It’s been nearly two and a half years since we left Thomas Shelby in a field with the black horse of doom, his deceased wife and a gun to his head, as viewers wondered if he was going to destroy the most compelling cheekbones in gang drama history.
Season 6, the final TV instalment of Peaky Blinders, is finally on its way to our screens. The series, centring on a ruthless Birmingham crime family after the First World War, inspires passionate fan devotion. Friends who recently moved into a new flat didn’t have kitchen shelves or wardrobes, but they did manage to hang a poster warning all who visited their bathroom not to mess with the Peaky Blinders. That’s called priorities.
Tommy Shelby is of course portrayed by award-winning Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who broods and Brums with Irish whiskey in his hands and a haze of smoke around his head. He’s a mesmerising combination of criminal genius and perfectly proportioned features.
He can be scary. When Tommy threatens to pull your tongue out, you better believe licking ice creams is going to become more difficult. Though props to anyone who ticks off nasty nuns at 6.30am for beating children.
Murphy has admitted he finds Tommy ‘tiring’ as he deals with ‘catastrophe after catastrophe’. It’s been hinted in this coming series that Tommy might sober up long enough to feel remorse for all those catastrophes – with possibly a chance at redemption. He’s done more for the baker boy cap than David Beckham, Guy Ritchie and Jason Statham combined, but Tommy does make his living from extortion and finding things before they’ve got lost. Plus, he kills people. According to Screen Rant, it’s hard to say how many fellas he’s dispatched, but we’re talking hundreds.
Tommy is a gangster octopus with a thousand arms and a million tentacles all stuck to things he should be leaving well alone. In not leaving them alone he’s accrued a mansion, become an MP and can drink all day long without anyone suggesting rehab. But he’s not in a good place at the end of season 5.
He’d plotted to assassinate real-life fascist politician Oswald Mosley (in the form of Sam Claflin, who was diabolically smooth and well-groomed and just generally diabolical). However, Tommy’s plan to become a pseudo-fascist spy leader failed.
A sniper war comrade liberated from the asylum was a key part of the Mosley elimination strategy. Somewhat deranged, the sniper had to be tied to lamp posts outside pubs. Even hitman Aberama Gold, not normally bound by convention or notions of morality, expressed his doubts to Tommy: ‘You’re going to be up on the stage while this criminally insane gunman filled with cocaine takes aim just a yard away from you?’
Basically, yes. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turned out, quite a lot.
Tommy now has a traitor to hunt down. Adding to his woes, he has plenty of other enemies who may resurface to torment him. Nephew Michael will probably push on with his intention to take over the family business. Expect the return of Michael’s wife Gina – Anya Taylor-Joy from The Queen’s Gambit – supreme master of Active Manipulator Face.
Aunt Polly was not happy in the season 5 finale, and likely to be even less happy on discovering fiancé Aberama was dead. Sadly, illness truncated Pol’s storyline as Helen McCrory, who was integral to the show, passed away in April 2021 before final season filming began. She’ll be hugely missed, but at least we have resurrected Alfie Solomons, courtesy of Tom Hardy.
His Hardyness returned in the season five finale, lurking in the world’s gloomiest beach house and peering at passing ships with one eye now he’s back from the grave. With half his face mangled thanks to Tommy’s inept attempt to kill him, Alfie’s got a new one-sided perspective. He’s not even insulted by lowball offers. In this zen state, Alfie offers insights such as: ‘Life is so much easier to deal with when you’re dead.’ Psychopath, comedian, and animal lover, even when bombed out of his brain on painkillers Alfie wrote letters to make sure Cyril the dog was OK.
We knew from the beginning that Tommy suffered from PTSD, addressing this with a liver-challenging bombardment of booze and opiates. In season 5 his dead wife Grace returned in an increasingly bleak series of hallucinations suggesting he blow himself up and join her. In the finale we learnt that Tommy’s mother and grandmother killed themselves, setting a precedent in that desolate department.
An anti-hero, or perhaps a tragic hero haunted by his own misdeeds, Tommy served in the Great War where innocence was blasted away by bombs and blood. He sleeps little, dreams choked by dust and terror. ‘Oim inna rewm and thair commin aht meh,’ he rumbles at wife Lizzie, and that’s probably enough to give her nightmares too.
Chronic insomnia can put anyone off their game, even if having time to read ancient Greek comes in handy for a chat with Winston Churchill. Despite an interest in the classics, Tommy is clearly unravelling. In the chaos following the failed attempt on Mosley’s life, Tommy vented with unhinged ferocity. Even Arthur, who pulverises people for looking at him the wrong way, was scared.
Season 6 would be rather short though if Tommy put a bullet through his head in the first episode. In case the suspense is too much, show creator Stephen Knight did confirm more Peaky Blinders and even a ballet.
Sometimes Tommy is a Bad Man who tries to do Good Things. We root for Tommy, because in addition to those cheekbones, he’s bad because he has to be. He protects his family even when they’re behaving like a bag of angry eels. He tries to save Britain from fascism. He’s an underdog – a boy from a Gypsy family without a birth certificate who was never expected to achieve much. He’s smart, ambitious, and generally more appealing than the scumbags he’s fighting against.
The Shelby patriarch is a character that at times evokes disgust, but also pity and admiration. He’s complex, and being around him may decrease your longevity. But he’s never boring.
Welcome back Tommy.
Peaky Blinders returns to the BBC on Sunday 27th February, 2022.
See the Series 6 Trailer below and let us know in the comments if you’ll be watching on Sunday (no spoilers afterwards though, please!).
A former theatre and comedy critic, Carolyn O’ Donnell was a senior journalist at The Times and has written extensively on arts and culture. Her travel writing has appeared in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and many airline magazines. In 2021 she won the Christopher Hewitt Award for fiction.