The story of Tommy Shelby is etched into his face, written in his deep set eyes, across his troubled, skeptical brow, and on his high cheek bones, but sunken cheeks; it’s in his hopeful, blue gaze, and how it promises redemption in its best moments, but is cold and cruel and glassy in its worst; it’s in his heartbreaking smile, and that smile’s scarcity—and the reasons for that scarcity.
Before the war, Tommy laughed. A lot.
Or so Aunt Polly says.
We never meet that version of Tommy, before the war, before France, before the tunnels. We only know the Tommy that’s come out on the other side, who laughs so sparingly and so briefly, that when he does, it seems in spite of himself.
What makes Tommy Shelby—the complexities, the ambition, the contradiction, the charisma, and the haunting memories of haunting experience—goes unspoken, but is always present. It’s manifested on his tight forehead and in his distant stare. It’s inherent to the strength of his jaw, found clenched and brooding, hardened from keeping his mouth decidedly shut, closed around his criminally-calm tongue, from which only pragmatic discussions of business ever escape: legal business, illegal business, legitimate business, off-track business, Irish business, Russian business.
Tommy’s face is weathered and rain-soaked, obscured by a flat cap, razor blade, and trench coat collar, by city smoke and an ever-present cigarette. It has whiskey toughness—“Scotch or Irish?”—and the weariness of sleepless nights, bearing the lingering effects of opium, for those nights when sleep won’t come. When oblivion must be purchased, to borrow a phrase from Oscar Wilde.
It’s a face well-acquainted with violence, for self and for country, telling tales of fights won and fights lost, beatings given and beatings received. And yet, underneath it all, the face suggests what Tommy once was, before France. When he laughed. A lot. That’s the reason we fall in love with Tommy Shelby in the first place.
One night, with the Garrison closed, Grace steps onto a table, after Tommy relents and requests a song.
“Be careful,” she says. “I’ll break your heart.”
Tragically cool, almost inaudibly, he responds: “Already broken.”
We don’t know Tommy before the war, but after, there still exists reasons to fall in love with him and his broken heart: that he wades in cigarette smoke while thinking, and seals deals with glasses of whiskey, operating under an unspoken code of ethics that’s long since fallen out of fashion; how his fashion has fallen out of fashion, but seems like the only way a man with dignity should look when he leaves his house; how he treats the Garrison like a cathedral, and treats a cathedral like something that’s failed him, and how he occasionally flirts with faith in something, though it’s not always clear what that is (“All religion is a foolish answer to a foolish question,” he tells Johnny Dogs in Wales); his gallantry, but how he took the medals awarding that and threw them in the cut, because the prize was no consolation for the action; it’s his cleverness, which his mother said would kill him, and the bullish way he responds to those threats that actually could take his life; it’s his posture, internal and external, and his constant standing guard in unrelenting duty to family; it’s in the tragic poetry of his soul, when he raises a bottle with a bandaged chest and says, “To Danny Whizz-Bang. May we all die twice.”
Above all else, though, it’s the agency Tommy Shelby exercises over his world that makes him so appealing, and makes us envy him, wishing we could do the same.
According to Harry, the Garrison’s bartender, the Shelby’s sins are their appeal: “It’s funny,” he says to Tommy, with Billy Kimber’s men closing in on Small Heath. “The people around here, they actually want you to win this battle. I think what it is, is you’re bad men, but you’re our bad man.”
That assessment of the Shelby’s—and of “bad”—matches Aunt Polly’s own ethos, or Aunt Polly’s justifications, as life in Birmingham has taught her the necessity of the word: in the defining moment of her life, Polly’s children were taken from her, a tragedy that she assures Ada will not be repeated in the next generation. “They will never take your baby away from you,” Polly says. “Do you know why? ‘Cause Tommy won’t let them. ‘Cause Tommy won’t let them walk over us. Now it’s Tommy that’s brought strength and power to this family. ‘Cause he knows you have to be as bad as them above in order to survive.”
Whatever power or strength the Shelby’s had before France is unquantifiable to us, but when Tommy returns home to take control of the family, he cements power and strength, then grows it. Because of what he learned while he was away.
Because he knows that you must be as bad as them above in order to survive.
Of course, as a bookmaker and a racketeer, as a criminal, Tommy knows that there is no honor among thieves. But inside the apparatus of war, he saw how pervasive thievery is in the King’s England, witnessing corruption that reaches well beyond gambling dens and dirty pubs in dirty cities, like his own. Tommy finds that the thieves at the top—the police, the politicians, the aristocracy, the royalty—are worse than the thieves at the bottom, as they are the ones that benefit from the killings on and off the battlefield, not the men who perform the acts. Not John Shelby, who’d killed 100 men and seen 1,000 die by the age of 18; not Danny Whizz Bang, who cries on the canal when he can’t pray—before dying for the first time—and says, “Those fucking guns, they blew God right out of me head”; not Tommy Shelby, who was a tunneler, and emerged from below ground to see the world in a new light, either cynically, or realistically, or somewhere in between.
Though Tommy washes away the mud and blood and grime, the tunnels are forever written on his face. Some six years after the war’s end, he’s nearly broken in a sprawling office, no longer well-acquainted with laughter, not the naive boy who volunteered for the worst job. There, he articulates what he’s known to be true, since France: “Those bastards, those bastards are worse than us. Politicians, fucking judges, Lords and Ladies. They are worse than us. And they will never admit us to their palaces, no matter how legitimate we become. Because of who we are. Because of who we fucking are, because of where we’re fucking from.”
Ethnically, socially, and professionally, the Shelby’s are disenfranchised, and always have been. They’ve never received a fair shake, forever finding themselves on the outside looking in. They were not chosen by birth, like others in England’s rigid social structure, and thus, the Shelby’s are viewed differently, locked into their place in the hierarchy, despite Tommy’s determination to change that.
