You Should Be Watching: Peaky Blinders


At this point in the television game, it seems like a safe bet to argue that binge-watching really is the best method for enjoying non-procedural shows. For a couple of reasons.

The “what will happen next” tension from episode to episode often leads to false predictions and an overabundance of expectation that most shows just aren’t prepared to deliver on. But more than that, a good show is often as absorbing as a good book. And just as it would be hard to read 5 or 6 books at a time and invest emotionally in each one while remembering the intricate relationships and plot points, TV — particularly when it comes to shows with dense seasons and only a handful of episodes — is becoming an equally hard thing to juggle.

That’s why I highly recommend devoting your next weekend to both seasons of the BBC’s 1920’s crime drama, Peaky Blinders.

Unlike shows with episodes that end on cliffhangers, or seasons that present a central mystery to be unraveled from episode to episode, nothing about Peaky Blinders appears on first glance to lead to obsessive binging. But within the first half of the show’s first episode, what you find is that the show runners, writers and actors have built a world that you enjoy inhabiting, filled with people that you feel instantly absorbed by and connected to. The plot (which is often convoluted) plays second fiddle to the small dramas of the central Shelby family and the people they deal with — personally and professionally.

With that said, between the name and the setting, it’s an easy to show to write off. Peaky Blinders is a goofy title that’s never quite explained, and the promotional images and trailers do little to dissuade critics from dismissing it as a British rip-off of Boardwalk Empire. But don’t be fooled.

Even if you feel like you’ve seen the Flat-Capped Famiglia trope too many times to count,  Peaky Blinders‘ strength is in its characters and its setting: both of which help to differentiate it from the sassy New York stereotypes that are well worn in American film and television.

Blinders instead gives us the dour Shelby family of Birmingham who run a small-time gambling and betting ring within the city. By centering the story around a West Midlands gang, rather than focusing on larger players in London, the show often plays with the image of the quasi-celebrity mobsters rather than submitting to it. Slow-mo shots of the central male gang members are thrown into subtle parody by having them strut arrogantly through mud puddles, or by having the men cause devastation with implausible weapons like safety razors sewn into flat caps. These moments speak to the larger theme within the show, namely that what we’re dealing with are a group of small-town crooks who all too frequently overestimate their powers of intimidation and the overall size of their organization.

It’s this tension of naive ambition that underscores the show and its characters: they are more often weak and broken than they are cool or dangerous. At the heart of that tension is the lead, Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy, who manages to make all of the contradictions of his character work as a cohesive whole. Tommy is ruthless and yet the most sensitive and loving of the group. Which is why the show’s central conflict — that of a star-crossed lovers plot, rather than the more complicated gambling turf wars — works as well as it does. Tommy is presented more as a misunderstood romantic hero than a glamorous mobster who is somehow fumblingly sweet when flirting with his love interest, Grace, and yet knows how to play the part that’s expected of him well enough that he makes any room he walks into go silent with fear.

With that said, the cast as a whole are great. It would be a mistake to neglect the performances of Sam Neill (Chester Campbell, the lead villain) and Helen McCrory (Aunt Polly, the gang’s matriarch) in particular, but it’s difficult to think of anyone who doesn’t work in their part — in the first Season at least. I say that because Season 2 features a cameo by Tom Hardy as a Jewish gang leader that blows right past believable to settle somewhere on the spectrum of bizarre, but manages to set the tone for the grandiose specter of the London gang scene that the Shelbys inadvisably try to break into.

If I keep talking, I’ll give too much away. Suffice to say that while not perfect, Peaky Blinders turns the same old gangster story into a much more intimate and tender experience than you’d expect. Best enjoyed over a few days with a hearty supply of whiskey.

3 thoughts on “You Should Be Watching: Peaky Blinders

  1. This is a very sexy show, starring some very attractive, well dressed, well groomed ladies and gentleman holding a cigarette, a drink or a gun in every scene. In that sense, it’s a lot like Mad Men.

    I think Tom Hardy’s actually quite a central character though – the war between the Italians and the Jews was brought up in the very first series. I can see him becoming more prominent in Series 3 given the space vacated by a certain antagonist.

  2. Burmingham? Where’s that, Alaburma? I don’t know of anywhere in northern England by that name. There is however a city called Birmingham in Central England, roughly equidistant between London and Manchester.

    Maybe Burmingham was a typo, in which case you are forgiven. Not for the northern bit though!

    Peaky Blinders is a goofy title but it grows on you and I can’t imagine it being called by any other name now. (For those who don’t know, the title refers to the razor blades sewn into the peaks of the ubiquitous flat caps worn by the street gangs of Birmingham in the period just after the First World War)

    The show is visually stunning and while the contemporary soundtrack is incongruous it somehow seems to work. The show is flawed but you come to love it warts and all..Acting is first class and I shall miss Inspector Campbell (brilliantly played by Sam Neil)after Aunt Polly
    “did him in” at the end of the last episode.

    Another interesting fact. People from Burmingham – sorry, Birmingham – are called Brummies and the city is often referred to by the old generation as Brummagem which also refers to much of the cheap jewelllery manufactured in the city in days gone by and is often a term of derision.

    Great review apart from the dodgy grasp of British geography and glad you enjoyed Peaky Blinders!

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