Peaky Blinders is a cultural phenomenon. There’s no better way to put it. The BBC/Netflix series is a global hit and now, nearly nine years since first airing, the show is over. And while this is not the end of the Shelby family’s story (the grand finale will be a movie that begins filming next year) it is the end of Peaky Blinders, the show, as we know it. And with that, we say goodbye to TV’s most underrated leading man: Thomas Shelby himself.
It’s strange to say Tommy Shelby is underrated. Peaky Blinders often balances on the edge of being an ensemble show, but in the end it always centers on Cillian Murphy’s commanding performance. No major plot point happens without at least some of his involvement. But six seasons later, I think we have taken Murphy’s performance for granted.
I was shocked to discover Cillian Murphy never received any serious award nominations or buzz for his role. Peaky Blinders looks incredible. Its soundtrack is unlike any other show. It’s captivating, and no wonder it became Netflix’s biggest global hit. But even though it’s defined by its style, the show comes alive in its performances. Cillian Murphy is the engine that fuels Peaky Blinders. It’s time he gets proper praise for how he’s built the role he has also mastered over the course of nine years.
The character of Thomas Shelby is the kind of role actors dream of landing. He is given some of the best material an actor can hope to exhibit: extreme displays of rage and sorrow, long moments of reflection, slow motion shots that show just how cool this guy is. There’s always another layer, always something he can’t say or show. It’s a performance that allows for both subtlety and exaggeration.
But the “coolness” of Thomas Shelby, and the stylish coolness of the show itself, eclipses the work Cillian Murphy has been putting in from day one. The character has been overtaken by the image of a suave sexy man with a cigarette in one hand and a gun in the other (he also pulls off the haircut best). He’s a character so easy to watch that the actor melts away. Thomas Shelby has become an icon, but with that he loses the complexity of the skill Murphy has put into building that character into something more.
Season 6 puts an even bigger spotlight on Murphy’s performance. Creator Steven Knight has always favored long dialogue scenes, but they come alive in this final season. Maybe it’s because so much of the cast is gone now, but this season really allows Shelby to take his time. The show is barreling toward its conclusion, but Thomas is never in any rush. His command over every scene is palpable and comes from that rare relationship between actor and role where the two become perfectly in sync.
The last season exposes everything Knight has been building with the character of Thomas Shelby. The gangster life, the sex and the money—it’s all pathetic in the end. When death keeps coming, when fascism threatens to topple democracy as we know it, all the gains that have been made over the course of 14 years fall away. Thomas Shelby has fought his way, with guns and blood, to the table where people change the world. But all he can do is sit there and play their games.
Peaky Blinders takes after one of the most skilled journeys a TV drama can have in the 21st century: the reflection of the times through a single man. Similar to how Walter White displayed the breakdown of the pursuit of power for the American middle class, or how Don Draper showed the faults of the post-War generation as America pushed itself to the top through its consumerist ideals, the story Thomas Shelby is the story of the inter-war period; a period that is vastly underrepresented as a whole in the media.
From the American perspective, we dabble in talking about the Roaring ‘20s or Prohibition. But the story in Europe is far more complex, and Thomas Shelby travels through that complexity. After WWI it was like the end times were averted. Suddenly there was all this technology built to kill with, and so many who had seen the greatest horrors known to man. Europe was fragile and could become anything.
In this story, Thomas Shelby pushed through this entire history. As a Romani man he lived in poverty and against prejudice. The war gave him valor and opportunity. He pushed forward into each new age and political movement: the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, Prohibition, the General Strike of 1926, the stock market crash, the rise of Fascism. He became a Labour politician when the party first became the main opposition party to the Conservatives in the 1920s. Thomas Shelby was there, trying to make opportunity out of chaos.
But beneath the coolness and beneath the changing world was just a singular, traumatized, and power-hungry man. By the end of the series he has abandoned everyone who cared about him. In one of the best scenes in Season 6, Thomas sits at a table with three fascists and realizes that’s exactly where he belongs, in the ranks of evil people. And despite it all, he can’t even stop them.
Murphy’s ability to grow Thomas through the years while still holding true to the man within is captivating. His humor gradually fades away, he struggles with love and with PTSD in waves that feel tragically human. And even though sometimes we get a fun slow-motion fight, when the punching is over Thomas Shelby the man is still there.
Cillian Murphy is an actor who works for the art. He doesn’t do press, he avoids all the business and buzz of Hollywood (he doesn’t even have a publicist). His performance as Thomas Shelby is the pure dedication of an actor to his craft. And while Peaky Blinders may be best remembered for its style and saying “Peaky fooking Blinders” in your worst Birmingham accent, Murphy’s performance deserves more praise than he got.
In an age when many of TV’s leading men got to reflect the breakdown of the ideals of a time period, Thomas Shelby carried the weight of a tumultuous era through a singular portrait of someone who can’t help himself, who is doomed to fail. The amount of time and change covered by one performance is nothing short of impressive. The character blends so seamlessly into the fabric of the show that the two can become indistinguishable. But Cillian Murphy’s Thomas Shelby didn’t just lead Peaky Blinders, he shaped it to his will.
Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila
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