Peaky Blinders: Our Secret Love Affair with Violence

by Carl Terver

An evening in 2021 I was at a rehearsal by the Benue Poetry Troupe on the Second Campus of Benue State University, Makurdi, umbrella’d by a number of old, giant gmelina trees, and I squatted to draw in the sand. I drew a bullet. I don’t know what roved in my imagination at the time but I believe the series Peaky Blinders inspired me to draw that bullet. The realisation struck me, just how gangster sentiment had eaten into my consciousness from watching the series. The thought led to my recollection of  Maria Konnikova’s essay in the New Yorker about our love for mobsters and the mafia, “Why Do We Admire Mobsters?,” where she asks why mobsters are seen as “mythic figures, even heroes of a sort, not just by their families but by the general public . . . treated more like celebrities than unsavory criminals.”

What I grappled with at the time was why I kept going back to the series, after my saturation with another episode after many, because I thought I’d reached a stage in my assessment of pop culture where I’d rather not watch the series’ beautification of grit, blood, and mindless capitalism. But its suspense—that artistic merit—kept me going back to it, taking sides with Thomas Shelby against his enemies as I continued watching it. Why? Because I, and all of us watching the series, are conscripted to see him as a hero as traditional theatre goes, making us develop pathos towards him, subtly making us endorse his criminality.

This is art’s problem sometimes: what it seeks to criticise, it ends up glorifying. The Great Gatsby comes to mind: critics have called the book—asides its so-called love story—a criticism of the materialistic ’20s Jazz Age and how it shaped class consciousness in America. But when we read the book we only see Gatsby’s glory in wealth without pausing to think of his means to it. As Peaky Blinders Season 5 ended on a precipice of suspense, I was still with Thomas Shelby, wondering, what next?

Walter Benjamin was concerned about something like this, about the influence of art in an age of mechanical reproduction, of which he imagined where man becomes an enslaved machine to the screen. He analysed this using the difference between the stage (theatre) and the screen. In filmmaking, actors don’t have a live audience to perform and communicate to, but to a capitalist apparatus, creating an alienation from the auratic. Consumers of his acting participate, too, in this alienation programme. The actor is used as a prop among other devices—sound, motion, lighting, editing, as many redone scenes as possible—for our consumerist psyche, so that in the end we aren’t really partaking in consciousness, in art that engages meditation, but in unconsciousness. Thus, the barbarism which we criticise the Romans for watching gladiator fights in the arena is what we’re capable of doing, and even more, with a television screen. But what is the extent to which we become mindless consumers of violence?

But, of course, my main concern in waiting for the last season of Peaky Blinders was to see how the writers Steven Knight, Toby Finlay and Stephen Russell resolved this conflict of violence, which trusting my instincts I was certain it’d follow a structuralist pattern; the popular script being the downfall of such an antihero as Thomas Shelby, as the portrayal of Michael Corleone in Coppola-directed The Godfather. However, I felt thatThomas Shelby had been created so indestructible that the writers would find it hard to think of Mr. Shelby being killed by a bullet or felled by another man without ruining the fantastic image of him they’ve created, whose consequence has a long hand in ruining the sense of the series’ ending. They sensed this so much that they wrote it into the movie. In the last minutes when Mr. Shelby points a gun at his doctor who’d lied to him about being ill with tuberculoma, he (Thomas) says, “I’m guessing you people all decided that the only person who could ever kill Tommy Shelby is Tommy Shelby himself.” And, of course, this would fit a structuralist ending—as the titan would be the one who takes down himself, by himself.

After this much indulgence in violence on screen following the life of the man Thomas Shelby, we must also ponder on what we witness beyond the razzmatazz. And it includes the destructiveness—not only of the self, but on others—of the extreme ambition of one man; also is the subtext of the aftermath of war which creates such a man. We also look at the disregard for life, to kill without thought, espoused by the Peaky Blinders gangsters. While this isn’t strange of any mafia-thinking groups or criminal masterminds, it is depicted as a criticism of what becomes of war returnees. After the carnage they experience, do they bring home some of it in them? The core members of the Peaky Blinders gang—Thomas, Arthur, Charlie, Johnny Dogs, Rastafarian Jeremiah, and others—are all war returnees, and killing is sport to them.

Now we have seen the finale episode of the series. It moves like the last act of an epic poem, spliced by carefully selected soundtracks from one scene to the next. It has been 1919 to 1934, fifteen flaming years; Thomas Shelby has lived a gangster, a bookmaker, a businessman, a murderer, a parliamentarian, and a saint. His enemies are after him. But he is invincible, apotheosised—to fantastic proportion—as a grandmaster always ahead of and checkmating them. (As he outsmarts Michael at the bomb scene, the latter cries, “We can’t escape you. Your lethal hand is always on our shoulders.”) Mr. Shelby outmanoeuvres his enemies and emerges once more undefeated. Only now, he has to take his life, as he can’t imagine succumbing to the dementia that’d follow his doctor’s lie that he has tuberculoma. 

The writers contrive a splendid sleight-of-hand as they script the story so that Thomas Shelby plots the sequence of how he shall come to his end. He bombs his statehouse (this signifies the end of empire and violence). Then plans a dinner with the closest members of the Shelby family, where he makes oblique remarks about the end of old things and the coming of new, and about him going away for a while—albeit they won’t find him, like Jesus once said, too, in the Gospel of Matthew—scaring his son and sister, Ada. He also arranges for a wagon where he plans to shoot himself dead and be burnt in, following his Gypsy tradition. All this culminates in viewers’ empathy for him. Because when he comes to it, to give up finally, as he points gun to his head, we no longer feel he has come to his end but, rather, believe his life has only begun. (What a trick by the writers.) With such an anticlimactic dramatisation of Mr. Shelby’s end, the writers succeed, once again, in how they have made us fall in love with Thomas Shelby, miraculously creating a cathartic moment and perfectly making us unsee Mr. Shelby as we should in his criminal ways to ambition. 

This is further pursued as Thomas Shelby is at last still, ironically, portrayed as a man of honour. He’s about to shoot his doctor who lied to him about his tuberculoma when a bell chimes for 11:00 AM. He pauses to check his pocket watch and declares, “The eleventh hour,” referencing Armistice Day that began the process of the end of WWI, and continues, “Armistice. Peace at last,” as he forgives his offender, withdrawing his gun. (In my mind, I perceive wily Mr. Shelby has simply won the poor doctor to his side to use him when the time is right.)

The movie itself comes to an end but the story of Mr. Shelby planted in our minds hasn’t. He returns to the wagon he was to be burnt in but it has been set aflame by the doctor’s servant. He watches—we watch too—as the wagon is eaten up in flames. For we viewers, everything appears poetic, this end. The soundtrack perfect. The screen for a few seconds becomes a painting: The burning wagon from within, its doorframe in the middle; Mr. Shelby mounted on a white stallion seen through the doorframe of the burning wagon; and the plains and grasses and hills in the background. We ponder: what next? What we see is Thomas Shelby’s death and rebirth. If this man was once invincible, he is now invisible. This makes him more deadly if he so chooses to live in the shadows. In my estimation, it still fulfills Mr. Shelby’s design as he becomes elusive to his enemies. If you can’t read Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, the Peaky Blinders movie is the motion picture alternative.◙

Carl Terver is the founding editor of Afapinen. He is the author of the poetry chapbook For Girl at Rubicon.