The Shelby’s are “didicoy,” meaning they’re “mixed blood”—half Romani gypsy, half English. They stand in limbo between traveler roots and English identity, often given reminders of their “lesser than” status: on the way to the fair, one of the Lee boys calls their mother “a didicoy whore,” sparking a war; Billy Kimber tosses a coin on the ground, and tells Tommy, “Pick it up, pikey”; one IRA member asks to be allowed “to put a bullet in this scum tinker’s head,” before his counterpart says, “From now on Mr. Shelby, shut you’re fucking gypsy mouth, and listen to your instructions”; “He’s gypsy, they’re all fucking gypsy,” says Sabini, who almost exclusively refers to Tommy as “Gypsy bastard”; “You’re Gypsies, right? So what do you live in a fucking tent or a caravan?” asks Alfie Solomons, before saying, “I always expected you to have a big fucking gold ring in your nose, mate.”
However, of all these reminders of ethnic-identity, it’s Mae Carlton—whose wealth and class and status stands in stark contrast to her love interest’s—that stumbles onto the essential paradox in the Shelby’s coming of age: “Gypsies don’t like registers,” she says curiously, a horse and her affection for Tommy leading her to Birmingham. “But you did register for France.”
That chasm and its lack of justice drives Tommy, it’s connected to his wild ambition, as his family has consistently been denied national identity, full Englishness, and the respect that comes with it, despite having “bloody fought for the King.” In war time, the Shelby’s found themselves on the front lines of Englishness, but when the fight is over, their reward for avoiding sacrifice is to return to the social wilderness, to dirty ol’ Birmingham, worse off than before.
Post-France, Tommy arrives at the knowledge that you have to be as bad as them above in order to survive. So Harry is right: the Shelby’s are bad men. But they live in a bad world, where bad is forever relative.
Plus, they’re our bad man.
Post-France, Tommy plays by new rules, the ones set by those above him, and determines to exercise agency over the fate of he and his family, an opportunity they’ve never had before. By means moral and immoral, he attempts to influence the forces at play above his head, with much of his success coming because of what he’s learned in France: “never parlay when you’re on the back foot”; “when fortune drops something valuable in your lap, you don’t drop it on the banks of the cut”; if someone wants something, “they’ll have to pay—It’s the way of the world.”
This position of strength is new for the Shelby’s—and admittedly, they’re aided by chance, when an unknown arsenal is dropped in Charlie Strong’s yard. But Tommy is suited for the moment, prepared to punch above his weight, invigorated by the opportunity. Inside a local cathedral, where the truth always seems to come out, Tommy tells his brother, “We had some luck, some bloody luck. It fell off a wagon into our laps, and all you need to know is it’s us that has the machine guns, and it’s them that’s in the mud.”
It’s a biblical shift, one Tommy cites in the original Eden Club takeover, telling his audience, “Those of you who are last will soon be first, and those of you who are downtrodden will rise up.”
That’s at the heart of our affection for the Shelby’s, in spite of their methods: they were born downtrodden, like us, but they grow to challenge the systems of oppression and even the playing field. They exercise agency, operate successfully in a world that they know is bad, and dictate the terms of it. “You have to get what you want your own way,” Tommy says, and once he’s given leverage, he’s unwilling to part with it, maximizing the position of strength to levels that fly in the face of England’s status quo.
By 1921, and further, by 1924, the Shelby’s have risen up, are first. They’ve reached levels unrecognizable to the former boys from Birmingham. They have tailored suits, oil paintings, servants, race horses, the finest cars. Tommy’s escaped his opium-tainted bedroom, and has a mansion that sits on “the edge of heaven, the border between Birmingham and paradise.” His family runs Birmingham—they run London, they run the North, they run the whole fucking country, according to John—and Tommy tries to maintain all that.
“The only way to guarantee peace is by making the prospect of war seem hopeless,” he says.
But by the time we leave Tommy most recently, his agency has spiraled into excess, where ambition has proven costly. Whatever peace he planned for is gone: he’s standing alone in the foyer of his stately manor, Grace dead, his family gone. He’s found there are weight classes still above him, and the man from 1919 seems like a distant memory.
Bigger risks and greater wealth have obscured that night in the Garrison, when he was rain-soaked and broken-hearted, but flirted with what he was, or could’ve been, when he laughed, a lot.
Now, Tommy’s smile is even scarcer, nearly gone, as he sits amongst the wreckage of his peripheral damage. He’s harder to love in this new setting outside of the grit and smoke of Birmingham, wearing silk neck ties and pricey hats, devoid of razor blades.
But for all that’s changed and swirled around him, the face remains, is perhaps the singular constant: his eyes are still deep set, sitting below a tight, skeptical brow; his high cheek bones still contradict his sunken cheeks; the redemptive, blue gaze still faces outward, giving and taking promise, depending on how the moment strikes it.
The tunnels are still there, and always will be, perhaps more prominently than anything else.
The story of Tommy Shelby is etched into his face, and despite how bleak the outlook, we still catch glimpses of those things that made us fall in love with him in the first place. We know Tommy—who he was, where he’s from, and how he got here–and because of that, we’ll remain on his side, even when it appears foolish, or we know it’s wrong.
There’s something in his face, in his story, that makes us believe in what he could’ve been, in what he was, in who he is, and what he still might be.
Underneath it all, we still root and hope for the boy from Birmingham, and the way he laughed, because he still may be in there.
“Trust me, brother,” he tells Arthur, as his family is frantic, being broken apart, lead away in handcuffs, put in jail, facing hanging for their many sins.
They’re his final words.
Which is what we’ll do, because it’s all we can do. We do trust Tommy, in spite of ourselves, because we knew him once, and fell for him long ago.