Peaky Blinders: Why John Shelby Was Killed Off In Season 4

John Shelby’s death in Peaky Blinders season 4 was a shocking moment in the series, and almost five years later, many are still wondering why this happened. Chronicling the underground misdeeds of a formidable gang operating in early twentieth-century England, BBC One’s acclaimed period drama has continuously proven itself to be a rip-roaring international success, with a sixth-and-final season all wrapped up — though Peaky Blinders is ultimately ending with a movie. At the heart of the series, however, is its characters. Hence, why audiences were so shocked by the death of John Shelby, a Peaky Blinders veteran.

John Shelby’s on-screen death is not a merciful one. Taking audiences by surprise at the climax of season 4, episode 1, “The Noose,” the character is shot dead outside his house in front of Esme and Michael, his wife and brother, by one of the goons hired to eliminate the Blinders at the command of key antagonist Luca Changretta. Fans reacted viscerally because Joe Cole, the actor who portrayed John Shelby since the show began in 2013, had not announced his Peaky Blinders exit prior to the episode’s broadcast. Surprising as it was, many still wonder why the decision was taken to kill off John Shelby.

How John Died In Peaky Blinders

Peaky Blinders season 4, episode 2, “Heathens,” sees the immediate aftermath of the character’s death. With the Changrettas out for blood following the demise of family patriarch Vincente, Tommy, reeling from the loss of his bother, unites his family in the safe space of New Heath, Birmingham, under the protection of the Peaky Blinders. Meanwhile, John’s newly widowed wife, Esme, decides to take her children and begin again elsewhere, cursing her late husband’s dangerous family before leaving.

Though the death of Esme’s husband was sudden, it’s understandable and realistic given the life-on-the-line nature of the Changretta plotline. Somebody important had to die to legitimize the threat posed by the Changrettas, and that character was John Shelby. This plot development also allowed for interesting explorations of Peaky Blinders’ true story influences and the characters’ emotions. For instance, Esme didn’t even attend John’s funeral. In the case of John’s brothers, however, his death united them under grave circumstances.

John Shelby Had To Die Because Actor Joe Cole Quit

Following the episode’s broadcast in November 2017, Joe Cole was quick to go on record to explain the real reasons why the character of John Shelby’s death in Peaky Blinders. The actor explained (via Independent) that he “had other projects [filming]” and stated, “it was the right time to go.” Simply put, Cole felt as though his time on Peaky Blinders should draw to a close in order for him to pursue other projects.

In a 2019 interview (also via Independent), Cole opened up about the fact that he didn’t “just want to be known as the guy in Peaky Blinders” and went on record to declare that Blinders was Cillian Murphy’s show. Therefore, he didn’t get his time to shine as a performer while playing a supporting character for three consecutive seasons.

Ultimately, the talented-in-his-own-right Joe Cole sought more opportunities to shine as a lead actor rather than play second fiddle as part of an ensemble cast — and he has since achieved that. Cole gave show creator Steven Knight enough notice to craft a shocking death scene for John Shelby in Peaky Blinders season 4’s premiere episode. It was a death that served the plot well by demonstrating the threat posed by the Changretta family, and Shelby’s sudden exit certainly shocked and divided fans around the world, as all good dramas should, especially on Peaky Blinders, a show about gun-wielding gangs where characters are constantly staring into the merciless face of death.

What Joe Cole Has Done Since Leaving Peaky Blinders

Joe Cole got his wish to play a lead role in a television show after Peaky Blinders when he was cast as a soldier turned undercover spy named Harry Palmer in ITV’s drama series The Ipcress File. The show is based on a book of the same name by author Len Deighton and has been made into a movie in 1965 starring Michael Cain in the central role. As previously mentioned, Joe Cole appeared in the Black Mirror episode “Hang the DJ,” for which he received a BAFTA award nomination. He also has parts in Gangs of London and Against the Ice.

Joe Cole’s Peaky Blinders exit hasn’t slowed the actor down by any means, as directly after the series he jumped straight into Black Mirror. After that, he starred in the 2018 movie Happy New Year, Colin Burstead as Ed, and then had a six-episode stint on Pure as Charlie. He went on to star as Kyle Parson in One of These Days, before jumping onto Gangs of London as Sean Wallace. Outside The Ipcress File, Joe Cole has another TV miniseries that’s in production called A Small Light. It looks like Joe Cole will continue to have an active career despite his death in Peaky Blinders, with more starring roles than ensemble ones.

John’s Death Marked A Turning Point For The Show

John Shelby’s death in Peaky Blinders might have been a necessity to accommodate Joe Cole’s desire to leave the series, but it also proved an important turning point in the series. Up until then, the Shelby family had certainly been in plenty of danger and there had also been significant deaths like Grace in season 3 of Peaky Blinders. However, while that death simply solidified Tommy Shelby’s dark path, John’s death showed that the Shelby family was not as untouchable as they previously seemed.

Grace also died in a failed attempt to kill Tommy, making him symbolically responsible and sent him on a path of revenge. John’s death was an act of war, not on Tommy, but the whole Shelby family. He was killed to prove that a Shelby could be killed and that the family had enemies beyond just those who wanted Tommy to pay. Though the show might have been forced to kill off John, it remembered to make the lesson of his death matter. It put the audience on edge that just about anyone could die and it ended up setting the stage for Polly’s death in Peaky Blinders.

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