The moment I was done watching season one of Peaky Blinders over the Chinese New Year holiday, I felt my mind turn back to 2013, and wondered how I could have missed out on this show for six whole years. What was I doing in 2013? Oh, training to become a teacher. I guess that’s why. But no matter, it’s 2019, and I am officially on the Peaky Blinders train.
What marvels me is the fact that this is a show about gangsters who carry razors in their caps, and here I am rooting for them. Well, just one man in particular – Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy). It is not unusual for a TV series to revolve around an antagonist-type figure. We have Breaking Bad, House of Cards, even Hannibal to some extent. Despite the foggy moral landscape that surrounds Tommy, I can’t help but turn a blind eye. When he shoots Billy Kimber (Charles Creed-Miles) in the head, my audible cheers could probably be heard from the opposite block. The stylised slow-mos of Cillian Murphy smoking a cigarette and walking through the dirt and grit of Small Heath, Birmingham always manages to send my heart aflutter.
My fondness for his character is troubling, but it is not surprising given the layers of character depth that has been built around him. We know he suffers from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, now know as PTSS, where the S stands for Syndrome) because of his experiences in World War I, and this in part is what drives his ambition and desire for more. He believes that if he keeps moving, then he can leave the past behind. But the past is never just the past. We see this in the suffering of characters like Danny Whizz-Bang (Samuel Edward-Cook) and even Thomas’ brother Arthur (Paul Anderson).
While the rest of the town can barely tolerate the moments when Danny loses reality, Tommy stands out in demonstrating the inverse. He is kind to Danny and tries to help him out of his episodes, even sparing his life when he was forced to kill him. As much as he disagrees with Freddie Thorne’s (Iddo Goldberg) political views, and the difficult position he finds himself in because of his sister’s involvement with Thorne, he still paves the way for them to be together.
Similarly, when his brother John (Joe Cole) tells him about his plan to marry Lizzie (Natasha O’Keeffe), a prostitute that even Tommy himself visits, instead of close-mindedly rejecting his request, he pays Lizzie a visit to see if she has really changed. Despite the blatant proof, he still leaves it to John to make the final decision. Okay, maybe the arranged marriage between John and Esme Lee (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) wasn’t conceived on the best of intentions, but it shows that he knows what would be good for his brother. Just like he knew to give the Garrison to Arthur, even if the way he went about it wasn’t the best way. There is a vein of practicality to his good deeds, but yet there is a sense that he truly does want the best for his family.
Our support for Thomas is probably down to the lack of anyone else to pin our hopes on. Chief Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill) may have come into the police station preaching anti-corruption and a need to clean up the streets, but this is all show and appearance. It is especially significant to know the role he played in the Easter Uprising of 1916, where he was part of the government forces that were sent in to squash the Uprising in Ireland. It didn’t end there, with leaders of the Irish Uprising executed by a firing squad, and thousands more arrested and imprisoned if they were suspected of any involvement in the rebellion. The rushed mass executions and imprisonments ignited resentment towards the British, and their handling of affairs in Ireland.
There is a certain moral uppityness to his demeanour, like when he reminds Grace (Annabelle Wallis) to not forget the kind of people she is consorting with, yet he is built from the same cloth. He lets a man be whipped to death for information and shows no remorse or regret, merely instructing he be tossed down the stairs. His behaviour with Grace is frankly disturbing. He acts the part of a father figure to her, yet harbours distinctly non-fatherly desires towards her.
The moment Grace quits the police force, he makes his intentions known, and gets angry because she does not return his feelings. He stalks her and watches creepily from outside her lodging as she and Tommy make love, then sends her a letter proclaiming his disgust of her actions. Men shaming women for their sexuality and desire is not a new thing, especially with the virgin-whore dichotomy still so heavily in play in the 1900s. But his actions really take the cake when he seeks to punish her by killing her, holding a gun to her head in the final moments of season 1.
Tommy, by contrast, develops a very different relationship with Grace. He is not blind to her charms, having done research on her backstory and finding gaps, but giving her the benefit of the doubt that she is trying to outrun a difficult past. She holds her own with him, and the more they interact, the more it is easy to see the growing affection as well as sexual tension. The viewers see Tommy the same way Grace does, falling in love with him the same way she does. Even when he finds out she is a copper and has been lying to him the entire time, he doesn’t seek to punish her but merely laments the loss of the relationship. She can never be a part of his world, and he can’t leave his to join hers.
There is a certain irony at play here, where the bad man has redemptive qualities, and the good man who denounces corruption is perhaps the most morally decrepit of them all. As the show progresses, it does make me wonder if Thomas is going to lose his grip on that softer part of himself. Him introducing Arthur to hard drugs, even though he qualifies that ‘Tokyo’ is limited to special occasions, seems like a bad decision. His desire to keep Arthur as the mad dog he needs has had disastrous consequences. However, he also goes above and beyond to find Polly’s children for her, as well as offering Lizzie the prostitute a chance at an honest living.
I guess this is the whole lure of Peaky Blinders. It is a show built around vice and violence, but as the viewer, you don’t feel the guilt in supporting such endeavours. There is a wall of moral sympathy guarding these characters, where they are just as capable of empathy and kindness as they are of murder. The peak of it all is the wit and intelligence they wield. We are so enamoured with how clever they are that we are willing to forgive them anything – it is all part of the charm. Or maybe, deep down, a part of us is envious of the freedom they experience from being able to live outside the law, because unlike them we are “peasants obeying the law”. It’s akin to having one’s head through the window while these characters stand outside it, and through watching them break the rules, we feel a sense of emancipation too. However, that leaves us stuck in the grey landscape of moral ambiguity, a buy-in with no way out. How lovely.
Season five of Peaky Blinders is expected later this year.
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