In the hit Netflix series Peaky Blinders, there was one name that inspired fear and respect on the streets of Birmingham after the Great War: Shelby. The Shelbys were the head of the Peaky Blinders, the show’s namesake and a fearsome gang who controlled the city in this historical drama. At the top of the pack were the three oldest Shelby brothers, Tommy (Cillian Murphy), Arthur (Paul Anderson), and John (Joe Cole). But not all Shelbys were created equal. Throughout the show, John always felt like the odd brother out, a sentientment only heightened by his abrupt death at the hands of mafia goons at the beginning of season four. But did John Shelby deserve this death?
When compared to Tommy and Arthur, John’s role in the story feels lackluster. Tommy is the protagonist, pushing the story along with his ambition and cunning while living on the knife’s edge, and keeping his family there with him. Meanwhile, Arthur has had one of the strongest and most chaotic character arcs in the story as he tries to shoulder the trauma from fighting in WWI and struggles with addiction and his own brutal nature. But John didn’t propel the story like Tommy and his arcs were mild, nearly nonexistent compared to Arthur’s and other characters.
This isn’t to say John never influenced the story. His marriage to Esme Lee (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) in the first season was vital to Tommy’s plans to overthrow Billy Kimber (Charlie Creed-Miles) and he helped Arthur go against Tommy’s orders in Season 3, saving his old teacher, Audrey Changretta (Brid Brennan). But these examples also show the issue: John was an auxiliary part in both these plot beats. There’s nothing inherently wrong with auxiliary characters; they’re vital parts of any narrative. But as one of the three Shelbys who led the gang, it feels wrong for a major character like John to be sidelined so hard.
A smaller character who helps shine light on John’s weakness is Finn Shelby (Harry Kirton), the youngest of the brothers. In the early seasons, Finn was too young to have much impact on the plot and was usually whisked away to safety while the adults handled the family business. But in the more recent seasons, after several time skips, Finn has grown into a full fledged member of the cast. He’s a young man with a chip on his shoulder and a burning desire to run wild on Birmingham’s streets like his brothers did in their youth to prove he really is a Shelby and a Peaky Blinder. Finn is a prime example of taking a minor character and building them up over time to become a significant part of the show.
John never got this treatment, however. There were a few episodes at the beginning of the second season that suggested John might begin a character arc that would separate him from the family as he rebelled against Tommy’s order. But this never went anywhere. John ended up following Tommy’s orders again by the end of the season without any major shift in his motivations or desires. John and Esme did leave the family after Tommy’s actions in Season 3 sent the family to the gallows, but the entire family had broken after that. It was hardly a unique decision made by John, though he and Esme did resist Tommy’s summons the most.
However, at this point it was too late for John. Not only was his choice at the beginning of Season 4 not unique, we never got a chance to see what John might have been like away from the family. The same episode that established the falling out of the Shelbys was the one where John got gunned down by Luca Changretta’s (Adrian Brody) goons. Ultimately, John’s role in the season premiere was to be the catalyst that reunited the estranged Shelbys and proved that Luca was truly a threat to fear. Even after John’s death, the family ran much as they had before. The character interactions were affected by Tommy’s actions the previous season more than the loss of the family member.
Another clue to how irrelevant John had become to the plot came from Esme and the four children they had. The episode after John’s murder, we got a single scene with Esme where she got angry at Tommy and Arthur before declaring that she was going to take the children and leave, and was never heard from again. This departure also killed any chance at having a character who truly embodied John’s legacy left in the show. John becomes a ghost within the first two episodes of the season.
It’s not clear where John’s story went wrong. In the beginning he seemed to matter, but as the seasons wore on he slid further and further to the back. John never seemed to have the same abilities as his brothers. He lacked Tommy’s ambition and didn’t have the same mental health struggles that Arthur’s arc has explored. Even when you consider their sister Ada, John lacks dimension. Ada was the member of the Shelby family who rebelled over the first season, though she eventually came back into the fold. But that was still a distinct character arc that added dimensions to the show. John never got this. He got more screen time than some of the random extras in the show but never seemed to do much with it. In the first season, John Shelby was a leader of the most fearsome gang in Birmingham, but by the end of Season 3 he just felt like another member.
In the end, John’s death at the hands of the mafia was a somewhat deserved one. It allowed his character to go out in a final blaze of glory, not just reuniting his family but also giving Season 4 a powerful emotional hook to begin with. As a character we had followed for so long, his death meant something. But it didn’t seem to matter as much to his family who simply kept doing their thing. This death was likely the best ending for the lost Shelby brother, for him to mean something instead of just existing on the sidelines, but it’s a shame he couldn’t have done anything as interesting while he was alive.