Peaky Blinders season 6 picks up four years from the season 5 finale and sees Thomas Shelby seemingly trying to change, as he has given up whiskey calling it “the fuel for the loud engines inside your head”. The reason for this change is the death of his aunt Polly Gray, who was killed by the IRA as revenge for his botched assassination attempt of fascist Oswald Mosley.
It would be remiss not to mention that the actress playing Polly, Helen McCrory, passed away last year due to breast cancer, and her absence is felt heavily in the show as she was the only member of the Peaky family who could actually challenge Thomas’ machinations.
Nevertheless, the show makers handle her death extremely tastefully, giving her a heartfelt send-off and using her passing as fuel for the conflict between her son Michael and Thomas that has been brewing since season 4.
What’s surprising about this season is that rather than focusing on Tommy’s quest to take down his various enemies — from Mosley to Michael to the gangster uncle of Michael’s wife, Jack Nelson — it focuses on the internal arc of Thomas Shelby. If the earlier seasons had been all about building up the myth of Thomas Shelby as a cunning and ruthless gangster, rising from the back streets to the corridors of power, this season is more about depicting the man behind this invincible façade.
The truth is that though Tommy’s rise to power has given him the life he always desired for himself and his family, it has also come with a great cost. The stress of trying to navigate the trials and tribulations of his life has seen his mental state become increasingly fragile — to the point that he’s experiencing frequent PTSD-induced seizures. Furthermore, his refusal to let the family in on his struggles, while done for their own alleged good, has seen him become more distant from them than ever. As his son, Charles, heartbreakingly says in the season finale to his stepmother, Lizzie, “You’re more my mum than he’s my dad.”
Despite giving up whiskey for four years, it seems like Thomas is set to continue on his self-destructive path as he sets up a deal with Michael and Jack Nelson to sell his opium for $5 million, knowing well that they intend to kill him. He may have given up alcohol but Shelby is not over his biggest demon: the desire to run into trouble big enough to kill him. Thomas also continues to remain as ruthless as ever, maiming anyone standing in his way indiscriminately and with it, genuinely looking like nothing will ever manage to change him. He promises to change the world for the better in one scene and then proceeds to kill an old gypsy woman for laying a “curse” on his daughter in the next.
It all comes crashing down when his doctor diagnoses him with inoperable tuberculoma. However, what looks like a death sentence is finally the catalyst for Thomas to make real change. He reflects on his own life, claiming that all that he means for the people close to him is money, and so he goes on a journey to Canada to secure the opium deal between him and Michael, to ensure his family continues to live comfortably.
The changes seen in him are not just limited to money as he demolishes his own house to make way for charitable housing, coaxes his brother’s ex wife, Linda, to help him overcome his opium addiction and brings his illegitimate son, Duke, into the fold to take over from him, upon his eventual demise.
At the end of the series finale, Thomas is seen riding off on a white horse — a sharp contrast to his entrance in the series, which was on a black horse, showing us that the Old Thomas Shelby is long gone. All the times Thomas has promised to be a changed man have finally come to fruition.
Cilian Murphy’s portrayal of Thomas Shelby has to be one of the finest performances in the history of television, rivalling other great anti-heroes such as Walter White from Breaking Bad and Tony Soprano from The Sopranos. His acting is especially on point in this season, his feelings palpable not through his words but the pain in his eyes, evidently the mark of a true master of his craft. While he undoubtedly steals the spotlight, the season would be incomplete without the brilliance of his supporting cast, whether it’s Natasha O’ Keefe’s stunning performance as Thomas’ grieving wife, Lizzy, or Sophie Rundle’s Ada Shelby, who steals every scene she’s in.
A special mention for the cinematography and set design of the show which continues to be as breathtaking as ever. The best scene, hands down, has to be the shot of Thomas walking away as his old house is blown up. The scene perfectly illustrates that Thomas has truly let go of his material ambitions in the face of his own demise.
Despite this, the season is definitely not without its faults. It feels extremely rushed due to the sheer number of plot threads it has to resolve. In the first episode itself, Thomas arranges for Michael to be sent to prison, effectively sidelining Michael for the rest of the reason (until the ending) and robbing their conflict of a lot of drama. This isn’t the only case of stories feeling underdeveloped either; the other members of the Peaky family, such as Ada and Arthur, are hardly explored this season, with the biggest victim undoubtedly being the new villain, Jack Nelson, for whom we are given almost no backstory. There is also the matter of Duke Shelby’s introduction, Thomas’ long-lost son. The fact that Thomas just happens to find a successor before his death feels extremely contrived and feels like a cop-out by the writers.
While the final season of the show definitely has its faults it more than makes up for it with a satisfying arc for its lead character and does a fantastic job in building up anticipation for the upcoming Peaky Blinders movie.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.