Peaky Blinders is a gritty gangster saga that succeeds on the strength of its incredible characters, each given a level of depth and complexity that makes them feel like real people rather than caricatures. As the Shelby family has gone from a small-time bookie operation into a vast criminal empire over the course of five seasons, one character’s narrative has come to define each one
Some characters’ stories were immediately compelling, while others took several seasons to be revealed, but once it was their time to shine, each of them brought a unique contribution to the series through their distinct perspective. As the sixth and final season draws near, it’s anyone’s guess as to which character will emerge as the primary focus, but one thing’s for certain — it will be the capstone to a beloved character-driven series.
For every intricately conjured protagonist, there should be an equal and sufficiently complex and vicious antagonist – like Chester. In this case, the major villain happens to be part of the long arm of the law. Inspector Chester Campbell of the Royal Irish Constabulary was hired by Winston Churchill himself to root out a shipment of 𝚐ᴜŋs from the Birmingham Small Arms Company factory, but the investigation placed him directly in the path of the Peaky Blinders and their clandestine operations, and thus was born a personal vendetta against their criminal cohort, the Shelby family, and Thomas Shelby in particular.
While Tommy Shelby was enigmatic in Season 1, he hadn’t be𝚐ᴜŋ the tortured trajectory necessary to become the domineering character that would define the later seasons, but Inspector Campbell was already a fully formed figure prepared to dominate the first season. He was placed in Tommy’s path as a paradoxical puzzle and his exact opposite in every way: an esteemed member of law enforcement known for torture, sadism, and villainy, a man who didn’t serve in WWI and therefore wasn’t haunted by its horrors, and had no respect for women and preferred them –like Polly Gray– in pathetic positions that didn’t challenge his fragile masculinity. By making Tommy, a known gangster, the honorable, trustworthy, and loyal one, and Campbell, the lauded law enforcement agent, none of these things, the series explored fascinating dichotomies involving morality, hypocrisy, and even toxic masculinity.
With his nearly unintelligible diction and his eccentric gesticulations, Jewish gang leader Alfie Solomons was a breath of fresh air among all the posturing, suited jackanapes that Tommy often consorted with in London. Like an accomplished jazz player, he could break all the rules of performance because he was an expert at the core concepts, and played people like musical instruments.
Even in the wake of Billy Kimper’s ɗᥱαꚍɧ, when Tommy Shelby was becoming a formidable presence in the circle of Birmingham bookies and 𝚐ᴜŋ runners, Alfie presented a threat that was different than those he’d faced before because he couldn’t be classified. Though he was certainly carnal, unpredictable, and irascible, he could also be endearing. He placed himself as an advantageous ally and one of Tommy’s biggest enemies, and through his negotiations with Tommy over everything from 𝚐ᴜŋs to rum, he forced him to reconcile the sort of man he would need to become in order to not get ƙ𝔦ℓℓed –or double-crossed– by someone like him.
By Season 3, Thomas Shelby had become one of the most feared men in the underworld stretching from Birmingham to London, whose influence and reputation were no longer questioned. As a former Sergeant Major in WWI, the personality shift that occurred during his experience in the conflict allowed him to take all of his disillusionment with the world and channel it towards a path of upward mobility for his family and their criminal empire, including racetrack bets, 𝚐ᴜŋ -running, distilling liquor, and more.
The normally mercurial Tommy underwent some of the most severe emotional turmoil of his life when his wife Grace was ƙ𝔦ℓℓed, he became involved with the vindictive Tatiana Petrovna, and he was beaten within an inch of his life by the Romanovs. Tommy also made incredibly heinous mistakes in the season and tried to buy off his family’s affection with money, something that always indicated a lack of emotional maturity. But with big risk also came substantial reward, and he was able to financially set up his family in a grander lifestyle than they’d ever dreamed. Even as he suffered, his trials proved to be a crucible, intended to forge one of the most formidable gangsters England had ever seen.
Though he was the eldest brother of the Shelby clan, the leadership of the Peaky Blinders fell to Tommy Shelby, leaving Arthur Shelby feeling directionless, passed over, and infantilized. As volatile as the explosives he used to plant beneath enemy positions in WWI, Arthur lacked the calm and collected efficiency of his brother to see things through, until he met his wife Linda, found solace in religion, and learned to channel his emotions into useful releases of energy rather than burning down pubs or pummeling his boxing opponents to ɗᥱαꚍɧ.
In Season 4, Arthur underwent a compelling metamorphosis that resulted in many of the series’ emotional moments resonating in a profound way. After nearly being hanged in the first episode, he emerged from his near-ɗᥱαꚍɧ experience a changed man. Even being marked by the Black Hand of Luca Changretta couldn’t alter Arthur’s laser-like focus, and as Tommy became more unstable following Grace’s ɗᥱαꚍɧ, Arthur provided the support and conviction he needed, often being the unexpectedly calm one to tame Tommy’s wild side. Even after they both lost their brother to Changretta’s vendetta, Arthur searched inside himself for a way to grow from his circumstances rather than burn down all he’d accomplished. When the season ended as it began, in a climactic life and ɗᥱαꚍɧ plot twist that no Peaky Blinders fan saw coming, he emerged as a fallen man not simply redeemed, but reborn.
The Shelby family matriarch began as the default leader of the Peaky Blinders when Arthur and Tommy were serving in WWI, and by Season 5, she had returned to managing its interests via the Shelby Company Limited in Tommy’s frequent absence. Polly Gray, aka Aunt Polly, could always be counted upon to stand by the clan, whether it came to performing her duties as company treasurer, advising Tommy on business, or simply putting a pistol to enemies like Inspector Campbell and eradicating anyone who threatened her family (which included Tommy on occasion).
It was Polly, while sitting on the Board of Directors, who had to galvanize the Shelby family when Tommy was devastated by the Wall Street crash, and smooth over his relationship with Michael (whom she knew had become untrustworthy), all the while trying to see that Ada could secure her unborn child a life outside of the Peaky Blinders way of doing things. Polly was so loyal to the members of her family that she couldn’t bear to see their misdeeds destroy each other, and proved to be the most enlightened, forward-thinking member of the Peaky Blinders by the fifth season because she could see a life beyond it. Of every member of the Shelby clan, she was going to finally have a sh0t at true happiness with her fiance, fellow traveler Aberama Gold, and their sweet romance provided an emotional core for the season that couldn’t have come from a more deserving character.