MANILA, PHILIPPINES — It’s never easy for a project to lose an integral part that made it successful in the first place. This is particularly true in terms of television shows and actors who suddenly face sickness or worse in real life. That was exactly the dilemma that the hit series Peaky Blinders had to deal with entering its sixth and final season.
Actress Helen McCrory, who played Shelby family matriarch Polly Gray, died in April 2021 before she could film any scenes for the British gangster show’s last run. Could Cillian Murphy and the rest of the cast produce magic even without the towering presence of Aunt Polly?
After failing to kill himself upon seeing an apparition of his late wife Grace (Annabelle Wallis), Thomas Shelby, MP (Murphy) is contacted by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). They claim responsibility for the prevention of Tommy’s assassination attempt on Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin) and instead, they kill three people including Polly Gray. When the Shelby family gathers for her funeral, her son Michael (Finn Cole) swears revenge on Tommy.
Four years later, Tommy has sworn off alcohol and is estranged from Michael who now operates out of Boston. Tommy is consolidating his power via Canada and wants to bring opium to North America. Tommy has no qualms about setting Michael up by planting drugs on him to get him imprisoned. This leaves Michael’s American wife, Gina (Anya Taylor-Joy) in charge of their business.
Meanwhile, older brother Arthur (Paul Anderson) has become addicted to drugs after wife Linda (Kate Phillips) left him and Polly’s untimely demise. Younger sister Ada Thorne (Sophie Rundle) is trying to keep the family together, fully aware that she is no Polly Gray.
Tommy’s wife Lizzie (Natasha O’Keeffe) tells him that their daughter Ruby has a sudden illness and the child is having visions. Believing this to be related to their gypsy heritage, Tommy returns to England. When Ruby’s illness persists, he seeks out his former sister-in-law Esme (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), who has returned to the gypsy life.
Even as Tommy tries to maintain his standing as a member of parliament, his connection to Mosley and the anti-Semitism the latter supports becomes more problematic. With his daughter’s sickness causing Tommy to lose focus and with no Aunt Polly to lean on, can Tommy and the Peaky Blinders rise above their own infighting?
Helen McCrory’s sudden passing clearly had a devastating effect on this final season of Peaky Blinders. It’s a testament to series creator Steven Knight and director Anthony Byrne (who directed all six episodes) that the crew was able to craft a coherent story around this tragedy. They kept McCrory’s presence strong throughout the season whether through old audio and video or through Polly’s previous gypsy fortunetelling abilities.
That same Romany-gypsy heritage is sometimes forgotten in past Peaky Blinders seasons but they lean heavily into it in Season Six. It not only foretells of the coming conflict between Tommy and Michael, it provides a means to bring Esme back into the fold, and it unfortunately haunts the Shelbys regarding little Ruby.
With no McCrory to act opposite him, Murphy bears more of the weight of the overall story than he ever did in previous seasons. Tommy is still self-destructive, albeit sober now and presented with grim news regarding an illness he shockingly contracts. Anderson has long been the hidden gem in Peaky Blinders and he still gets to explore Arthur’s descent into depression after Linda leaves him.
It’s O’Keeffe, however, who feels like the biggest acting surprise in this final season. Even after Lizzie had married Tommy, she always seemed like a less than adequate replacement for the sainted Grace. But in Season Six, dealing with Ruby’s sickness and demise as well as Tommy’s perceived disease and perpetual cheating, Lizzie finally stands up to his strong personality.
Her calling out Tommy for his infidelities and selfishness is different than when Polly or Ada would do it in the past. The pain of losing Ruby while raising Charlie as her own gives Lizzie credibility and authority when she admonishes Tommy and doesn’t feel forced whatsoever.
While the sudden introduction of an adult son Tommy apparently had during World War I feels weird in a final season, Duke Shelby (Conrad Khan) eventually is shown to have a significant role to play in the end. If the rumored Peaky Blinders movie does eventually push through, Duke might have more of the spotlight shone on him.
All things considered, wrapping up the saga of the Shelby family after six seasons was never going to be an easy task. Add to that the difficulty of writing a story around the real-life death of McCrory and the challenge got even bigger.
Even though we are all left wondering how the series could have ended had she survived, Knight, Byrne, Murphy, and the entire crew deserve praise for this concluding season. A story of a family of gangsters from Birmingham who rise in society seemed like a longshot back in 2013 but, nine years later, Peaky Blinders is a real success story in the streaming era of television.
All six seasons of Peaky Blinders is now streaming on Netflix.