At last, the waiting’s over. Peaky Blinders is back, and on BBC One, too. Is it still as compelling and rule-breaking, or has it settled into comfortable middle age? Katherine Clements reviews Season 5 for Historia.
“The corridors of Westminster are very dimly lit, and for those who make the rules, there are no rules.” Not a comment on Boris Johnson’s Britain, but Tommy Shelby, setting the scene in the long-awaited opener of Peaky Blinders Season 5.
It’s 1929, the Wall Street Crash has devastated the economy, nationalist sentiment is running high, fascism is the new political buzzword, and Stalin’s Soviet Union casts a menacing shadow. Sound familiar? Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight has a knack for making history relevant, and never more so than now.
It’s easy to forget how fresh and different Peaky Blinders was when it first aired in 2013. Here was period drama without the faux nostalgia, wigs and corsets, and with that soundtrack. It changed small screen historical drama for good. Then, a Netflix deal took the show global,
David Beckham launched a Peaky Blinders clothing line and Peaky Blinders-themed bars and festivals sprang up all over the country. Season 5 premiers on BBC One in the prestigious Sunday 9pm slot, nudging BBC behemoth Poldark out of the way and confirming its conversion from unconventional oddity to full-on franchise. But is it still any good?
Well, yes. If you’re a fan, you won’t be disappointed. Episode 1 picks up two years on. While the rest of the Shelby family are living the high life, Tommy – undoubtedly the heart of the Peaky Blinders story – is busy playing ‘man of the people’ to perfection as MP for Birmingham South, while slowly melting down in private. Tommy’s torment is reminiscent of Season 1 – relying on ‘dope’ to tame the demons, prone to bouts of violent anger, longing for a peace he can never have.
Director Anthony Byrne has said: “This series is about returning to the darkness of a man’s soul and what he’s lost in the time that it has taken him to achieve everything he values.” There are reflective moments of genuine regret, but also a new paranoia and cruelty, suggesting an impending crisis of Shakespearian proportions (Our Will was a Midlands lad, after all).
The financial fallout of the Wall Street Crash brings the family back together. Opportunistic as ever, Tommy has a plan – a plan with so much deception and double-dealing, even he’s struggling to keep track.
Meanwhile, enemies are gathering. There’s a mysterious threat on home turf, dangerous political forces at play and an ominous appearance by Oswald Mosley (who founded and led the British Union of Fascists in 1932). Everyone is vying for a piece of the Shelby Empire.
This remains a stubbornly British show and Knight is keeping it close to home. By now, we all know Tommy can’t escape his roots, reflected by a satisfying resurrection of some earlier storylines. There are new characters, plenty of gripping, tension-filled moments, but no big shocks and, as yet, no cartoon villains. Perhaps we’re in for something more nuanced this time. My guess is this season will set us up for the longer term and the run up to WWII that Knight has proposed from the start.
That’s not to say boxes aren’t ticked. Cillian Murphy is as compelling as ever as Tommy, Arthur (Paul Anderson) continues his evolution as the most empathetic unstable psychopath on screen, and Polly Gray (Helen McCrory) commands every scene with a mere eye roll.
There are more gorgeous cinematic shots than ever, slick production design, and plenty of dark humour. The episode is bookended with enough gritty violence to please those who tune in for the action, while a strong focus on our favourite characters will satisfy those who like a bit more depth in their drama. Look out for the obligatory slo-mo Peaky Walk, and, for those who have been paying attention, resolution on the fate of Cyril the dog. All that, plus glamour, guns and gangsters. Which, honestly, is exactly what we want.
Peaky Blinders airs in the UK at 9pm on BBC One on Sunday, 25 August, 2019, and on Netflix on Friday, 4 October.
And yes, Jessie Eden will be back. Have a look at our feature on her life as an activist.
Watched Peaky Blinders but missed Sanditon? Read our review of the ITV adaptation.
She has written three features about the Brontës for Historia: a review of a new biography of Emily Brontë, a visit to the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, and an interview with Michael Stewart, whose novel, Ill Will, tells the story of Heathcliff’s lost years.
Tommy Shelby (Cilian Murphy), Oswald Mosley (Sam Clafin) and Polly Gray (Helen McCrory): all courtesy of BBC Pictures