Review: Season 5 of ‘Peaky Blinders’ a study of ambition, ethics

by Emma Guo | 10/25/19 2:00am

Set after World War I, “Peaky Blinders,” the fifth season of which came out this month, is centered around the Shelbys, a Romani family who have made their name as gangsters in the streets of Birmingham, England. At the head of the family is Thomas (Tommy) Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy, a ruthless and overly logical patriarch who, at the end of season four, becomes a newly minted member of Parliament to fulfill his longtime goal of becoming a legitimate business owner and politician who speaks for the people. While the show maintains its focus on the Shelbys’ endeavors to cultivate power and protect their own, the fifth season adds depth to the show in its discussion of mental health and morality.

The fifth season of “Peaky Blinders” begins on Black Tuesday, the major stock market crash of 1929 that signaled the beginning of the Great Depression. As the Shelbys lose most of their legitimate assets in America due to the crash, they must scramble to regain the money they lost. Following Tommy’s lead, the family returns to the illegitimate enterprises it attempted to abandon — fixing horse races, football matches and shipping illegal goods. At one point, Tommy is presented with the opportunity to gain back all of the money his family lost in the United States when he is given the chance to ship seven tons of opium out of the country.

As Tommy becomes a drug kingpin, much to the chagrin of his family, he is also attempting to solidify his role as a reputable member of Parliament. Tommy is portrayed as a representative of the people, voicing the concerns of the working class of Birmingham and ensuring they are not subject to the will of the wealthy. 

Throughout the season, Tommy is seen constantly moving from one project to the next, always on the move, putting out fires left and right. It is a season of motion for Tommy and for those around him as we see people enter and exit the family and attempt to take charge of their lives separate from their public roles as members of the Shelby family. 

Tommy, like the rest of his family, is restless as he occupies his time with many ventures. The viewer sees his ambition take control, as he goes to great lengths to gain money and power at the expense of his mental health and those around him. 

In previous seasons, we see the ruthlessness of Tommy, who refuses to be vulnerable and feels pressure to present a confident, steadfast figure in the midst of the chaos his family attracts. This season, however, the writers depict the toll Tommy’s ventures have taken on him, introducing a new layer that not only cements his character development, but also enhances the strength of the show.

This change in direction gave me an avenue through which to connect with the characters on a deeper level, as viewers can associate with the stress Tommy is under. What makes this season stronger and different than past ones is how the writers finally humanize Tommy — no longer is he a violent, senseless leader but a human being who feels desperately the crushing weight of family responsibility and personal ambition.

To me, one of the most troubling features of his endeavors is that there does not seem to be a concrete end goal or motivation to most of his pursuits ­— other than the acquisition of power. Tommy begins the season with the goal of making back the money his family lost due to the crash, but by mid-season, the Shelbys are already well on their way to doing so. But viewers still see Tommy putting more and more on his plate, and it seems as if he is only doing so to take up time. While his family accepts his actions, they do not know his motivations, and neither does the viewer. He remains an enigma to us, his motivations inaccessible even to those closest to him.

Even though many of Tommy’s motivations remain hidden from the viewers as we watch him take on more than he can handle, the writers of the show also take time to explore his more human side. For the first time, we see Tommy’s morality come into play as he takes time to personally oversee the orphanages that the Shelby company funds in the name of his late wife. Additionally, he is seen attempting to do a self-proclaimed “good thing” as he plans to take down Oswald Mosley, a rising fascist. Initially thought to be undermining Mosley as a ploy to gain power, the viewer comes to learn that Tommy’s mission is, in actuality, a noble plan — he finds Mosley reprehensible and morally corrupt, and wants to see him stopped before his dangerous rhetoric spreads across the country.

While there remain plenty of conflicts throughout the season, including but not limited to run-ins with a rival gang called the Billy Boys and Chinese gangsters, one of the most pressing conflicts throughout the season is Tommy’s struggle for control over those around him and the consequences of those actions. As the people around him start to act autonomously and without his consent, Tommy’s control over his family begins to slip through his fingers. As his original goal to become a legitimate business owner and member of Parliament retreats farther into the distance, Tommy’s avenues through which he can gain control seem increasingly useless. He is lost as he tries to temper his ambitions, his morality and his lack of control.

The only time Tommy takes a break from dealing with family matters, business and Mosley is when he takes opium and hallucinates about his late wife, for whom he is still grieving. The opium makes Tommy numb, temporarily oblivious to the outside world around him that is causing his internal strife as he attempts to juggle his public image, family matters and business ventures. It is in these moments that the audience begins to see that Tommy’s mental health is on the decline as he comes to grips with his own ambitions — a refreshing change in direction after we see the stress Tommy is under.

Tommy’s struggle resonates with many viewers as he attempts to balance his ambitions with the stark reality that his goals may not come to fruition. It is the ultimate futility of his attempts to do a good deed that seals his fate.

The fifth season of “Peaky Blinders” explores themes of mental health, ambition and morality — in ways the series has never done before — through Tommy’s character. This season raises the question of how one could ever be able to strike a balance between sanity, ethics and aspiration in a world where it is increasingly hard to take control of your own life. The writers’ decision to take a deep dive into Tommy’s mental health represents a pivotal moment in the show’s trajectory; what was once a tale of family conflict and ambition begins to discuss the effect of four prior seasons of violence and immorality on the characters’ mental health.

The final scene of the season is a shot of Tommy screaming with a gun to his head after his late wife calls for him to “join me” in the afterlife. The writers let the audience reflect on how exactly Tommy’s mental health has deteriorated to this point, successfully ending the show with a cliffhanger that tantalizes viewers to further uncover the complex character that is Thomas Shelby.