Over the past few years, the BBC drama Peaky Blinders has seen its profile increase with each subsequent season, becoming a legitimate international hit, thanks in large part to its gritty storytelling, terrific cast headed up by Cillian Murphy, and its availability on Netflix shortly after its U.K. run concludes. There’s plenty more to like this time around, as the new season begins on Black Tuesday 1929, kicking off the Great Depression. It’s perhaps the most overt example of the stylish historical drama using a particular moment in time to distinguish its latest storyline and wreak havoc for Murphy’s Tommy Shelby and the plans for his family’s criminal dominance.
As crime sagas go, Steven Knight’s vision of the post-WWI rise of a scrappy Irish crime family, from the hard-scrabble slums of Birmingham to a seat in the English government, has been one the most deliberate and satisfying in recent memory. With Knight confirming his desire to continue its run through at least season 7, he sees the series run headlong into a tumultuous time in European history, one where the wheels of time threaten to crush Tommy Shelby’s criminal, financial, and political ambitions.
The thought of the series progressing from one world war to another might have been a distant dream when Knight first launched Peaky Blinders back in 2013, but now it’s a very real possibility. That’s true in part because of the show’s penchant for jumping forward in time each season, but also as season 5 begins the footwork of charting the rise of fascism and nationalism that portends the rise of Nazi Germany and the devastation of World War II.
It’s no small feat for a period drama like Blinders to have its eye on the future, while keeping its feet firmly planted in its characters’ present. That present is uncertain for Tommy and what’s left of his family, as their legitimate business holdings in the U.S. take a tremendous blow from the stock market crash, one that is facilitated in part by Michael (Finn Cole) failing to heed his cousin’s orders to sell off their holdings prior to the market’s collapse. This leaves the Shelby’s scrambling to raise some much-needed cash, facilitating a return to various less-than-legitimate enterprises.
Knight, Murphy, and season 5 director Anthony Byrne structure the story around an increasingly vulnerable and emotionally isolated Tommy, who, as a veteran of the first World War has seen better days. That’s saying a lot about where things are headed this time around, particularly with regard to the various ups and downs the Shelby clan has experienced over the past four seasons. This time, though, Knight takes his torment of Tommy up a notch, giving him a growing and consuming addiction to opiates, which leaves the door of his psyche wide open for the ghosts of his past to come back to haunt him.
It’s not merely the past that knocks Tommy off balance this time around, however. There’s a storm on the horizon, and, as usual, it’s almost as though Tommy’s the only one prescient enough to see it. Knight has a knack for introducing and building conflict from a number of different angles, and that’s readily apparent in season 5. The series has a well-established track record of familial dissent fueling some of Tommy’s biggest headaches, and it’s no different here, though the sources of Tommy’s vexation are somewhat changed.
No longer is his older, emotionally volatile brother Arthur (Paul Anderson) a threat to Tommy’s role at the head of the Shelby family table. Instead, Arthur has become Tommy’s most trusted ally (in the family at least), passing the baton of familial friction to Finn, who returns to Birmingham from Detroit, tail tucked between his legs after losing a vast sum of the family’s fortune, and with a new bride, Gina (Anya Taylor-Joy). Gina’s ambitions are obvious and she sees her new husband as a means to an end, even if she has to play Lady Macbeth in order to see them come to fruition. Gina’s but one piece of a larger movement of spousal dissent, one that has Arthur’s wife Linda (Kate Phillips) pushing him to make moves he’s unwilling or unable to make, while Tommy’s latest, Lizzie (Natasha O’Keeffe), can’t seem to get through to him how much his family needs him more than the Family.
At times it seems as though everyone is talking, but no one is listening, and Knight uses this to his advantage, as his characters and the world at large appear oblivious to the storm clouds on the horizon. Everyone except Tommy Shelby that is. As usual, Tommy’s running several schemes simultaneously, playing a Yojimbo-like game with and against friend, family, and foe alike. But it’s those foes that give Peaky Blinders season 5 a frightening present-day relevance as newcomer Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin) cuts a disturbing far-right figure, one who’s aligned himself with a gang of Scottish fascists who want a slice of Tommy’s pie.
Claflin is one of the best villains to come out of Peaky Blinders since Sam Neill’s Inspector Chester Campbell, largely because the Peaky Blinders’ usual methods of dealing with enemies are unavailable in this case. And, like Campbell, Mosley is able to turn the Blinders’ strategies against them, all while he further insulates himself from reprisal. It’s not uncommon for the series to make it look as though Tommy’s met his match, only to reveal he’s been one step ahead of the competition the whole time. It is refreshing, however, to see that even in its fifth season, the series can still ratchet up the tension and put the squeeze on its unlawful family in such a confident and entertaining way.
Peaky Blinders season 5 will stream on Netflix beginning Friday, October 4.