SERIES REVIEW – Birmingham gang leader and MP Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy) is back to trying to put his life and business back together from scratch after his enemies brutally murder Aunt Polly and other members of his organisation. Tommy, barely recovered from his suicide, is deeply shaken by Polly’s death, and Polly’s son Michael (Finn Cole) blames Tommy for his mother’s death and vows bloody revenge.
In Season 6 of Peaky Blinders, the almost palpable tension reaches its climax and never for a moment releases Thomas Shelby, the series’ protagonist, or the viewers from his grip. The constant, almost subliminal voice of a woman exhaling can be heard constantly during key scenes, helping to create the atmosphere of impending doom. Breathlessness comes in the first scene, which recalls the haunting climax of Season 5 when Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) holds a gun to his own head in the misty field outside his mansion. He survives this suicide attempt only by accident and not on purpose, only to endure further episodes of mental anguish, accompanied by constant episodes of uncanny breathlessness. It is a demonic voice, perhaps foreshadowing Tom’s fateful downfall, full of suffering.
Alcohol-free Tom Shelby
After the profoundly moving funeral of his matriarch Aunt Polly, played by the recently deceased Helen McCrory – a great poetic tribute to the late actress – the action jumps four years to 1933 when Tommy has already given up alcohol in an attempt to clear his mind of the dark thoughts that haunt him.
But as he sets up an opium import-export business in Canada, he is surrounded by threats to his life from almost everywhere, not least from his cousin Michael (Finn Cole), who now hates him. Michael’s American wife Gina (Anya Taylor-Joy) is also trying to bring Tommy down: the femme fatale sends her fearsome uncle Jack (James Frecheville) to Birmingham. All this is not helped by the fact that Tommy’s brother Arthur (Paul Anderson) has now turned into a pathetic, almost constantly drugged, barely functional cripple.
Unparalleled performances, unmatched atmosphere, constant tension and stunning visuals
In this series, more than ever before, it’s up to the women, especially Tommy and Arthur’s sister Ada (Sophie Rundle – excellent) and Tommy’s wife Lizzie (Natasha O’Keeffe), to keep everything moving. Without them, the whole edifice of Peaky Blinders would collapse. And the most valuable newcomer of the final season is undoubtedly Lady Diana Mitford (Amber Anderson), Oswald Mosley’s mistress (who, like Mosley, is also an actual historical figure). She’s even more formidable than Sam Claflin’s Mosley, as she has an entirely uninhibited ability to take down anyone who gets near her and soon becomes the epitome of fascist decadence. But we have long known that women cannot and will not resist Tom’s once macho, charismatic and cold charm. And, of course, the object of his sexual desires is none other than Tom Shelby himself…
The professionalism with which writer Steven Knight weaves these real-life historical figures into the narrative is partly because the series never feels like just another gangster saga. Tommy is not a simple gangster who merely witnesses significant events but becomes deeply and irredeemably implicated in them as he tries to figure out whether his immoral and violent past precludes him from having any moral/political convictions.
A true jewel of Netflix
Somehow, this British series, which started on little old BBC2 and made its way to Netflix, is consistently one of the most beautifully crafted, well-crafted, visually stunning series. The unique tone created by Knight and his collaborators (especially director Anthony Byrne, who has worked on every episode since the start of Season 5) is what makes Peaky Blinders unlike anything else on streaming channels. It’s a series whose operatic grandeur, enhanced by deliberate and anachronistic musical choices, is ideally suited to the egomania of its protagonists. My only regret was that Nick Cave’s Red Right Hand is now rarely heard, and even then, only in a cover version. In exchange, however, we will listen to another Nick Cave classic – which one, I won’t say. He may have given up booze, but Tommy is still wildly addicted to the power that his unparalleled intellect and charisma have built up around him, and yet he can’t give it up because, in the course of events in the 1930s, his own life – and the whole free world – is threatened by Nazis and their collaborating gangs.
It’s a stunning farewell to the series, which has been running since 2013 and is now coming to an end, for 46-year-old Cillian Murphy, who has perhaps never given so much to his portrayal of Tom Shelby. Murphy is literally leaving the character at the top of his game – just as the sixth season has been the best of this incredibly ambitious British series, from which we are also pained to say goodbye.