What is your favorite television show about a British crime family that hides razor blades in their hats? Mine is probably Peaky Blinders. I guess that’s kind of a narrow category, though. Even if we broaden it out a little — to, say, “favorite show about a British crime family” or “favorite streaming crime show” — Peaky Blinders still ranks pretty high for me. It’s just so incredibly watchable and incredibly bingeable. I have discussed this a few times before, but with the fourth season debuting on Netflix in late-December and the lack of chatter about it I’m seeing from all the people I’ve tried to peer pressure into watching it, it appears that we need to have the discussion again. I will keep doing this as often as I need to. It’s that important to me. Lord knows I have the time. You would be unwise to test me on this.
The time has come to talk about Peaky Blinders.
1. Peaky Blinders is a show about a British criminal organization called, fittingly enough, the Peaky Blinders. The Peaky Blinders were in fact a real criminal organization that existed in the early 1900s and got their name from the aforementioned — probably fictional — story about their members hiding razor blades in their hats and using them to take out people’s eyes. On the show, the group is run by the Shelby family: brothers Tommy, Arthur, and John, and their Aunt Polly, with some other bit players scattered about and bubbling up as the show progresses. They are involved in gambling and bootlegging and other sorts of illicit ventures, and sometimes when they make a declaration in public one of them will tag it with “By order of the Peaky Blinders!” Sometimes I’m tempted to use this in my everyday life. “Yes, I would like a large pizza, two dozens wings, and an order of cheese fries… by order of the Peaky Blinders.” One day I will do it. It will be super weird.
2. The star of the series is Cillian Murphy, who plays Tommy, and who you definitely recognize from a bunch of things, including his role as Scarecrow in Batman Begins. He is very good in Peaky Blinders. Tommy is intense and cutthroat and always two or three steps ahead of whoever he is battling with at any given moment, which he always is, because Tommy Shelby is as much of an action junkie as one can be while also being very still and quiet like 90 percent of the time. He smokes cigarettes and drinks whiskey constantly, often during meetings in which he makes outrageous demands and/or seduces powerful women. He’s kind of like Don Draper crossed with Michael Corleone, but British and an expert at horses.
3. That Michael Corleone analogy actually works pretty well because there is a Godfather-type quality to the relationship between the brothers. Kind of. The twist is that John — the youngest — doesn’t really fit into the framework, but Arthur — the oldest — is both the hothead and the perpetual screw-up, making him somehow both the Sonny and the Fredo of the family. I have said this a few times now but it remains very true, multiple seasons later.
4. One of the complaints I’ve heard from people after I’ve recommended the show to them is that the accents are so thick — the show is produced by and for British television and comes to Netflix after each season is complete — that it can be hard for American audiences to follow the action. My solution: Watch with the subtitles on. Not only will it help you pick up things you missed (at least until you get used to the speech patterns), it will also treat you to moments like the one below. You should always watch television with the subtitles on. There’s gold in there to be mined.
5. The thing about Peaky Blinders is that you more or less know what is going happen every season. Things will start out fine or at least fine-ish. A new threat will appear. There will be many gunfights in many streets. People, occasionally main characters, will die. And then, at the end, when things look bleak as all hell for Tommy, he will pull a rabbit out of his hat (or have a rabbit pulled out of a hat on his behalf) and walk away. He doesn’t always walk away clean. There is usually collateral damage. But there is always a twist, and it’s one you rarely see coming. It could all be a little much it if wasn’t all so fun. The show is every crime family drama you’ve ever seen, but a high-level version of it, which is just about all I can ask for from a binge-watch. And at four six-episode seasons, again, it is very bingeable.
6. There are guest stars. My word, are there guest stars. In the first two seasons, the gang is tormented by a crooked local law enforcement agent played by Sam Neill. In the third season, the gang is tormented by a crooked priest played by Paddy Considine. In the just-completed fourth season, the gang is tormented by a New York mafia boss played by Adrien Brody (who appears to be doing some sort of Marlon-Brando-as-Don-Corleone impression, which is fascinating), and is aided by a violent gypsy played by Aiden Gillen, best known as Littlefinger from Game of Thrones. Littlefinger and Scarecrow team up to defeat Adrien Brody. Peak TV is real as heck.
7. Oh, also, Bane helps them, kind of, because Tom Hardy is in Peaky Blinders, too. Not all the time. He’s not, like, one of the stars. But he has shown up here and there throughout the show’s run as a mumblemouthed Jewish bootlegger and jewel expert named Alfie, and I love him so much. Alfie is both Tommy’s most-trusted underworld ally and his sworn enemy, a man who has helped him as often as he has double-crossed him, occasionally at the same time. He is always up to something and I rarely have any idea what he is saying and every time he is on screen my heart flutters with joy because I know someone is about to get bamboozled or blown up with a grenade, again, occasionally at the same time. It’s hard to explain. Just watch the show.
8. The show has a cult following that extends to a surprising number of celebrity fans. For example, David Bowie loved the show and gave producers a song to use before he passed away. But my favorite celebrity Peaky Blinders fan is Snoop Dogg. Snoop Dogg loves Peaky Blinders so much. Snoop Dogg loves Peaky Blinders so much that he reached out to showrunner Steven Knight and the two of them discussed it over a three-hour lunch. Three hours! I would kill for a transcript of that conversation. I would also kill to get Snoop a role in season five.
9. The whole thing is shot in a dark and grimy style that makes you want to wipe off your screen sometimes. Usually, this is something that drives me insane. Tom Hardy’s FX show Taboo looked like that and it made me furious. For some reason, however, it works here. It’s all very British and Prohibition-y and I don’t have an explanation beyond that. There are breaks in it every now and again. That definitely helps. A big chunk of season three is about Tommy dealing with British elites and Russian oligarchs as he starts to navigate high society and that is all very lush and captivating. But then in the next episode everyone will be digging a dirt tunnel or strutting around a dusty street and we’ll all be right back in the muck. Again, it works, for some reason. Let’s call it The Peaky Exception. Don’t get any ideas, other shows.
10. You have never seen a show with more slow-motion walking. There is so much slow-motion walking, often straight toward the camera, in a group that grows as people enter the frame, at the beginning of an episode, as the show’s unofficial theme song — “Red Right Hand” by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — plays. It’s great. Everything looks so much cooler in slow-motion, especially a menacing gang of well-dressed British gangsters with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. It almost makes me want to start my own crime family. Maybe I will. By order of the… uh, Sneaky… Grinders. Hmm. That’s a terrible name. I’ll think of a better one while you watch the show.
Let me know when you’re done. I’ll get us some hats and razor blades.