‘Peaky Blinders’ Season 5 Arrives with Great Style, Hit-or-Miss Substance

After two long years, the Peaky f**king Blinders are back. This is the part where I wish I could continue with a cliche “and better than ever,” but sadly that’s not quite true. Don’t get me wrong, when it’s good, Season 5 is as great as Peaky Blinders has ever been. The issue is that this new season feels like a batch of your favorite cookie recipe baked in an old oven that just doesn’t distribute heat quite like it used to. The same great ingredients are all there, but some cookies are burnt, others are underbaked, and a handful are just right. Overall, it’s still a batch of fresh-baked cookies and you’re definitely going to enjoy binging your way through it. It’s just… not quite as good as you might have hoped.

When we last left our favorite crime family/burgeoning business empire, Thomas Shelby (Cillian Murphy) was basically on top of the world as a newly elected member of Parliament and proper mogul with the Shelby Company Ltd. The series itself was in a similar position. After winning the BAFTA Television Award for Best Drama Series, Peaky Blinders was upgraded from airing on BBC Two to BBC One, perhaps the ultimate victory for a series that has grown a vast international fanbase primarily through word-of-mouth.

The lead performances are still razor-sharp and the crafts are superb. Even in the hyper-competitive “peak TV” market, Peaky Blinders is easily one of the most gorgeous shows on television. Elsewhere, though, the series shows dangerous signs of falling into the traps of its own success. It relies too heavily on its distinctive styling and rock scoring and too many inside winks and nudges, like when Tommy is asked by a fellow MP where he stands on “the Irish Question” and he wryly replies that he’s “never been asked the Irish question.” This is the sort of exchange that only really merits inclusion as a joke alluding to Murphy’s nationality.

One of the series’ great strengths has been its handling of Tommy’s trauma. His demons are definitely still with him in the latest season, but the way in which they manifest often feels trite and clunkier than in previous installments, particularly with regard to his late wife, Grace (Annabelle Wallis). Tommy has been haunted by Grace ever since her death, and she’s even featured in a few hallucinations before. Season 5 takes her “haunting” to a whole new level, including several scenes of her apparition confronting Tommy all in white like some sort of youthful banshee. If this was any other series, I would consider such a technique fine, but this is Peaky Blinders, and I’ve been conditioned to expect better.

Series creator Steven Knight has confirmed his intention to bring the series to a close after seven seasons, and this latest season feels weighed down by how much it sets up for the future. Plotlines are introduced and left on the backburner, including one involving Michael Gray’s new American wife, Gina (Anya Taylor-Joy), an ambitious enough schemer to fit right in with the Shelbys, even though the specifics of her story remains utterly opaque for now.

Beyond specifying Season 7 as a likely endpoint, Knight has also described Peaky Blinders as an inter-war epic. The series premiere began with the Shelby brothers returning home from World War I, and all signs point to a finale bringing us all the way up to the air raid sirens of World War II. While there have been hints here and there towards the darkness on the horizon in past seasons, the latest is the first to feel more preoccupied with early concerns of future conflict than the lingering aftermath of the Great War.

With the Shelbys having ended last season on top, the first thing Season 5 does is knock them down, with some help from the 1929 Stock Market crash. But the financial woes ultimately end up playing second fiddle to family drama from all angles plus the real villain of the season: the rise of fascism, which is represented by British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley (a diabolical and debonair Sam Claflin). The series has featured plenty of great villains in its time, but Mosley is the first bona fide fascist, and in that, he represents a key change in direction for Peaky Blinders as a series. Where Tommy’s scheming in the past has consistently revolved around climbing up the ladder of success even though the game is rigged against him, the latest season sees a major shift take place.

The series up until now has been Peaky Blinders vs. the Establishment. With his election to parliament, now Tommy is the Establishment. He’s not the underdog anymore; by basically every measure imaginable, he has reached the top. Now the battle is to stay there. Perhaps because fighting to stay on top is inherently less dynamic than battling to get there, the latest season shifts a lot of its focus to ideological and political struggles in tackling the rise of fascism.

While Peaky Blinders has dabbled in political theory before, particularly through communist sympathizer Ada Shelby (Sophie Rundle) and her short-lived communist organizer husband Freddie Thorne, such concerns have never really been front and center before, and it shows. The breezy confidence with which past seasons handled Tommy’s nuanced wheeling and dealing to get ahead is notably missing in its approach to the moral and ethical dilemmas at the heart of Season 5. However, it’s not yet possible to tell whether this awkwardness is a transitional issue that will dissipate now that the latest installment has done the legwork required to switch gears or if it’s a shortcoming that will continue to plague future seasons.

Season 5 might not be Peaky Blinders’ strongest, but it still does a bang-up job of leaving you properly hyped for Season 6, ending with a proper nail-biter of a cliffhanger. Still, with regards to its shortcomings, it’s unclear whether the lull represented by the latest season is a warning of a downward trajectory to come or a sacrifice to set up a killer finale that will prove worth it in the end. Either way, you’ll still catch me eagerly tuning in next time around.

Ciara Wardlow: @ciara_wardlow Human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes I try to be funny on Twitter.