It’s the end of an era—sort of. The final season of Peaky Blinders on Netflix is here and with it, one last hurrah for Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy), one of the final surviving members of Peak TV’s original antihero boom. A violent, emotionally compromised man who wants a bigger life than the one he’s been born to, Tommy is forever torn between the two sides of his own nature and the two different kinds of futures they represent. And while his demons do often triumph over his better angels, it’s the hope that maybe one day they won’t that keeps us coming back to this story year after year.
What started as the tale of a back-alley gang in the Small Heath neighborhood of Birmingham—who made their bones fixing horse races, committing petty larceny, and fighting local rivals for turf—has seen the Shelby clan grow into an empire, as Tommy and his family control the movements of vast million-dollar drug shipments, and wield international influence in politics and finance. Famous real-life historical figures like Oswald Mosley, Diana Mitford, and even Winston Churchill are regular parts of the story in the series’ later seasons, Tommy himself becomes a member of Parliament, and things are more likely to be done by the order of the Birmingham Urban District Council than the Peaky [Expletive] Blinders.
This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but it does mean that as the show has gone on, it’s become decidedly bigger in scale and more grandiose in its ambitions. (Tommy’s attempt to thwart the march of fascism in Europe, for example, feels a bit far afield from the gun running he so carefully plotted back in Season 1.) As a result, our need to suspend our disbelief—that Tommy’s increasingly wild plots pay off, that the major players of the Shelby clan generally all seem to keep surviving various increasingly complicated attempts on their lives, and that seemingly calamitous setbacks only lead to greater success—has only increased with each passing season. (Although somehow a moral disaster like Tommy being an MP is actually the most realistic part of the show by the end.) But at least its increasingly sweeping, operatic feel and expansive, usually extremely explosive setpieces mean that Peaky Blinders is many things, but it is certainly never dull.
Season 6 picks up literally seconds after its predecessor ends, briskly sweeping through the fallout from Tommy’s failed attempt to assassinate Oswald Mosley (Sam Clafin) and what appears to be a fairly genuine suicide attempt, before leaping ahead four years and essentially resetting all the proverbial pieces on the board in preparation for the show’s grand finale.
It may be 1933 but not a lot has changed in the world of the show. Tommy, on yet another self-improvement kick, has sworn off some of his personal bad habits but expanded his drug business to Canada, a move that has once again brought him into contact—and conflict—with Michael (Finn Cole). He’s also still palling around with Mosley and his fascists, insisting that he’ll be able to bring them down more easily if he’s accepted among them (even as he starts to question whether he, himself, believes in anything at all). Arthur (Paul Anderson) has fallen off the narcotics wagon again, and is a shell of the man he once was, while Ada (Sophie Rundle) is desperately trying to take Polly’s (Helen McCrory) place as emotional center of the family.
As for a larger narrative? Well, we’ve seen this before. Once Tommy does one last terrible deed, commits one last crime, slices off one last piece of his soul, betrays one more person he claims to love, he’ll be finished, the monsters will be vanquished, and he can lay his life of remorseless criminality aside and rest. This is essentially the plot of every season of Peaky Blinders, by the way, but Season 6 ups the discomfort by an order of magnitude by essentially casting Tommy as the lesser of two evils by putting him up against a group of people who literally want to commit genocide. Go Shelbys, I guess!
Despite its best efforts, Peaky Blinders’ final season exists in a strange, occasionally frustrating liminal space. The shadow of the feature film that creator Steven Knight has promised will serve as the true ending to the Shelbys’ story looms large over everything, making sure that no goodbyes feel permanent, or final twists feel fully earned. The obvious need to keep certain characters around (or move them into new places and/or relationships) in order to serve the film that doesn’t exist yet means that significant portions of Season 6 feel rushed or underbaked.
And while there are genuine moments of catharsis sprinkled throughout these six final episodes—any scene between Murphy and Anderson is gold, I remain deeply invested in Arthur and Tommy’s relationship, and I gasped out loud the moment someone referenced “In the Bleak Midwinter”—a lot of screentime is wasted along the way. The introduction of Gina Gray’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) American crime boss uncle Jack Nelson (James Frecheville) never really goes anywhere, and the arrival of a last minute long-lost Shelby relative is almost laughably convenient.
Part of the problem, if we’re honest, is that the show never quite finds a way to get past the loss of the incomparable Helen McCrory, who tragically passed away in early 2021. McCrory’s ferocious, furious Polly Gray was often the glue that held not just the Shelby family together, but Peaky Blinders entirely. And though the show does its best to honor Polly’s legacy in this final season, her absence leaves an almost visible hole in the fabric of these episodes.
It’s also hard not to mourn what a Season 6 that truly included Polly might have looked like. Though we obviously don’t know what the powers that be originally had in store for this final run of episodes, it’s clear that McCrory’s death necessitated some fairly significant rewrites, and the inevitable inter-family war we all knew was coming lands differently when it finally arrives without the character who would likely have been a primary figure at its center. (In short: We miss you a hell of a lot, Helen.)
Without the presence of the woman who was essentially its co-lead, Peaky Blinders struggles to find a character who can successfully balance the narrative scales opposite Murphy’s Tommy, and generally comes up short. Which isn’t always a bad thing—much of Peaky Blinders’ larger narratives have generally coalesced around Tommy’s battle with his inner demons at this point in the series’ run anyway, and Murphy is as good as he’s ever been. But the idea of his supposed rivalry with Michael has always been more interesting than the actual fact of it, and he’s hardly the final boss we all hoped he might be. (Particularly without Polly’s complex relationship with both men to muddy the waters between them.)
In what is perhaps the most fitting tribute to McCrory, however, Season 6’s women steal the show. Peaky Blinders’ array of complicated female characters has always been something that set the gangland drama apart, and both Rundle’s Ada and O’Keefe’s Lizzie get plenty of opportunities to shine as each wrestles with grief, rage, and the seemingly endless frustration of being forever bound to Tommy’s world. But the women are also given a chance to fully step into their own power in a way we haven’t really seen from either of them before— a fitting reminder that if anyone in this family is truly going to forget a new path, it will once again be the ferocious Shelby women.
The final season of Peaky Blinders premieres Friday, June 10 on Netflix.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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