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Peaky Blinders: The Rise of Thomas Shelby, Explained

From being a horse race fixer to becoming a member of parliament, here’s a breakdown of the rise of Thomas Shelby in Peaky Blinders.

I am not a traitor to my class. I am just an extreme example of what a working man can achieve.” This is Thomas Shelby’s response to settling for mediocrity in season 4, episode 4 of Peaky Blinders. Although Thomas’ lines are usually stoic, with this response, he goes the extra mile to acknowledge how far he has brought himself. As a veteran tunneler in the First World War, Thomas took all the claustrophobic trauma from that experience and converted it into a relentless ambition, using it to build his legacy with sweat, blood, and tears. His ambition has no limits, and this virtue sees him searching for his next business or political conquest just as he concludes another.

The rise of Thomas Shelby in Peaky Blinders demonstrates the ruthless and morally ambiguous traits needed to sit at the top of the business and political food chain. It is a rare character arc on modern television that has been a thrill to watch since the show’s debut in 2013, one that is approaching its end in a final movie, which is slated to begin production this year. After reviewing the chaos, sinister alliances, and every rival he had to outsmart, defeat, or murder, here is a breakdown of the rise of Cillian Murphy’s titular character over the course of six seasons of this fan-favorite BBC television series.

Taking Over Birmingham
Peaky Blinders begins in Birmingham, in the aftermath of the First World War in 1919. It tells the story of a roaming family and a gang comprised mostly of the Shelby family. Arthur Shelby (Paul Anderson), the oldest, Thomas Shelby, Ada Shelby (Sophie Rundie), John Shelby, Finn Shelby, and their family matriarch, Polly Gray, played by the late Helen McCrory. In running their horse track betting station, Thomas finds an assortment of guns he could use to his advantage until inspector Campbell arrives to retrieve them.

In the first season, Thomas’s leadership quickly rises to the surface. This is due to his reserved and calculative demeanor, which contrasts with Arthur. At the first opportunity, Thomas ascends to the top when a rival gang, the Birmingham Boys, led by an arrogant Billy Kimber (Charlie Creed), threatens to eliminate the Peaky Blinders for fixing horse races. To remove the competition, Thomas arranges a sudden wedding between his younger brother John (Joe Cole) and Esme (Aimee-Ffion Edwards), a daughter of another rival family, The Lees, so an alliance can be made against Billy Kimber. After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

The alliance is successful. In a gun face-off, Billy Kimber is killed, leaving the betting scene alone for the Peaky Blinders to overrun. This is the first step in Thomas’ ladder to the top. However, it needs to be more conclusive by mentioning Grace Burgess (Annabelle Wallis), a spy sent to gain information about the missing ammunition, who becomes infatuated with Thomas. Her presence in His life is the potent recipe for his outer rise and inner doom later in the show.

Expanding to London
Peaky Blinders Season 2 starts with a two-year jump. Thomas begins to work with the IRA (Irish Republican Army), a political movement whose goal is to liberate Ireland from British control. This marks his first foray into politics. Simultaneously, Thomas has developed plans to expand the Peaky Blinders’ operation from the confines of Birmingham to the coasts of London. This puts him at odds with Italian mafia boss Darby Sabini (Noah Taylor).

In Shelby’s attempt to expand his empire in London, he has to take down Sabini. This leads him to ally with Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy), a leader of a Jewish gang. Although Solomons is double-sided with the two warring mobs, he aids the Peaky Blinders in their conquest. As they march out on the Darby day horse races, they collect and burn licenses of Darby’s bookies and steal all his bet profits. While it seems all victory is won, Thomas Shelby hides a secret. He is to be arrested and executed. Alone in an open field with three men sent by Winston Churchill (Neil Maskell) in a shocking twist of events, Thomas Shelby is spared and informed he would be of great service to the prime minister of the United Kingdom himself.

