Fixed horse races. Cursed sapphires. A whole lot of Irish whiskey. If the ingredients of Peaky Blinders sound like they came straight out of the Gritty Period Drama Cookbook, that’s because they did. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch. Sure, this BBC show smells like “Boardwalk Empire from Over There,” but it tastes just as good as—if not better than—the pulpy gangster series that came before it.
Set in the 1910s and ’20s, Peaky Blinders traces its eponymous Birmingham, England street gang from ragtag to big time while also following the evolution (and/or devolution) of the Shelby family that runs it: Tommy (played by Cillian Murphy), the moody, merciless head of the family; Arthur (Paul Anderson), the unhinged older brother with a cocaine habit and the worst undercut outside of Williamsburg; Ada (Sophie Rundle), their sister who falls in love with a communist on the run; and Aunt Polly, the matriarch of the family, magnificently played by Helen McCrory.
At the start, the Peaky Blinders (the gang gets their name from their pageboy caps, worn with razorblades sewn into the brims for easy mutilating of enemies) are minor players, collecting protection fees and brawling with drunks throughout the neighborhood of Small Heath. The boys have just returned from the trenches of World War I, and are suffering their way through recovery: flashbacks, addictions to their drug-of-choice, and lots of unnecessary violence. But when the Shelby family’s gang mistakenly steals a crate of weapons meant for Libya, Winston Churchill sends Major Chester Campbell (Sam Neill), a law enforcer with a Belfast brogue, to straighten things out alongside Grace Burgess, a charming Irish spy (Annabelle Wallis).
Although the series is about the entire Shelby mob, Peaky Blinders’ best moments come when Tommy’s gloriously quiet swagger is matched up against his milieu of adversaries: morally rigid Major Campbell; the mercurial Italian gangster Darby Sabini (Noah Taylor); the sneering baker and bootlegger from Camdentown, Alfie Solomons (a terrifying Tom Hardy); the delightfully irate horse race fixer Billy Kimber (Charlie Creed-Miles); the outcast Russian oligarch Grand Duke Leon Petrovna (Jan Bijvoet); and the scariest of them all: the sinister, somber priest Father Hughes (Paddy Considine).
Over the course of the three seasons, you get to watch the Peaky Blinders transform from street gang to semi-legitimate business to the criminal enterprise running southern England—all against a backdrop of campy period detail, set to a soundtrack that includes Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, and Tom Waits. Yes, it’s another drama about an antihero conquering his demons to realize his ambitions, but with its solid supporting cast and over-the-top visuals of gritty Birmingham, it’s also one of the best conflicted-hero period pieces this side of Deadwood. Here’s how to drink it all in, one shot at a time.
Number of Seasons: 3 (18 episodes)
Time Requirements: Eighteen hours. Watch an episode every weekday night and two each weekend day and you’ll be done in two weeks. Or, if you want to plan a weekend away with Cillian Murphy, you can devote yourself to getting through Peaky Blinders in two glorious nine-hour days.
Where to Get Your Fix: Netflix
Best Character to Follow: Tommy Shelby is the heart of the Peaky Blinders, and the way Murphy plays his transformation from weary veteran tempering his PTSD nightmares with opium to a calculating, merciless mob boss is the reason to watch this series. But Aunt Polly, who was pushed out of power when the boys returned from war but still masterminds Shelby family politics, routinely steals the show.
Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip:
You watch Peaky Blinders largely for the visuals, rather than the plot: much of the show’s appeal lies in the scenes of dimly lit Birmingham alleys and Tommy Shelby’s hard-jawed blue-eyed stare. But if you need to pass through the show with efficiency, there are a few episodes you can skip.
Season 1: Episode 5 This episode introduces the mysterious patriarch of the family, Arthur Shelby Sr., but the subplot around him is short-lived and a little cliché. This episode, the penultimate in the first season, has some plot points you’ll need to know for the finale—Tommy and the representatives from the IRA set up the tradeoff for the illegal gun shipment—but it’s mostly just ironing out logistics for the high stakes in the next episode. Feel free to skip.
Season 2: Episode 4 Most of this episode centers around Arthur’s takeover of the interpretive-dance-heavy Eden Club in London, replete with gratuitous flapper dresses and bare chests. Besides that, Tommy sees how the other half lives at the house of his horse trainer Mae, and Polly’s son Michael finally gets a job in the family business. Kinda cool, mostly boring.
Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip:
Season 1: Episode 1 The pilot introduces the main players in the Peaky Blinders and the tensions that guide them. This includes Tommy, who is nominally second-in-command but who also has more ambitious plans for his family than bar protection in Small Heath. The first episode also sets up the odd pairing of Chief Inspector Campbell and Grace Burgess, Tommy’s first foes.
Season 1: Episode 3 At the Cheltenham Races, Tommy’s plan to grow a Shelby family empire meets its first big test. Billy Kimber, based on the leader of the Birmingham Boys who controlled British racetracks in the 1910s, fixes all the races in Southeast England—and he’ll only concede betting pitches to the Peaky Blinders in exchange for some time alone with Grace, Tommy’s beautiful Irish date.
Season 2: Episode 3 Helen McCrory shines as the pragmatic, maternal Aunt Polly—and this episode largely focuses on her reconnection with her long-estranged son, Michael. It also addresses the ways the Peaky Blinders affect children and mothers broadly, from the haunting opening sequence of kids watching shadow puppets to a mother’s grief and rage towards Arthur.
Season 2: Episode 6 This episode—the finale of the second season—offers Peaky Blinders at its finest. At the racetrack, Arthur instigates a top-notch Peaky brawl among spectators in topcoats and wide-brimmed hats; Polly shoots Campbell and strides off; and Tommy’s two love interests, one of whom is pregnant, tersely chitchat as they wait for him at the bar, while Tommy is kidnapped and driven to his death, only to be saved by order of Winston Churchill himself.
Season 3: Episode 1 By Season 3, it’s 1922, and the Shelby family has moved up in the world. It’s Tommy’s wedding day—and for the Shelbys, newly in possession of considerable power and cash, that’s a day you can’t miss. And the visuals in this episode illustrate their new status: as Tommy moves up in class, dusty pub tables give way to imperious portraits at the Shelby manor. Plus, there’s exposition you can’t miss, including a reformed Arthur and Polly’s painter beau.
Why You Should Binge:
Peaky Blinders offers intrigue galore, set against a beautifully grimy background. When you binge a series with this many shots of poorly lit alleyways and pageboy caps and rain on the Thames, you can’t help but feel like you’re in a Prohibition-era Tom Waits song. In a good way. So sit back, pour yourself a tumbler of whiskey (or take after the Shelbys and drink straight from the bottle), and enjoy.
Best Scene—Alfie Solomons’ Monologue:
Throughout the series, Tom Hardy is a powerhouse as foul-mouthed Alfie Solomons, the London bootlegger with a tallit and a tendency to tell it like it is. In the third season finale, he delivers an exceptional monologue to a manic Tommy, calling out the unjustified human cost that upholds the Shelby empire.
Gaining control of the London crime scene involved some unsavory characters—and a lot of booze.
If You Liked Peaky Blinders, You’ll Love: Other beautifully designed period pieces from the 1920s like Boardwalk Empire, The Knick, and Downton Abbey. For the same tortured masculinity, nuanced family drama, and stark color palette, try Sons of Anarchy. And if you want more swearing and mass whiskey consumption, watch Deadwood.
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