Peaky Blinders on Netflix (it’s called a “Netflix Original,” but the only original thing is that Netflix has the exclusive U.S. rights from the BBC) will take about half a day of your time to watch all 12 episodes. I strongly recommend it, although if you have a job or child care obligations or a desire not to become so sedentary that you merge with your couch, you don’t have to binge-watch it. You will find yourself tempted, though.
Peaky Blinders is the story of the Shelby family, Irishmen living in post-WWI Birmingham, England. The Shelbys form the core of a racketeering organization called the “Peaky Blinders.” It’s led by Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy with perhaps the world’s ugliest haircut:
All the male Shelbys have this haircut. It doesn’t look better on any of them.
But the appalling haircuts are not why the Shelbys’ gang is called the “Peaky Blinders.” They’re called that because they sew razor blades into the lining of their cabbie-style “peaked caps,” and when the need arises the Shelbys slash for the eyes.
We do not use the word “classy” to describe the Shelbys. Or “merciful.”
So, yes, if you’re watching Peaky Blinders, you should have a pretty good tolerance for violent nastiness on a level similar to Breaking Bad. Otherwise, what will happen is that you will be immediately taken in by the awesomeness of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ song “Red Right Hand” playing in the opening, end up wanting more guitar-heavy rock-backed period drama, and then end up half-covering your eyes as a guy gets beaten to death in a basement as you suddenly wish you were still watching Downton Abbey.
It’s actually kind of interesting to watch Downton Abbey’s third season at the same time as the first season of Peaky Blinders, as they take place in the same year.
In Downton, we watch chauffeur-turned-mild-political-agitator Tom Branson get into a spot of trouble mildly agitating for Irish independence. Lord Grantham manages to get him out of it with a phone call, though. Nothing to worry about here.
In Peaky Blinders, the Irish Republican Army threatens mass-murder against the Shelbys if the Peaky Blinders don’t assist the cause of Irish independence. Much of the solution to the Shelbys’ IRA problem involves preemptive or alternative murder.
"No matter how many I kill, my haircut remains distractingly bad."
In Downton, Bates’s worst problem while being wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his wife was that the nasty corrupt prison guard stopped his mail. In the second season of Peaky Blinders, we find that prison is as fatal in 1920 Birmingham as being in women’s lockup in Eastern Kentucky with Dr. Caitlin Snow from Flash. That is, people get shivved with regularity.
Really sucked that Eva Crowder wasn’t a speedster, huh, Dr. Snow? (Justified, season 5)
While Downton has Hugh Bonneville as the financially incompetent self-righteous patriarch of the Granthams, Peaky Blinders has Sam Neill as Inspector Campbell, the sneering, self-righteous Belfast police chief come to solve Birmingham’s national security issues with as much brutality as needed.
“I’ll bet you’re sorry I’m not Hugh Bonneville, ain’t ye?”
There are also Communists, and, in season two, London’s Jewish and Irish organized crime.
In short, if after Downton you wonder what happened to all the people who swore and actually, you know, did things, you can watch Peaky Blinders and find out.
So, why should you watch what I’ve just described as “Frank Miller’s Downton Abbey”? Because it is a compact package of emotional suspense. Despite Cillian Murphy being called on to do his trademark “I am at best indifferent, and more likely amused, at your suffering” face (the one from Red Eye and Batman Begins) a bunch of the time, he’s also having real emotions, too. At the start of season one, Thomas Shelby is a PTSD-wracked bookmaker with ambitions, and he’s about to fall in love with the wrong woman. Will he be able to pull off his complicated plan for the Peaky Blinders to rise above mere local bookies, or will love and his adversaries destroy everything Tommy has ever worked for?
But it’s not just Tommy; each member of the Shelby clan, from shell-shocked older brother Arthur to world-wise Aunt Polly, has a story to tell, and you end up rooting a little for all of them, despite their murderous criminality (or willingness to tolerate same). Compared to the uncompromising, all-consuming violent righteousness of the Irish Republicans and Inspector Campbell, the pragmatism of the Peaky Blinders seems to gain a moral sense of its own. And, as The A-Team’s Hannibal always said, we love it when a plan comes together, and when Tommy Shelby’s plots reach their apotheosis, when we see how all sorts of little things that happened in episodes before lead to one massive, guns-blazing finish, we almost can’t but hope that something with this much effort and care actually works out for the architect.
And did I mention the rockin’ score? Guitars everywhere (White Stripes in the first season).