Marriage, Grief, and Russian jewels
Another two years pass, and the Peaky Blinders’ operations thrive in Birmingham and London. Thomas Shelby is now married to Grace. More importantly, he is now a father. During the wedding, in the usual fashion, the Shelby boys get their hands into trouble as an unstable John Shelby attacks an Italian young man, Angel. Rather than ensure peace as Polly suggests, Thomas delivers one of his many memorable quotes: “The only way to guarantee peace is to make the prospect of war seem hopeless,” (Season 3, Episode 2). As a result of going on the offense with Vicente Changretta Angel’s father, Vicente orders an assassination attempt on Thomas at a night ball; tragically, Grace receives the bullet to the chest. Although her death is swiftly avenged, the loss of his new bride triggers the dark side of the world war veteran and the decline of his sanity.

But even grief is not enough to keep Thomas Shelby down. Tommy is quick to enter business with Arch Duke Romanov (Jan Bijvoet), a Russian oligarch during the Soviet Union revolution seeking asylum in England. Romanov wants the Peaky Blinders to steal guns from a moving train and then blow it up to stir an international incident for the Russians to claim credit for. The Russians promise to pay the Peaky Blinders in Jewels in exchange for their service.

Out of suspicion of betrayal, Thomas Shelby once again recruits his partner in crime, Alfie Solomons, to aid in stealing the Russian’s jewels for himself. Unfortunately for Tommy, his frenemy betrays him, revealing his plans to the Russians through their crooked middleman priest, Father Hughes (Paddy Considine). Hughes kidnaps Thomas and Grace’s newborn, and for ransom, he must move on with the train explosion plan and the jewel heist, delivering the jewels to Hughes as ransom. Unknown to Hughes, before their car scene exchange, Thomas had instructed Michael Gray (Finn Cole) to rescue his infant and kill Hughes before returning to the original plan of blowing up the train and stealing the jewels, which is successful in the end.

The Quest for Survival, Equal Rivals, Opium Deals with the Chinese
Thomas Shelby’s journey in the fourth season is more of survival than conquest. Luka Changretta (Adrien Brody), the second son of Vicente, arrives in Birmingham hungry for the blood of the Shelby clan. Tommy buys the loyalty of his men, and Authur Shelby, presumed dead (Season 4, Episode 6), emerges to shoot Changretta just before Tommy signs off the Shelby assets. At the end of season 4, Thomas Shelby ascends in the political scene as a socialist. He contests for a seat as a member of parliament and, of course, wins!

In season 5, more years have passed, and Thomas Shelby is focused on parliament duties amidst the business dealings, which involve trading opium with a Chinese triad. Throughout the first four seasons, Thomas Shelby always outsmarted any opposition figure he came across until he meets Oswald Mosley (Sam Claflin), an extreme fascist interested in pulling Thomas Shelby into his movement. Tommy agrees to join with the secret intention of sabotaging the fascist camp from within. However, it is unsuccessful. And for the first time, defeat breaks Thomas, so much that he almost commits suicide by pulling the trigger of an empty gun to his head.

Four years later. The IRA disclosed they were responsible for his unsuccessful sabotage. Thomas loses more family members, Polly Gray and his only daughter. Furthermore, he shockingly refrains from drinking alcohol while he initiates dealings with Boston crime boss Jack Nelson (James Frecheville), who wants Tommy to connect him to English fascists. Seeing he is still on speaking terms with Mosley and the IRA, that is not a problem for Tommy.

While Tommy strives to stay mentally afloat, he receives a false diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumor, misleading him into thinking he has less than two years to live. When all deals and emotional farewells with his family are done and settled, Tommy is finally prepared to die on his terms, but is told by his late daughter in a hallucination that his diagnosis is false. Realizing the truth, he returns to have a final go at Mosley. This concludes the sixth season of this historical drama series. Will the final phase of Thomas Shelby’s entail his fall or cement his spot as the apex gangster the fictionized England will ever see? Or bear his inevitable fall? Soon, we’ll find out.


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