Peaky Blinders: The Dark Underbelly of ‘Downton Abbey’

My wife was not immune to the cultural tidal wave that was Downton Abbey.  Which means that I watched it too. Sometimes attentively, sometimes not. But ultimately, I was far less interested in the social affairs and power struggles of the house than she was. And boy, was she interested. Her Downton Abbey fascination led her to shows like Upstairs, Downstairs and The ParadiseBoth of which inspired me to leave the room. But then, she stumbled upon Peaky Blinders, the story of a gypsy crime family fighting for dominance in 1920s Birmingham.

I came home to find her mid-episode (we don’t usually Netflix separately, I swear). On the screen was a scene of wanton violence. I was surprised that she’d be interested in such a show. Then, the sharply dressed leader of the gang left the bloodbath and set to wooing a fair maiden. Were it not for its violent juxtaposition, the scene would have fit right into an episode of Downton Abbey. And as the series continues, so do the parallels.

Most obvious is the setting: Peaky Blinders takes place in 1920s Birmingham, a few counties away from Downton Abbey’s Yorkshire. As such, it features many of the same cultural phenomena of the day: a fascination with the novelty of automobiles, gramophones, cinemas, and 1920s style. Radical ideas like feminism and Communism sweep through the ranks of the women and workers. Romance blooms between members of rival factions. Family leaders play a delicate game of politics to maintain tenuous relationships as the country heals from the wounds of the Great War.

It’s easy to imagine the two shows happening at the same time, in the same universe. As Downton Abbey spends much of its running time exploring the disparity between the opulence of the Crawleys and the meager lives of their house staff, Peaky Blinders makes the lives of the servants look luxurious.

The series follows the Shelby crime family as they fight for control of Birmingham’s dark underbelly. The family is led by the brooding, cerebral, and charming Thomas Shelby (played by the always excellent Cillian Murphy). He’s a criminal mastermind who is also a war hero. He leverages his status for criminal immunity, while turning to opium to escape his nightmares.

He’s supported by his brothers, the thuggish Arthur and the foolhardy John, who often cause more trouble than they fix. Their Aunt Polly, played by the mercurial Helen McCrory, is as fierce a matriarch as Downton Abbey’s Dowager.

The supporting cast is stuffed to the gills with A-listers. Sam Neill plays a dogmatic Irish inspector bent on ending Tommy Shelby. The chameleonic Tom Hardy is Alfie Simmons, a Jewish gang leader whose alliances are as unpredictable as his fits of rage. Adrian Brody has a turn as a New York mafioso bent on revenge.

And beset on all sides by these obstacles, the Peaky Blinders transcend their humble beginnings to build an empire that rivals even the Crawleys. Except the Shelbys’ empire features a bit more blood–and a lot more rock and roll in the soundtrack.

If you and your SO are coming off of a binge and looking for a series to agree on, Peaky Blinders has all of the drama, violence, and style to please everyone.

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