*A common misquote of “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”, from Shakespeare’s Henry IV

Tommy Shelby is not well. In Peaky Blinders’ Shakespearean 5th season, he (Cillian Murphy) envisions enemies coming at him from every angle. He sounds paranoid, but the fact is, he’s right. The question is, who will topple the indomitable gangster-cum-Member of Parliament?

Man of the People

The season opens in Detroit on Oct 29, 1929, with Tommy’s nephew Michael (Finn Cole) realizing with horror that he has just lost the entire legitimate fortune of the Shelby family in the stock market crash. He is immediately called home, and the family pivots to their more traditional means of making money-shakedowns, bookmaking, fixing, and trafficking of substances legal and illegal, with Tommy straddling the grimy streets of Birmingham and the hallowed halls of parliament.  In the House of Commons, Tommy’s eloquent arguments defending the working man draw the attention of one Oswald Mosley, fascist (Sam Claflin). For those of us Americans, a history lesson. Oswald Mosley, an actual member of Parliament, created a new political party, The British Union of Fascists, whose slogan “Perish Judah,” and straight-armed salute resemble those of Hitler’s across the pond.  I won’t tell you how his story ends, because it would interfere with your enjoyment of this season. Mosley pursues Tommy, man of the people, to be his second in the new party. Although Tommy is disgusted, he figures it’s better to “attack from the inside”, and joins up, to the horror of his family.

Back in Small Heath

After the defeat of the Changretta gang in season 4, the Shelby Company, Ltd has enjoyed unchecked success in their various industries. But new challengers are on the make. There are the “Billy Boys” from Scotland, who control the north and want to expand southward into Shelby territory, and there is the Irish Titanic gang, a mysterious and violent group who want in on the Shelby’s new business of moving opium up the canal from the Chinese to the U.S-bound ships at the coast. At the same time, a newly-married Michael and his Lady MacBeth are clearly going to make a play for the crown, and that leaves Polly (Helen McRory) up for grabs.  Arthur (Paul Anderson) is as devoted as ever, but his wife Linda (Kate Phillips) is pushing him to be more of a leader than he is. Finn (Harry Kirton) is reckless, Ada (Sophie Rundle) is pregnant, and Lizzie (Natasha O’Keefe) is frustrated. Worst of all, there is a mole somewhere in the organization. Suffice it to say, Tommy never sleeps. Racked with paranoia and guilt, he’s back on the opium and he’s become suicidal. So suicidal that several family members refer to it out loud.

Is it too dark?

Critics love season 5, and it is well-written, for sure. But damn, it’s unrelentingly dark. There are a few scenes that lighten the load, but not many. (It’s always fun to see Aiden Gillen as Aberama Gold) While I understand how Tommy has gotten here, emotionally, I hope he turns it around a little in future seasons. He’s got to find some joy somewhere.  Creator Steven Knight always weaves real history into the narrative of Peaky Blinders, which elevates the show, although sometimes it’s confusing for American viewers.  Nothing a little googling can’t fix. The series’ inimitable style, the music, the cinematography, the performances, the history-they combine to make an intoxicating stew that really gets in your head. All of that is consistent in season 5, and it IS fantastic, but I also want to acknowledge how grim it is. There are some surprising re-appearances by characters from seasons past that I won’t spoil here. The season ends on a dramatic cliffhanger that will make fans impatient for season 6.

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