Yes, there are spoilers.
THE SHELBYS AND THE CODYS: ” These characters are antiheros. That’s definitely a similarity between the two shows. They’re very, very intelligent people, capable of many things. Often I think that they could be successful in so many other lifestyles, but it’s the thrill and the freedom. Both are families that have gone down the wrong path, but that are very intelligent and very good at reading and understanding people to benefit their own situation.”
“Peaky Blinders is violent but I don’t really think the series is about violence. It’s really about a person who doesn’t want to be a gangster; he wants to change his class.”
In Finn Cole‘s interview with Emma Brown, he is asked to compare the families in Peaky Blinders and Animal Kingdom, his new series on TNT. He makes one statement that stands out: “Both are families that have gone down the wrong path .” The notion of the Shelbys “going down the wrong path” strikes me as a misreading of the inherent nature of Peaky Blinders and a theme Steven Knight has explored throughout the series. At the end of Series 3, I would argue, Knight firmly rejects the notion of “right” and “wrong” paths, instead arguing for something rather different.
The Shelbys in Series 1
Since early in the series, it’s been clear that Tommy’s driving motivation is to give the Shelby family more money and power. To do this, he works to become a legitimate businessman. After all, it’s clear that the Shelbys can successfully do off-track work, but Tommy wants more. (I suspect there’s also a part of him that wonders if he can do it. Tommy Shelby has never turned down a challenge.) Consider in 1.3 when he and Grace attend Billy Kimber’s party. As he stops dancing with Grace and goes to meet Arthur who has Kimber’s money the Lees had planned to steal, he says, “I’ve decided to take a step up in the world, become a legitimate businessman.” That is, he is trying to leave the “wrong path” for the right one.
By 1.4, it’s clear that the Shelbys are on their way as Billy Kimber visits the betting shop to give them their first betting license. Look at Tommy’s satisfaction as he announces they are on their way to legitimacy. It’s an important first step.
Later, he has a conversation with Grace and offers her the bookkeeping job at Shelby Brothers Limited. “I don’t like that word ‘limited,'” Tommy says. “To be respectable, you have to be limited,” Grace answers. In other words, this kind of compromise is antithetical to Tommy’s nature, but he accepts as a necessary step in getting on the “right path.”
As Series 1 ends, Tommy, having defeated Kimber and lost Grace, returns to celebrate with his family at The Garrison. He tells Polly as well as a very drunk John, and Arthur that “Shelby Brothers Limited are now the third largest legal race track operation in the country. Only the Sabinis and the Solomons are bigger than us, boys.” Thus, he sets up the action for Series 2 where the Shelbys take on the Sabinis and the Solomons. But after his conversation with Grace, it’s impossible to hear the word “limited” and not remember the significance of that term. It is a reminder that Tommy has made an essential compromise, one that goes against his nature.
The Shelbys in Series 2
At one level, Series 2 is about taking out the Sabinis and the Solomons — and taking over London — but at another, Peaky Blinders continues Tommy’s continuing quest to become legitimate. Consider his conversation with Michael in 2.4 when he asks for a job: “Mum says you want to be 80 percent legal within two years.” “Three,” Tommy answers. He has a plan. The drive for legitimacy is one of the reasons Tommy reprimands Arthur for his cocaine use: He doesn’t want to lose the legitimacy they have gained. (Ada, however, scoffs at the idea that Tommy will ever be a legitimate businessman.)
In 2.5, under tremendous pressure, Tommy goes to Charlie Strong’s boatyard and begins cleaning stalls with Curly. When asked what he is doing, Tommy answers, “To remind myself of what I’d be if I wasn’t who I am.”
It’s an important moment — and one that will echo to the closing moments of Series 3. In this exchange, Tommy is momentarily trying on a life that would have been legitimate as defined by society. And it doesn’t take long for him to be clear: This isn’t who he is, and it isn’t what he wants.
The Shelbys in Series 3
In Series 3, Tommy has finally met his goal and reached a level of legitimacy. He owns an estate with servants, and he has a safe full of money — “more than all those toffs put together.” And, again, he tells Arthur that this last deal with the Russians is it. After this, they will truly be legitimate businessmen. By the end, it’s clear that none of this is possible. Consider his speech to his family:
This is who I am. . . . I know that you all want me to say that I’ll change, that this fucking business will change. But I’ve learnt something in the last few days. Those bastards are worse than us. Politicians, fucking judges, lords and ladies. They’re worse than us, and they will never admit us to their palaces, no matter how legitimate we become, because of who we are. Because of who we fucking are, because of where we’re fucking from.
In other words, there is no place for the Shelbys on the “right path.”
“Gone down the wrong path” suggests a carelessness that is absent from Peaky Blinders. The Shelby family has chosen to do this because it is the only option open to them. At the end of Series 3, Tommy understands that fact with renewed clarity. He understands that he will never be accepted by the aristocracy and he acknowledges who he is, a man always on the outside. The final scene indicates that he intends to utterly destroy that structure.
Perhaps most importantly, there is no “right path.” Series 3 rejects this as things Tommy loves are either threatened or taken from him by the lords, ladies, and judges who control the “right path.” In a society with a class system, those trapped on the outside have to find their own paths. The notion of “right” or “wrong” is meaningless.
At one level, this conflict is a dramatic imperative. A show about Tommy Shelby working an honest job in a factory (or shoveling shit with Curly) and stopping by The Garrison on his way home to a wife and kids is, well, boring. At another level, it is the social and thematic issue driving Peaky Blinders.
One last note. Let me be clear: In writing this, I’m not attempting to troll Finn Cole. His job is to play Michael Gray, and he does that remarkably well. I find, however, that Peaky Blinders is a show I keep thinking about, which is the primary reason this blog exists. When someone involved with the show says something that gets me thinking, I write about it. Any text is subject to changing interpretations; this blog is a reflection of my shifting understanding of Peaky Blinders.
Some graphics are from farfarawaysite.com.
Publication Date: 20 June 2016
© APeakyBlindersFanGirl and A Peaky Blinders FanGirl Archive/Blog, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to APeakyBlindersFanGirl and A Peaky Blinders FanGirl Archive/Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.