'Peaky Blinders': Crime, masculinity and the subtle integration of racism in the BBC One drama
The show talks about a generation which was compelled to get its hands dirty even if it did not want to.
'Peaky Blinders' might just grip its fans and not let them go due to its intoxicating appearance and alluring story. A group of men and women clothed in the authentic '20s suits, and each slinging out a gun at the slightest provocation is something we as viewers have loved about the show. However, there is a lot more to the BBC One show than just a stylized appearance. Coming from creator Steven Knight, 'Peaky Blinders' is full of blatant chauvinism, racism, and unregulated crime, and at the center of it all is the Irish gangster family, the Shelbys.
The show is also set against an extremely interesting background where we see the Shelby family trying to make their business prosper in an inter-war England, and while doing so they face discrimination at its worst. They are at first Irish people who ended up in England as gypsies, and later on, take to violence and crime to survive through decades of post-traumatic stress disorder. While the show is set to return this year in Spring, let's take a look at how the show has drawn a fine line between romanticizing these issues and holding them up in their most disastrous realism.
1. The Irish intervention
The Irish, a lot like other communities who had been either forced or voluntarily migrated to the British land, were perceived as outsiders, and for the longest times, Irish descendants were associated with crime and deviance. This very discrimination against the Irish has been prominent throughout the show, and the mass hatred was represented by Chief Inspector Campbell (Sam Neil). Campbell, who was a Protestant from Belfast, was brought to Birmingham in Season 1 to investigate the criminal behavior of the Irish community specifically, and also of the Irish Republican Army, most of whom were members of the Communist party. This was a significant threat for the Shelbys who soon realized that, in spite of their wealth, they were still outsiders.
This is when Thomas and his family realized that they had to climb up the social ladder, and over the next four seasons, we saw them doing just that. They even manage to put themselves in between the English and the Irish communities by trading alcohol and weapon on both sides, and just to be safe, Thomas even trades Jesse Eden's (Charlie Murphy) faith on him in order to attain that prestigious tag of a Member of the Parliament.
2. Patriarchs and matriarchs at play
While on one hand, the inter-war period saw the homecoming of the war-heroes, on the other hand, for the first time, it saw women taking up their rightful places in the workforce. The show represents this generation through the Shelby siblings and their aunt, Polly Grey (Helen McCrory). However, what had set aside the generation was their obsession with establishing their families, and we see that almost form the basic foundation of both Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy) and Polly's personas. Thomas' obsession goes to some unhealthy level as it affects the lives of both Ada (Sophie Rundle) and John (Joe Cole), who are compelled to give up on their love and marry those whom Thomas considered to be a good leverage for the family business.
On the other hand, Polly represents the women who finally emerged out of their domestic shackles and single-handedly managed both business and family, while the men were out at war. She stood guard at the Shelby castle and made sure that money kept flowing into it. When she was asked by the Shelby boys to go back to her pre-war role as a simple housewife, Polly refused and threatened Thomas that without her the company would be nowhere. Both Thomas and Polly represent the undying spirit of the generation which began building their existence from the last morsel.
3. Crime: Easy access to money
When the war-heroes came home, they were left with nothing but debris, and in their attempt to make something out of nothing, they gave up on their virtue. Crime which involves gambling, prostitution, and illegal trade became the routine, and the Shelby family became the first ones to get their hands dirty. Thomas trades in cheap alcohol and weapons, while his brothers take care of the bookmakers who keep the gambling going. On the other hand, there is Lizzie who is one of those scarlet women who served as the family's personal working girls, until Season 4 where Thomas finally takes her in as a member of the family.
'Peaky Blinders' does rely heavily on these issues which are laid out all over the show, but in the end, there is always a strong message about guilt and regret. Thomas or Polly do not enjoy the crimes that they commit and hence, want the younger ones to stay out for as long as possible. It is after all society and its useless norms that have compelled them to take up the path that they probably would have never thought of. However, Season 4 saw Thomas take up a prestigious place in the Parliament, and hopefully, by Season 5- which returns this year in Spring- he will make a few decisions, unlike the violent ones that he had made before.