Tommy. F&^#king. Shelby.
(You have to read that in a Birmingham British accent: Foooohhhk-ing)
Tommy Foooohhhk-ing Shelby is the protagonist of Netflix’s best series of all time: Peaky Blinders. I’ve watched the entire six seasons from start to finish many times (#protip use captions) and each time my love/hate for this man grows.
He is both despicable and appealing and I’ve been wracking my brain to figure out why. Mobsters, Gangsters, Mob Bosses, Kingpins, Drug Lords, Don Drapers. They’re a type: lovable jerks who lack integrity and yet, have rules. A code. And the code tricks you into believing they’re redeemable.
Maybe it’s a cinematic trick to make you believe that a bad guy isn’t. You see him murder someone in cold blood and think, “Well, that’s how it was back then.” Or “he did what he had to do.” Murder becomes valiant. Respectable. Cool.
It’s more than clever cinematic framing though: We want to believe in redemption. The higher the moral conflict, the more we root for them. The more we want to watch their transformation. To see the moment when they hit rock bottom and who they choose to become next.
The reason Tommy Shelby enrages me is because I like him. And I appreciate the way the series does not glorify his demons. His life is miserable. He has nothing. (But those cheekbones). And as the series goes on, he delves deeper and deeper into pain and suffering.
But not for long.
Whenever these characters start to get a little too real, the script changes. You don’t see a self-loathing womanizer, you see passionate lust. You don’t see lying and cheating, you see street smarts. You don’t see murder in cold blood, you see loyalty! Dedication! Even honor.
I love it because it calls into question your own code of ethics. Is it a suspension of disbelief? Or is there a part of us that condones this behavior? Is it a mirror?
I have a theory on why we ignore, forgive, and normalize scumbags – in addition to their being extremely handsome (though Narcos wasn’t and neither was Tony Soprano, so that negates that theory).
We will overlook the murder, the cheating, the cruelty, the lies, and the pain these scumbags inflict because we’re not really rooting for them: We’re rooting for us.
We want to believe we can be better.
We want to believe in redemption.
We want to believe in justice.
We want to believe we can change.
We live in a world where lying jerks do get away with it. Where we glorify and reward corruption. Where we permit cheating. Where we encourage bullying. And we normalize lies.
I can’t speak for all the scumbags, but what I love about Peaky Blinders is that – well – I won’t spoil the plot, but suffice it to say that the justice they show you has nothing to do with the law.
It’s that these scumbags are forced to live with themselves. Day. After day. After day.
And you can’t run from that.
All these “bad guys with power” movies show you the same trope: Underdog rises to get Money. Power. Stuff. Sex.
But they have nothing.
They make a fuss about loyalty and family, but they all kill each other and their families. Everyone cheats on their spouse. Tons of emotional abuse. Everyone’s dysregulated. No impulse control. Inability to manage or tolerate distress. Poor conflict resolution skills (guns and intimidation are not conflict resolution skills). Skipping out on your kids because “the business” is more important. Partying with strangers and strippers and drinking yourself into a stupor when you are way past the age where that is fun or cool.
They have nothing.
Nothing real, nothing true, nothing lasting, nothing important.
If there is a lesson to be gleaned from these characters it is that being a scumbag is easy.
- Facing the parts of you you don’t want to see, feel, or know – that is hard.
- Feeling your feelings – that is hard.
- Appropriately metabolizing anger – that is hard.
- Doing the right thing when it’s unpopular – that is hard.
- Having integrity in a world that won’t reward you for it – that is hard.
- Facing consequences – that is hard.
- Regulating your emotions – that is hard.
- Being vulnerable and honest – that is hard.
- Letting go of who you’re “supposed” to be – that is hard.
Facing yourself and all you’ve done – that is the work.
Work worth doing.
Power and Status and Money and Stuff cannot fill the void that lives inside.
The irony of the “tough” Peaky Blinders is that they aren’t tough at all. It’s a tale of male weakness. What happens when your demons win.
Tommy may be rich and powerful, but he is empty.
And that is a miserable way to go through life.
PS: I would never deign to say anything negative about Lin Manuel’s rendition of Hamilton because it is perfect. However, Hamilton was a schmuckface. And what Lin Manuel got right is that Hamilton (the play) is actually about Eliza, not Hamilton.
That’s why the story is magnificent. Hamilton is not the protagonist. He’s the scumbag. AND YET. We feel for him. We’re rooting for him. We’re willing to overlook and forgive and we want to believe so badly that he is good.
If you want to know who he really becomes check out the Reynold’s Pamphlet. This is an intricate case study of the decline of a man with a guilty conscience. It’s defensive, bitter, and riddled with ego and insecurity.
The longer it goes on, the more guilty it reads. He owns one indiscretion (that towards his wife) and tries to win favor with the public instead of her (something the Lin Manuel version edits a bit).
Fiction is one thing, but I worry about the way we laud men like this for their accomplishments, overlooking their character. A person of character doesn’t have to prove it. They simply are it.
At the end of the day, we each have to go to bed with ourselves.
We can’t save the scumbags, but we can stop ourselves from pedestaling them. And seeing what they truly are: miserable. And empty.