HISTORY REPEATS ITSELF
Echoes of Trump's America in Netflix’s ‘Peaky Blinders’ Season 5
The hit series’ creator Steven Knight and star Cillian Murphy open up about the stunning fifth season of the U.K. gangster saga—one that eerily foreshadows our current nightmare.
At the outset of Peaky Blinders’ terrific fifth season, ruthless gang leader Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) has firmly ensconced himself in the House of Commons as a duly elected member of Parliament. Between that government position and Tommy’s strategic relationship with Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin), the real-life right-wing founder of the British Union of Fascists, it’s hard not to feel like writer/creator Steven Knight’s hit series is now fully operating with one foot in the grimy 1930s past and one in the all-too-real present—an impression to which Knight responds with a knowing smile and faux-surprise, “How could that possibly be?”
Peaky Blinders has always melded fiction and history, and that combination is more explosive than ever in its latest outing, which is now streaming on Netflix after its triumphant broadcast run in its native England, where it’s a phenomenon that star Murphy describes, correctly, as “zeitgeisty.” With Tommy amongst the country’s political elite, and yet struggling to keep his criminal enterprise afloat after losing the family fortune in the Wall Street crash of 1929, the show takes direct aim at the here-and-now, both in its portrait of government as a den of thieves and in its examination of fascism’s ascension in an apparently staunch democracy. The latter comes via Mosley, a debonair hatemonger whose dogma will sound eerily familiar to anyone paying attention to current events.
Alongside Murphy in New York City, and over pints rather than hard-drinking Tommy’s favored Irish whiskey (astonishingly, Murphy claims he’s a “lightweight” who can’t stomach the stuff), the prolific Knight explains, “We typically jump forward two to three years [each season], so suddenly we were into the ‘30s. Lucky for Peaky, and unluckily for the world, there are huge resonances between what was happening in the early ‘30s and what is happening now, in terms of nationalism, populism, racism.” Since Mosley’s constituency was located right next door to Tommy’s Birmingham enclave, “It’s almost like history and fate were pointing this out to us.” Researching Mosley only further cemented his relevance, given that, as Knight recalls, “I’m finding his real speeches, in which he talks about ‘false news.’ That was really there; it’s not me making it up. And his slogan was ‘Britain First.’ So make of that what you will.”
Focused on an underworld gang that thrived during the initial decades of the 20th century and got its distinctive name from the razor blade-outfitted hats worn by its members, Peaky Blinders—set to guitar-driven tunes from the likes of Nick Cave and PJ Harvey—is the story of the Shelby family, led by Tommy, a man torn between the angel and devil on his respective shoulders. Think of him as an antihero in a Tony Soprano or Walter White mold, and therefore the beneficiary of a TV landscape that’s become increasingly attracted to his ilk. Tommy’s appeal comes from the fact that, on the one hand, he’s a larger-than-life criminal—“a good man’s life would be a very tedious thing to watch over 30 hours!” Murphy laughs. And yet at the same time, as the head of a household responsible for both his immediate family and the relatives with whom he’s in illicit business, he’s also a character with intensely relatable concerns.
“If you wrote down what Tommy is, people would go, ‘Well, I don’t want to spend time with that guy,’” admits Murphy, the charismatic 43-year-old Irish actor best known stateside for 28 Days Later and his work in various Christopher Nolan films. “But if you imbue him with some of the normal weakness and frailties that we all walk around with, people will identify with that, even though it’s magnified through the prism of a gangster vernacular. He’s still recognizably human—he’s a dad struggling with his children; he’s a husband struggling with a wife; he’s a man struggling with middle age and being materially satisfied. All those things are resonant.”
Credit for Tommy’s ne’er-do-well allure is split evenly between Knight’s nuanced scripting (“amazing writing,” per Murphy) and the star’s magnetic performance, which doesn’t shy away from Tommy’s more explicit and ugly behavior while simultaneously digging deeply into his stew of issues. In Season 5, Tommy is consumed with the idea that people are coming for his “crown.” That paranoia is justified by the new threats encircling him, as well as a symptom of his WWI military trauma, which has left him with severe PTSD and compels him to view every aspect of his violent life in wartime terms.
Fortunately for Tommy, the political arena in which he finds himself is not very different from the battlefield or the kill-or-be-killed streets of Birmingham. “Through amassing all that wealth and moving up and being accepted, as a sort of novelty, into the aristocratic establishment, he comes to realize that they’re no better than him,” Murphy surmises. “There’s a great line in series five when someone asks him, ‘What are politics like?’ and he says, ‘Gangs, wars and truces—nothing I didn’t already know.’ That’s what politics are. So he’s perfectly matched for that world.”
