I don’t mean that they dislike it; I mean everyone I’ve ever talked to about the BBC period drama has either never even heard the name, or is obsessed with it.
For whatever reason, there is no middle ground when it comes to the story of 20th-century Birmingham gangster Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) and his family — based on an actual 19th-century gang, “as deliberately stylish as they were violent,” of whom creator Steven Knight grew up hearing stories.
“I wanted to do something similar with my own town, which is a very old-fashioned industrial city in England, and say without any embarrassment that this is the West. This is Chicago, this is mythology … just imagine this place that really, if you think about it in a different way, is magical and beautiful.”
The show was two seasons in when a friend first recommended it to me, and through word-of-mouth I shared it with others and joined the underground network of fans who loyally devour this show year after year. It doesn’t follow existing models in the streaming era; seasons have aired between one and two years apart since 2013, and though it was an instant hit in the U.K., it took international distribution, including the benefits of Netflix, to create a voracious, worldwide audience.
Peaky is thoroughly, undeniably engrossing. It scratches the itch left by Boardwalk Empire, and by all shows and films about prickly morality and criminal antics that hide in plain sight. The Shelby family’s wealth and status speak both to pulling oneself up — albeit crookedly — by the bootstraps, and to an archaic opulence that feels like Downton Abbey under stormy skies, smudged with blood and dusted in cocaine.
“I didn’t know … what it was about, I didn’t know what the [title] meant, but I was completely hooked, and it just continued to surprise me.”
It’s that mythic quality that hooks viewers, from the very first scene. Knight wanted the show to look the way it did in his head — like the mythologized imaginings of someone who has heard the story told and retold, not necessarily a firsthand recollection.
“It’s not how it looked, it’s how you remember it to be,” he emphasizes. “That’s the memory of it; it’s that you’re always down below and you see something fantastic and epic.”
It captivated the show’s first and most crucial advocate: its star, Cillian Murphy.
“The writing is so good, so strong, so confident,” Murphy told Mashable. “That [introduction] scene is a great example — I didn’t know what that meant or what it was about, I didn’t know what the [title] meant, but I was completely hooked, and it just continued to surprise me.”
Per usual, Netflix won’t release viewership numbers, but Knight says word-of-mouth has been the show’s greatest asset, giving it rocketing popularity in Turkey, and Panama — and even getting Murphy on the cover of Rolling Stone in South America this month.
“It’s astonishing that this story that appears to be very, very local has such resonance,” Knight says. “Anecdotally, we get a lot of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters who watch it. A lot of people say to me ‘It’s the only thing we can watch together. It’s the only thing we both like.’”
For both artists, the dichotomy of good and evil (and “both mixed,” to quote Season 5), has been one of the most fruitful subjects to mine.
Long before many of its contemporaries were scoring historic drama with dissonant music, Peaky Blinders smashed rock songs onto scenes of the English working class and introduced every episode with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand” (Murphy refers to Cave as the “granddaddy” of the show’s music). Many artists on the Peaky soundtrack count themselves among its fans and reached out to Knight about being featured on the show.
Among the show’s better-known U.S. fans is none other than Snoop Dogg, who sought a meeting with Knight when the show’s third season came out just to sit down and talk about it. For Snoop, the show spoke to his own experiences with gang culture, and he was so expressive in his fandom that he asked for a custom suit and .
Season 5 sees the Peaky Blinders, not for the first time, facing a new enemy — two, actually, depending on how you slice it. The first is ruthless Scottish gangster Jimmy McCavern, who storms onto the scene to murder an established character and beat another within an inch of his life to send Tommy a message. The second is Sam Claflin’s odious take on real-life figure Oswald Mosley, a member of parliament who introduces fascism to Britain with grandiose speeches about threats to tradition and “false news.”
Racism and fascism prove to be a long-awaited moral litmus test for Tommy and the Shelbys (great band name if anyone is looking) despite their penchant for money laundering, extortion, violence, and murder. “Your own sins are legend,” one character tells Tommy in episode 3, and Knight says that’s the whole point.
“Tommy Shelby, who has done many, many bad things, is going to confront something that’s going to really test whether or not he’s prepared to cross that line,” he says.
But the enemy Tommy most fears is one that has been creeping up on him for seasons now: the internal threat to his power, his throne. He’s not sure who wants to destabilize him or how, but he’s only certain that someone does, a paranoia fueled by PTSD, drugs, and hallucinations of his dead wife. Crucially, none of his demons from seasons past have been conquered — they only persist and fester with time.
“Things pursue you and actions pursue you,” Murphy says. “Steve has always been clear that if there’s a violent act there is consequences, whether it be physical or mental or for the person that’s injured.”
“I never could’ve predicted that this thing would run and run — and not only would it run and run but that it would for me get richer and deeper and more complex as it evolves,” he says. “A lot of TV shows … they have a season where you go ‘Ah, that was a bit of a dip’ — I don’t think we’ve done that, and I think that’s really rare.”
Knight always saw Peaky as the story of a family between wars — not the Shelbys’ more personal battles, but the first and second World Wars. The final two seasons will lead up to that, but he won’t preemptively call it quits.
“As long as the wind is there, put up the windmill,” he says. “As long as the energy is there, I would happily do it. And I would hope that Cillian would too.”
Peaky Blinders Season 5 is now streaming on Netflix.