operations—on his way to international stardom. Yet this show is far from a mere one-trick pony. The commentary is meticulous. The cinematography is beautiful and ornate. Nick Cave’s soundtrack serves as a perfect facilitator for the mood of each scene. And the various little intermingling facets of love, hate, pain, and glory are captivating.
Needless to say, Thomas is not the only interesting personality at play—nor is Cillian Murphy the only superstar actor given the presence of Tom Hardy and Anya Taylor-Joy in later seasons. The entire Shelby family and its proxies combine for a wild, diverse crowd in a time of anarchy. However, even more intriguing is the dynamic between the Peaky Blinders and their enemies. Thomas begins the series as a local nobody who is feared only by those in his neighborhood, only to slowly ascend until he is a national icon. Plus the show’s structure makes the experience of this subtle process worth the wait; each season contains six entertaining episodes, and you can start and stop as you please. You may hit parts where you feel complacent, but keep going because the series gets better.
There are some minor flaws that will inevitably deter more esoteric audiences. First of all, it does get old seeing all of the questionable CGI depictions of an industrial-era city—the smoke rising above the chimneys, the endless rows of heavy machinery at work, the rugged and mud-covered and haggard faces of overworked men in a rapidly changing time—as if the shots constitute some sort of profound commentary on the ramifications of the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, although I love Nick Cave’s original scores, the soundtrack dabbles in modern rock a bit too much. And the writing, for better or worse, is sloppy despite ultimately having the right ideas at play. My main issue with it is that sometimes you hit points in the show where you feel like you’re at a stopping point, where all of your questions have been answered and there are no longer any lingering ideas or theoretical scenarios racing through your head. No writer owes us adherence to such a high standard, but I mention it because there are some ridiculously well-written dramas like The Americans and The Night Of that you could be watching instead.
If you can get past the first two seasons (which I’d give a rating of no more than 7.5 out of 10 or so), this show starts to flirt with pure artistic brilliance. It emerges from glorified mediocrity—the corny dialogue, the monotonous set designs, the use of Radiohead in an unfitting manner, etc.—and, over the course of the latter half of season 3, spirals into a stunning juggernaut of modern gangster television. The set suddenly becomes incredibly visceral, the acting performances (even the ones that were shaky early on) age like fine wine, and you fall further and further into the pit of doom that is the storm of conflicting feelings raging within you about whether you should love Thomas and his family even more or instead finally cave into reason. Then again, you’ll see time after time that no matter how close people get, there’s no stopping Tommy Shelby. He is a schemer. He is a psychopath. He is brilliant. He is a romantic. And, perhaps more than anything, he is simply inevitable.
The season 3 finale is one of the best episodes I’ve ever seen and proof that Peaky Blinders is legit. This scene is one of its culminations. Brilliant acting by Tom Hardy.
At the end of the day, Peaky Blinders shines not only in its grand moments—but also in its subtleties. There are several things that really stand out to me. The way Thomas is able to instinctively outmaneuver everyone else in the perpetual chess game that is money and politics is insane; even when he makes mistakes or stumbles upon unexpected scenarios, he finds a way to use it to his advantage. It’s an interesting contrast to his more human side, which often reveals itself due to Thomas’s ability to see people for whom they really are. Another neat subtlety is the way that xenophobia, racism, sexism, and—above all else—classism shape interactions. Then again, there are many such factors when you have gangsters, pawns, mobsters, the police, industries, government agencies, and foreign interests clashing for power in one arena. Granted, this show is probably more appealing to men than women, yet I believe that Peaky Blinders has tricks up its sleeve for all audiences. And who wouldn’t want to see Cillian Murphy at his finest?