(Note: Some small spoilers for the series finale are below.)
We first met Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) as he rode a black horse through the muddied streets of Small Heath. Nearly 10 years later, we bid him adieu whilst he sat atop a white horse watching his former life burn in a caravan that was to be his final resting place. He’s a changed man, that much is clear. Over the course of Peaky Blinders’ six ambitious, stylish seasons, Tommy and the Shelby family have risen from working class gangsters fixing horse races to wealthy and privileged members of society who control business empires and wield considerable influence, all while still maintaining their criminal enterprises. But is the Tommy who rides away at the end of series’ final episode a better man? Despite the horses, it’s not really a matter of black and white. And it’s not really the end either.
Although the 80-minute episode “Lock and Key” is a satisfying series finale, the beloved British gangster drama has one last story to tell. It will do so in the form of a feature film that as of yet has no known plot or premiere date. So for now, this is the end of Peaky Blinders, a show that entered the world at the beginning of the Streaming Era and leaves it as one of its true global success stories.
Created by Steven Knight, the series debuted near the end of the Age of the Antihero, when men like Walter White, Don Draper, and Dexter Morgan were on their way out, and it’s impossible to know what Peaky Blinders might have been if Netflix had not acquired the international streaming rights to the series. It’s true that television has been finding its way across the Atlantic since well before Netflix, but the streaming company’s pursuit of a deep library in the first half of the 2010s made it that much easier for audiences to discover and fall in love with the amoral Shelbys. Of course, it wasn’t exactly difficult—not only are Americans obsessed with gangsters, but the writing and acting were strong from the beginning, as were the show’s visual style and the anachronistic but perfectly curated musical choices that have since become its signature. Still, when we look back at the show’s legacy, why it lasted so long, and why it is hard to say goodbye despite its long tenure, it is inherently tied to Netflix.
Shows from Breaking Bad to Riverdale have received the so-called Netflix bump over the years, and Peaky Blinders is no different. Easily accessible and being labeled a Netflix Original no doubt helped drive viewer interest over the years. But the version of the popular streaming service that made this situation possible barely exists anymore. Netflix’s library of licensed and acquired content has been shrinking for years as the streaming service has focused on creating original content in the name of growing global subscribers. The company is now facing significant challenges as stocks have fallen in light of recent subscriber loss. It’s a plight that feels strangely familiar in the sense that, as Peaky Blinders’ popularity steadily rose throughout its tenure, its storylines became grander in scale and Tommy rose to greater and greater positions of power. But a byproduct of this success was that the series could lose sight of what viewers cared about most: the Shelby family and the intricacies of the relationships that existed between its members.
In between the frequent bouts of violence and surprising narrative twists, Peaky Blinders was a compelling family drama that featured surprisingly emotional stories about mental health, the human cost of continued violence, and the damaging effects of power and wealth. While it didn’t often break barriers (except, perhaps, where Helen McCrory’s Aunt Polly was concerned), Peaky Blinders routinely found ways to keep us entertained. That it managed to do so even though we knew Tommy would always outwit his enemies is ultimately a testament to the show’s writing. There are natural advantages and disadvantages to one person penning every episode of a show, with the greatest benefit being that there is a singular vision and voice from start to finish. However, it also means there is little recourse for misguided narrative choices or troublesome indulgences. Knight is guilty of both over the years, but the pros far outweigh the cons in terms of the overall story of the Shelby clan.
In many ways, Peaky Blinders was a typical gangster drama, yet the show’s exploration of the social, economic, and political issues of the era on top of the Shelbys’ tireless fight for a better life and its members’ individual battles with inner demons, made for one of the most complex examples of the genre. At the heart of it all stood Tommy, but also Polly, the steely family matriarch who rarely pulled punches (and whose absence was deeply felt throughout Season 6 in the wake of McCrory’s death from breast cancer in 2021). Although Murphy was the undeniable star, McCrory was so good and so prominent she was essentially a co-lead, and the relationship between their characters balanced the series in such a way that amidst the many gun battles, fist fights, and ambushes in the street, we never forgot that this was ultimately a story about family. And while Tommy’s brilliant mind and ability to often be two steps ahead of his enemies brought the Shelbys fortune and fame, Polly kept them together.
Of course, none of it would have been possible without a capable actor like Murphy. Every gangster saga needs a strong central figure around which to rotate, and Tommy Shelby was at once charismatic, menacing, and cunning. Murphy anchored the series through even its most convoluted moments, and his performance is among the best and most empathetic depictions of a crime boss the small screen has ever seen. Viewers were privy to Tommy’s incredible journey from Small Heath bookmaker to member of Parliament, but having also witnessed first hand the pain of the accompanying sacrifices and guilt that made it possible. Rather unsurprisingly, Murphy was stellar through it all, and remained so right up until the series’ end.
In the finale, when Tommy confronted the doctor who lied to him about his terminal diagnosis and then let him live after realizing the doctor and the Mosleys figured that “the only person who could ever kill Thomas Shelby is Thomas Shelby himself,” we saw a changed man taking his renewed lease on life for what it was: a chance to bury the past and begin anew. Whether or not Tommy is a better man at the end of the series is up for debate, and it’s bound to be a question we’ll be asking ourselves for a good while, likely long after the eventual feature film caps off his story.
In a world in which viewers have shifted away from the dark and violent sagas of antiheroes to heartwarming messages of light and hope, that Tommy Shelby and the Peaky f—ing Blinders managed to last six seasons (and a movie) is somehow even more impressive than anything Knight ever dreamt up for his characters. It will be a long time before we see a show like this again, and, given the current state of Netflix and streaming overall, even longer before we see another reach its level of global success.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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