Peaky Blinders season 6 review: Helen McCrory tribute is a breathtaking triumph
The BBC One crime drama returns in style for its sixth and final season.
Only the first episode was made available for review.
In a different pair of hands with less gifted performers, Peaky Blinders could quite easily have spiralled into something clownish, eliciting a near-constant stream of 'You've got to be joking me?!' from audiences. Chances are it wouldn't have reached a sixth season and the Peaky Blinders movie certainly wouldn't have been given the greenlight.
But Steven Knight's conviction in this world coupled with myriad memorable performances and gloriously cinematic direction – season 5's Anthony Byrne has once again taken the reins on the latest instalment, making him the first director to return – fuses to create TV magic.
Judging from the first and only episode that was made available for review, Peaky Blinders remains one of the most entertaining shows on the box.
In the closing moments of the last season, mobster and Labour MP for Birmingham Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) held a gun to his own head following the collapse of his plan to assassinate fascist politician Sir Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin). Nothing makes Tommy's blood run cold more than betrayal and with his meticulously mapped scheme in tatters, his fractured mind, always on a knife-edge, tipped into the black as he sprinted towards death.
Clearly, he's still alive – he was never in any danger of being written out – but how Knight has tackled that moment will evoke a sizeable reaction from viewers and once again showcases his storytelling prowess.
But much of the conversation surrounding the first episode will undoubtedly be dominated by the tribute to Helen McCrory, who passed away in April last year. Her bewitching performance as matriarch Polly Gray is one of the jewels in Peaky Blinders' crown, which stems from both Knight's writing and the distinct swagger and steel conveyed by McCrory. Her absence is felt fully, as you'd expect, and the show leans into that. Despite her lack of physical presence, Polly is palpable at varying points throughout the first episode, and we'd expect that to continue throughout.
"You have to first of all deal with the consequences in terms of the story, taking a moment to deal with the loss of the character, but then knowing that that has a reflection in the real world with the loss of the person," Knight told RadioTimes.com. "So it was trying to balance all of that, and I think we've done it right."
He's not wrong. The way in which Knight has simultaneously paid tribute to McCrory the human being and the character of Polly is a breathtaking triumph. To go into any detail would be to dishonour the moment, but it is achingly poignant and tender, and you will be moved in a way that you won't yet have experienced at any point during Peaky Blinders' run.
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"We'd all been in that same boat for 10 years and for her to not be there, it all felt off-kilter and wrong," Sophie Rundle (Ada Thorne) told RadioTimes.com. "In the tribute, that's all real, that emotion. It really was a moment to think about her and what she had been."
From a practical perspective, losing one of the series' central draws would not have been an easy knot to untangle, but there are no signs of struggle in how Knight has reckoned with that in the narrative. He has done as good a job as possible with the hand that he was dealt.
The ramifications of Polly's absence have had a seismic impact on Tommy – he's made a significant life change in order to better himself, which raises eyebrows and will no doubt encourage the same from viewers – but as Lizzie (Natasha O'Keeffe) acknowledges to Ada: "No more Polly... no more Tommy."
He can never regain that which has been lost.
The head of the Shelby clan is psychologically spent, although you wouldn't know it from his outwardly collected and resolute demeanour. After his latest business venture, he promises his wife that there will be "no more", but Tommy has only ever known war, both during his service in France and his tenure as mob boss. Flicking that switch is easier said than done and with the threat of all-out gang war hanging in the air, Lizzie is right to be sceptical.
Polly's exit has also further crystallised Michael's disdain for Tommy, who lays the blame for what happened to his mother firmly at the Shelby patriarch's feet. After being plucked from obscurity and catapulted into the high-octane world of the Peaky Blinders, Michael's lust for power has fattened, and you sense that Polly, while certainly a motivating factor to continue his move against Tommy, falls secondary to the aspirations he has for himself.
Rather than regarding himself as a worthy contender to Tommy, you sense that Michael, who is running with Gina's family now, believes that he is a greater force to be reckoned with than the Peaky Blinder, encouraged in large part by his wife (Anya Taylor-Joy). But as the season 6 premiere illustrates, Michael still has much to learn and can often resemble a boy playing dress-up. Tommy, by contrast, fills out the role he has long played with ease.
As for the rest of the Shelbys, Arthur (Paul Anderson) is incapacitated having consumed his bodyweight in liquor and opium while Ada, who no longer works for Tommy, is left to pick up the pieces – which is a criminal waste of her talents, as she well knows.
But there are many faces who we don't meet in the opening episode. Mosley is absent, as are the selection of fresh characters who have been added to the fold, including Stephen Graham's as yet unnamed newcomer.
"I hope they'll be surprised," said Knight of Graham's addition. "What I can say is he's from Liverpool and he's speaking in his own accent, which I think Stephen enjoyed."
There's mention of the Solomons family – Knight has teased a meaty role for Tom Hardy's Jewish gangster Alfie in the coming episodes, with their relationship seemingly set to enter new territory as Tommy makes strides to consolidate his power and influence.
But with threats lurking around every corner, he's only one hairpin turn away from total ruin. "There will be a war and one of you will die," said Polly of Tommy and Michael in season 5.
"But which one, I cannot tell."
Peaky Blinders is available to stream on BBC iPlayer and Netflix. Read our guide to the best series on Netflix, check out our Drama hub for more news, interviews and features or find something to watch with our TV Guide.
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