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Peaky Blinders, season six review: Helen McCrory’s absence leaves a chasm as this brilliant, distinctive drama draws to a close

It’s the end of one of the most distinctive, inventive and entertaining series in recent British history

Ed Cumming
Monday 28 February 2022 14:11 GMT
Peaky Blinders series 6 teaser

After a decade, 30 episodes, countless grisly beatings and murders, some exact accents and some dodgy ones, endless Nick Cave, plenty of snazzy tailoring and some of the most severe haircuts on TV, the sixth and final series of Peaky Blinders (BBC One) is upon us. Creator Steven Knight has plans for a film, but as far as the small-screen is concerned, this is the finale. It’s the end of one the most distinctive, inventive and entertaining dramas in recent British history, as you may have gleaned from the blanket trailers over the past few months. The entrenched BBC can’t be expected to soft-pedal a rare thing: an international hit that enjoys genuinely popular appeal as well as critical acclaim.

The Peaky aesthetic has become so familiar, at least to anyone who has been to a racecourse in the past few years, that it is easy to forget what a strange and unpromising prospect the series seemed at first. Here was a stylised epic British gangster western, set in under-loved Birmingham in the years after the First World War, with abundant violence, drink, drugs, fags and sex, set to a soundtrack of modern rock music. When they are portrayed on screen, interwar years are usually seen unfolding in stately homes, not the raggedy terraced backstreets of Small Heath, Birmingham. But this idiosyncratic style, held together by Cillian Murphy’s flawless lead performance as the antihero mob boss Tommy Shelby, is precisely what has made Peaky Blinders such fun. Thanks in part to Netflix, which syndicated it from the BBC and spread it round the world, the series has evolved from a curiosity to a phenomenon.

It would be surprising if the last run doesn’t earn its victory lap, but the first episode is muted, and by Peaky standards, slow. After a glum cold open in which we learn that Tommy did not die last time and we are reminded of the threat the IRA poses to his ambitions, the action hops forwards four years. Tommy is living on Miquelon, a grey and depressing trading island off the coast of Newfoundland. He is sober: a shocking twist for a character rarely seen without a whiskey in his hand, but probably the right decision for his liver. His cousin, Michael (Finn Cole), has risen up over four series from ingenue to rival leader, and presents the main threat to his business. Michael’s wife, Gina (Anya Taylor-Joy, who has become a star courtesy of The Queen’s Gambit since the last series aired), is connected in New York.

The Shelby brothers’ problem has always been biting off more than it can chew, a restlessness that has brought them riches and notoriety but at the price of teetering endlessly on the verge of disaster, and suffering terrible reversals. The murder and extortion and racketeering has been justified in the name of improving things for the family. The Shelbys do bad things for good reasons, but will it last? It would make a kind of sense if, having seen off rival gangs and Russians and police, the Peaky Blinders were ultimately undone by themselves.

For its varied cast Peaky has never been a true ensemble performance, but now the other characters feel like minor moons around the strange and terrifying planet Tommy. It doesn’t help that the series’ other centre of gravity is no longer with us. If Murphy is the father of the cast, Helen McCrory was its mother. As the Shelby brothers’ aunt Polly, ferocious but haunted by tragedy, she anchored all the machismo in pathos and soul. McCrory died of cancer last April, before the Covid-delayed shoot began. This episode handles her off-screen death as elegantly and respectfully as it can, but it’s a chasm of an absence. McCrory will be missed terribly. So will Peaky Blinders.

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