The fifth season of Peaky Blinders finds Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy) at a crossroads, literally and figuratively. Sworn into the House of Commons as an MP for Birmingham South and with the passing of two years between seasons, the rest of the Blinders are scattered across the globe… but not for long. Amidst the traumatic 1929 Stock Market crash, Michael (Finn Cole) has lost the family too much money in Detroit and, wrapped in the arms of his new wife Gina Gray (Anya Taylor-Joy), heads back home for comfort. But there is no comfort to be found. Stephen Knight ensures that the ‘Blinder’s fifth season is particularly gloomy all-round, but it’s not evident immediately.
The premiere for example dictates the family finding their way to meet back together. Polly (Helen McCrory) from a pleasurable holiday abroad, Finn (Harry Kirton) from London after attending a gang raid off the books and Arthur (Paul Anderson) from his continued frustration over ice-cold Linda (Kate Phillips) whilst Ada and Lizzie (Sophie Rundle & Natasha O’Keeffe) help run the company’s assets. Director Anthony Byrne knows what fans have come to expressed from one of the most indulgent shows on television, and the Shelby’s return is lavished in slow-mo paces, alt-rock backings and fancy presentation. Strangely though, this is the first time in the show’s run where the abundance of such stylistic choices has managed to impede the show’s narrative, and it’s here where season five sadly falls short.
With long-running programs there’s always a difficult period where characters and motivations are needed to be implanted for future threads, and it’s very rare that a show is able to sustain itself solely on the actions of the now whilst subliminally cementing its continued existence – Peaky Blinders unfortunately isn’t one of those shows. Season five very much feels like a transitional period for all involved, and whilst there’s enough to satisfy – and even occasionally thrill – it’s a case of ensuring a grandiose return for the family and Tommy specifically in season six.
For example, the show thus far has kept a fairly tight structure when it comes to the ‘big bad’ of a season. Whether that be the slow-burn of Sam Neill’s Chester Campbell or Adrian Brody’s head of the Changretta family, it was always made aware who would be heading face-to-face with the Blinders for the season. However, despite a harrowing crucifixion sequence of Aberma Gold’s (Aiden Gillan) son in the opener, there’s a certain aimlessness when it comes to conflict. The aforementioned crucifixion sets up Irish Billy Boys leader Jimmy McCavern (Brian Gleeson) as the victim of the Shelby’s affections, yet he’s very quickly sidelined as the grand scheme is revealed in the form of Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin), a fascist in the House of Commons who has taken a certain interest in Mr. Shelby.
Mosley’s timely inclusion in Peaky Blinders could of course be taken as a form of political satire, especially at a time where Britain’s own politics seem just as backwards as they were then, but instead Knight sticks to his historical roots and encompasses Tommy into the beginnings of the begrudging British Union of Fascists party. Claflin’s physical likeness aside, his ice-cold performance and grating tongue places him neatly aside his predecessors in the halls of the show’s villains. Knight uses the relaxed pace of the season to cross threads and build bridges, whether it be Arthur’s dwindling faith in his brother, Polly and Aberama’s flowering romance or Michael’s growing disinterest with the way his family operates business… in fact, it’s a slow cranking of tension that eventually leads to what can only be described as Thomas Shelby’s downfall.
Tommy’s depression and addiction to opium has him wandering about, day-dreaming over the loss of Grace and ensuring that he feels powerless. With the world continuing to turn around him and change before his eyes, Tommy’s refusal to change along with it will be what kills him. Murphy continues to disappear behind the brummy accent and woolen caps, whilst his piercing eyes and calm exterior hides pained anger and the fury of a man on the brink of suicide. His political speeches are the stuff of legend, garnering applause and admiration from his ‘peers’, but they’re as hollow as he feels. Mosley knows this, and the exploitation of a man who, whilst never good but at least decent, feels like a nail in the coffin for Tommy as he’s forced to publicly back the party that stands for everything he’s against.
It’s this element of political espionage and backseat drug trafficking (in cash again, because cash is king) that feels like vintage ‘Blinders. Sadly however, it’s the supporting cast that are left hanging. McCrory’s Polly continues to grace the screen as the sleaziest queen in all of Birmingham, yet she’s given so little to do she sometimes ends up disappearing into the equally-lavish set design. Paul Anderson’s Arthur continues to be one of the most intricate and broken characters on the show, and when he’s allowed to break free it’s a joy to behold yet again there’s little to nothing for him to do. You could definitely argue this is all for the sake of narrative. Both Polly and Arthur are slowly turning against Tommy, and Arthur in particular is growing weary of his role as an errand boy whilst still lamenting over his treatment from Linda. Instead, some of the other supporting cast are given expanded roles to mixed results.
Ada and Ben (Kingsley Ben-Adir) flex a budding relationship against the backdrop of Tommy’s political endeavors, whilst Aberama’s intent of revenge on the Billy Boys never feels fully utilised enough to justify calling it a subplot. That’s the key problem with season five. Due to its continued focus on Tommy and raising the stakes for what comes ahead, much of what does happen in season five feels inconsequential; from characters deaths to character returns, it all feels like pieces to a puzzle we’re not yet allowed to see. This isn’t necessarily always a bad thing, both Glow and The Handmaid’s Tale have recently aired transitional seasons to varying degrees of success. Whilst it could mean audiences are about to receive a packed season six (much like season four), it’s just a shame that this year Peaky Blinder’s stylish presentation has been an example of style over substance. Even if it’s only just.