Nonetheless, Mosley proves a novel challenge for Tommy. Offering a partnership that will give the gangster everything he ever dreamed, he’s an ideological demon proposing a Faustian bargain. Consequently, Knight sees him as a perfect vehicle for Tommy’s evolution, since the showrunner envisions Peaky Blinders as, ultimately, a story rooted in the question, “Can this man escape from his roots, and can we redeem a man who appears to be, on the surface, a bad man? By chance, this is a period of history when these circumstances may awaken a moral sensibility, because of the scale and the nature of what’s being confronted.” Tommy’s decision to champion socialist causes, and then to get into bed with Mosley’s fascist movement, are thus developments pushing him toward a reckoning with his own amorality.
“I think the whole arc of the character is reawakening,” Knight elucidates, and Murphy agrees wholeheartedly. “I imagine he was this quite idealistic, definitely left-leaning individual, and he went to the First World War and saw this destruction on a scale that we can’t even begin to comprehend, and saw how people supposedly in charge were actually cowards, and therefore came back without any faith in any political system or philosophy.” Now faced with fascism, he’s come to understand that, “Maybe I was onto something! Maybe these feelings that I’ve suppressed are actually correct. I think he’s always had them. So I think we’re beginning, very, very slowly, to see more of that pre-WWI Tommy.”
As is the case with his wild-man brother Arthur (Paul Anderson), his tough-as-nails aunt Polly (Helen McCrory), his disapproving sister Ada (Sophie Rundle) and his scheming nephew Michael (Finn Cole)—who, in Season 5, returns from the States with conniving new bride Gina (Anya Taylor-Joy) in tow—Tommy’s struggle to transform himself is also rooted in the issue of his birthplace. “The other fundamental question of the series is whether you can escape where you came from,” opines Knight. “It’s a different question in the States compared to in the U.K., because I think in the States, it has more to do with money. Tommy has been able to accumulate a lot of money, and have a big house. But in the U.K., that doesn’t mean you’re not the same person you were. You carry your class on your tongue.”
Besieged by anxieties and adversaries, it’s no wonder that Tommy is more on-edge than ever before. In reading about middle-aged men, Murphy discovered that, “statistically, the men who commit suicide in middle age are generally the men who’ve achieved a huge amount, are materially stable, and are leaders in their communities.” Between lying awake at night wondering what’s next, and smoking opium to cope with his numerous problems, “he’s clearly headed for, at least, a serious nervous breakdown, if not worse.”
Tommy’s path is both upwards into the highest echelons of society and into the lowest pits of despair and madness. His final fate, though, is left unanswered by the latest cliffhanger finale, in part because Knight hasn’t settled on it yet. “With Peaky, you never know yourself. When I start writing, to not know what’s going to happen next is a blessing, because then when you write, you realize that in this moment, I can just do that, and it’s going to come out of nowhere and no one’s expecting it because I wasn’t expecting it. I’ve tried to maintain that spirit throughout the whole thing.” That approach is born out by a raft of surprise reappearances from former players in Season 5, some of whom are merely byproducts of Tommy’s drug-addled hallucinations, and others who…well, let’s just say that not every deceased fan favorite is actually in the grave.
“What I’ve tried to do [in the series] is throw Tommy Shelby and family into these explosions of history—the general strike, the stock market crash, and the coming fascism—and then ask myself how Tommy would respond,” Knight says. While his current plan is to end the show after two more seasons, Knight is leaving the door open for more Shelby adventures, confessing, “We’ll get to the second World War, and then we’ll see where we go from there. Because the energy for this thing is so strong—it’s just getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and I don’t want to not utilize that energy.”
Murphy is more than game to follow wherever Knight takes him, given that Peaky Blinders has struck that sweet spot between exciting and unpredictable genre saga and intimate character study. “We’re all trying to be the best versions of ourselves, and we’re all walking around with these desires and contradictions and these things we’re trying to suppress. That’s part of the reason they [audiences] dig it. It’s because it’s not reality; it’s heightened. It’s a fucking gangster show but there’s so much that is universal about it.”
Continuing onward, however, does mean the actor will have to keep sporting Tommy’s trademark hairstyle—a shaved-around-the-sides ‘do that, he recounts, was actually a last-second spark of inspiration from his director and makeup designer. “All of a sudden, the Peakys have this really graphic silhouette, which we never anticipated. The caps were all in it, and the suits, very specifically. But the haircut was never in it—and then all of a sudden, this disgusting haircut, which was so graphic. And now people go and get it!”
Confirming that popularity, Knight points out that, in the last week alone, four British children have been kicked out of school for sporting the Peakys’ signature coiffure (including this boy in Carlisle)—which may, in the end, be the most conclusive proof yet that Tommy Shelby and company have truly gone mainstream.