On paper, Netflix’s Peaky Blinders is a story about violent men. It follows the exploits of a crime family in 1920s Birmingham, England, and revolves around street fights, drug deals, blackmail, betrayal, and murder. As a result, its lead characters are largely the types you’d expect: Tortured, emotionally compromised, ambitious men who want bigger lives than the ones they’ve been born to and will fight to attain them.
That doesn’t mean they’re bland or uninteresting figures, however—far from it, in fact. The Shelby men are fascinating, if not always sympathetic figures. But they are the sorts of characters we’ve seen on television before. (HBO’s Boardwalk Empire immediately comes to mind.) Lead Tommy Shelby is an iconic mess, but despite his emotional complexity, his character still strikes a lot of familiar chords.
The same might be said of Peaky Blinders as a whole. Despite its rollicking modern soundtrack full of Nick Cave covers, grandiose gun battles and grisly murders, at the end of the day this is still a fairly traditional gangster drama. But it has one thing that most gangland stories don’t: A cast full of incredible women. The female characters of Peaky Blinders are just as fully realized as the men they share the screen with, each with their own agendas, histories and motivations. Ada Shelby wants a life apart from her brothers’ criminal empire. Arthur’s wife Linda is as savvy an operator as any of her husband’s men, though driven by faith rather than violence. And former sex worker Lizzie Starke is a pragmatist, choosing a less than ideal life with Tommy while knowing full well everything that involves.
Yet it’s Polly Gray, the steely-eyed matriarch of the Shelby clan played by Helen McCrory, who is not only the series’ strongest female character, but one who completely remakes the idea of the role women can and should play in stories like this. She’s the heart of this gangster tale, but not at all in the way you expect. Her character isn’t forgiving, kind, or particularly nurturing—quite the opposite, most of the time. She serves as the Shelby family’s moral center, but she doesn’t especially care about the state of their souls. For her, family is everything, and though she’ll do literally anything to keep the Shelbys together, she has no illusions about exactly who and what they are.
Polly is smart, tough-as-nails, and (frankly) often terrifying in her own right, but she’s also the most interesting and complex character in the Peaky Blinders universe. In a just world, this would be Polly’s gang and probably Polly’s show, too. Instead, she’s simply the best part of the one we have.
We first meet Polly Gray aiming a gun at one of her nephews in retaliation for leaving a loaded weapon where the younger kids might find it. Over the course of the subsequent five seasons, Polly commits murder, discovers a long-lost son, survives a near-death experience on the gallows, goes to jail, conquers a drug addiction, serves as the face of an elaborate conspiracy plot, and maybe starts seeing the future. (Depending on who you ask.)
A leader in both the Shelby street gang and the family’s legitimate corporation, Polly manages the books, the money, and the men with practiced ease. She ran the entire criminal enterprise on her own during World War I, and scoffs at the idea that she should return to “women’s business” just because the men have come back from France. She’s openly acknowledged as Tommy’s de facto second-in-command over both of his brothers, and pretty much every character on the show has said at one point or another that the entire operation would collapse if Polly weren’t around to hold it together.
In many ways, the men of Peaky Blinders treat Polly as if she is a man—with all the deference and respect for her power that implies—which makes it all the more important that the show itself explicitly does not. Instead, Polly is presented as almost aggressively feminine, with a love of dramatic clothes, expensive shoes, and the finer things in life. Polly’s constantly aware of the way she looks and what it says about her, frequently using the fact that she is a woman (and often underestimated) to her advantage. She’s also an overtly sexual person with a particular penchant for young and/or otherwise unsuitable men—but unlike several other women in the story, she’s generally celebrated, rather than demonized, for her romantic choices.
(Not for nothing, but there’s probably a whole other piece to be written about the utterly refreshing way Peaky Blinders portrays Polly as a middle-aged woman with a healthy sexual appetite and romantic life. More shows need to follow suit.)
Yet, despite her flashy, over-the-top attitude, Polly is also a figure of sincere emotional depth. There’s nothing she won’t do for the good of the family, be it advice or bribes or bloodshed. But she more than anyone seems to feel the weight of the life the Shelbys lead, and lives with plenty of demons as a result. She’s the only blood relative portrayed as being consistently religious—she struggles with her lack of guilt over killing the man who raped her, and a major Season Two plot point turns on a drunken trip to the confessional in an attempt to cleanse her soul.
Her desperate desire to protect Michael is not only driven by the fact that he is her son, but by the ever-present ghost of his dead sister. (Polly had both of her children taken away when she was young, and has never really gotten over it.) She spends a large chunk of Season Four addicted to pills in the wake of her near-execution and may have gone a little mad to boot, depending on whether you believe she’s actually seeing dead people everywhere or not. But Polly’s various traumas are taken seriously within the narrative and drive her choices in clear and understandable ways.
More than anyone, Polly has given her life to the idea of being a Shelby, and Peaky Blinders hasn’t shied away from what it costs her personal happiness to continually serve as the glue that holds her messy relatives together. But as she’s evolved from the Shelby’s go-to problem solver and sounding board into a woman who has come to terms with herself, she seems to—at last—have made a clear decision about who she wants to become.
[Vague spoilers below if you haven’t finished Season Five]
Throughout Season Five, we see Polly struggling to deal with a Tommy who is not only actively pushing her away but who embraces working with increasingly sketchy people —i.e., fascists—in service of his own ends. Her sweet romance with Aberama Gold encourages her to embrace a life outside of the Shelbys’ world, and the growing schism between Michael and Tommy leaves Polly increasingly stuck between them. By the time she resigns from the family company in the face of Tommy’s admission that he’ll kill her if she gets in his way, it feels like the sort of moment we’ve been waiting for since the show began.
The end of the season leaves us with plenty of questions and sets up what feels like a seemingly inevitable confrontation between Polly and Tommy over the divergent futures they both want. What that may mean for their relationship—and the show itself—is uncertain. But one thing is clear: Polly is perhaps the only person who might be able to go toe-to-toe with her nephew and not only survive, but emerge victorious. There’s God and there’s the Peaky Blinders, as Tommy himself likes to say. But there is also Polly Gray, the woman who rules them all.
Peaky Blinders Season Five is currently streaming on Netflix.
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.