Polly Gray, otherwise known as Elizabeth Gray or Aunt Polly, was the beating heart of Peaky Blinders in more ways than one. Portrayed by the late, great Helen McCrory, she was one of the show’s central characters and critical pillars from the beginning. With Cillian Murphy’s Thomas Shelby, Polly ensured that the Shelby family’s legitimate and illegitimate business enterprises ran smoothly while keeping the peace in the family.
Thomas’s aunt by blood and his second-in-command, Polly had essentially no compunctions about keeping her feelings concealed. Unlike Thomas, Polly doesn’t feel a need to smother her emotions beneath a veneer of boredom or stoic indifference. Valued for her advice, Polly’s willingness to speak her mind – and her ability to do so in memorable ways – were unmatched. In Peaky Blinders Season 4, Polly maxes this trait out to eleven after she gets acquainted with the hangman’s noose. Just as Thomas believes the death of his old self on the battlefield accorded him a second chance at living life, Polly believes that her “death” set her free.
Here, we’ll look back at Polly’s life and the multiple Polly Grays who lived and died in their own ways.
Before Marriage & World War I
Peaky Blinders began airing in 2013. The year on the show was 1919. Polly Gray was 35. But if you go back a few years – maybe even a decade – you’ll see Polly before the significant losses that shape her personality and beliefs. Before Polly met her gentle husband, who liked to sing but died in a boating accident while drunk. Before Polly had children and lost them to the state. In fact, we know so little about this time period that it’s possible the family is still on good terms with Arthur Shelby, Sr.
Critically, this is also the period before Polly becomes tangled irreversibly with the Peaky business, as Thomas, John (Joe Cole), and Arthur (Paul Anderson) have yet to be drafted for Britain’s war effort in World War I.
During War World I (1914 – 1918)
Now a widow, Polly Gray has also lost her children to the parish authorities. Despite that, there’s no time to mourn, as World War I is in full swing. Since the boys she used to care for are off at the Battle of the Somme, Polly now heads the Peaky Blinders while the rest of the Shelby women manage the day-to-day operations of the family business.
Polly’s leadership would later become a running theme, as she assumes the position of Thomas’s second-in-command over his brothers, John and Arthur. Like Thomas, she will also govern the family even as she balances the books of the Shelby enterprise.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to meet this Polly either. It would have been a real treat to see what Small Heath was like with Polly holding the reins.
1919 – 1922
When Polly Gray first appears on Peaky Blinders, she’s adjusting to a change in leadership brought about by the return of the men from war – most notably Thomas himself. Even as she’s forced to step back from running the show, Polly remains busy working to keep the peace in the family.
All throughout Peaky Blinders Season 1, she puts out fires between Thomas, Ada Shelby (Sophie Rundle), and Freddie Thorne (Iddo Goldberg). Then comes her unsuccessful attempts at convincing Thomas to dispose of his ill-gotten Lewis guns. And speaking of guns, Polly takes the safety of her family so seriously that she personally surprises John in an alley after he leaves a loaded gun around for a young Finn to find. Our introduction to Polly sees her threatening to shoot John and then offering to keep his mistake quiet if he promises not to do it again.
Not all of Polly’s wide-ranging duties are this dramatic, of course. According to Helen McCrory in an interview with Den of Geek, women like Polly represent the “heartbeat of the society.” Charged with “knowing the streets,” their community depends on them for its well-being. They know where the kids were at all times and whether somebody’s drunk dad needs picking up at the pub. Ada may ultimately decide against Polly’s pregnancy advice, but it’s hard to imagine another Peaky Blinder better suited to offer advice in the first place.
1922 – 1927
Ferocious and fearless, Polly is always the family’s undisputed matriarch. In Peaky Blinders Season 2, the return of her son Michael Gray (Finn Cole) gives Polly all the reason she needs to challenge Thomas. She’s unafraid to oppose him directly and even to demand things of him. Polly negotiates Michael’s pay and the terms of his employment, which she had hoped to keep completely on the legitimate side of the Shelby enterprise.
The ongoing threats briefly jeopardize Polly’s burgeoning ambition for her family, due to a combination of the Shelby family’s position and Thomas’ actions. Even though Peaky Blinders Season 3 gives us Polly’s fabulous self-portrait (which she titles “Fuck Them All”), Polly struggles to balance her personal life when the presence of outsider Reuben Oliver upends her professional life within the Peaky Blinders.
Later, Polly’s near-execution in Peaky Blinders Season 4 Episode 1 (“The Noose”) bolsters her lust for life. As Polly tells Thomas during a family meeting in the following episode, “When you’re dead already, you’re free.” And she expands on this philosophy during a talk with Ada, when Ada urges for her return to the family’s fold so the Shelbys can deal with the Mafia threat as one unit. Polly remarks, “Whilst working for this company, I have killed a man, I have lost a man, I have found a son, I have almost lost a son, I have almost lost my own life. I will accept my job back if the terms on offer are favorable, but I will not behave myself.”
Free from trifling considerations like society’s expectations of women, she declares her intention to sleep with “someone unsuitable.” This “someone” later turns out to be Aberama Gold (Aiden Gillen). Before Polly does the deed with him, she threatens him with a blade, then extracts a promise from him on Michael’s safety. Polly also tells Aberama that no blade can kill her. Thus begins her whirlwind romance with the killer, who’s already used to living the Peaky Blinder lifestyle.
The Great Depression (1929 Onwards)
Still, despite Polly’s feelings of invincibility, any hope of an uneventful life alongside the likes of Reuben Oliver or in Australia with Michael will have to wait. We last see Polly Gray during a family meeting in Peaky Blinders Season 5, which is set around the time of the Great Depression. As Michael and Thomas butt heads, Polly finds herself playing the role of peacemaker yet again. Thomas, now Thomas Shelby OBE, oversees the rapidly expanding Shelby enterprise while Michael serves as branch head of Shelby Company Limited’s American division. Resentful of Michael because he lost a large chunk of the family fortune after disobeying his direct orders, Thomas has not made things easy for Michael since his return to Birmingham.
Things come to a head when Michael declares at the Garrison Pub that he wants an overhaul at Shelby Company Limited and implies that the Peaky Blinders’ current leadership style is all but obsolete. Thomas blows up at Michael; even Polly sees red and slaps him in the face. She later submits her resignation to Thomas after he confirms that if she or Aberama were to side with Michael, they will be “dealt with.”
Post-1929 (Peaky Blinders post-Polly Gray)
The conclusion of the Shelby family meeting raises some interesting questions. Will Polly still side with Michael and protect him from Thomas’ wrath? Or will she only appear to do so – much as she’s given Luca Changretta the impression that she’s chosen Michael over Thomas?
Unfortunately, we will never get the answers to these questions, as Polly meets her death at the hands of the Irish Republican Army during the botched assassination of Oswald Moseley. Revealed in Peaky Blinders Season 6’s debut episode, Polly’s death casts a shadow over the Peaky Blinders, family and family business alike. As Thomas falls apart, Michael’s words in Season 4’s hospital scene with Polly become nothing short of prophetic: “Without you, he falls apart; and without him, they’ll take us all. You’ve got to get us through this.”
In other words, Thomas will surely crumble without Polly; if that happens, the Peaky Blinders are certain to follow. Sure enough, the Peaky Blinders suffer as Thomas unravels. Because going to Polly is no longer an option, he ditches his family when they need him the most. Even his daughter’s mysterious illness and Lizzy’s pleading can’t compel him to return. Michael himself falls further out with Thomas, vowing vengeance at Polly’s funeral. Arthur falls deeper into the clutches of opium, unable to salvage his marriage or unable himself, let alone his family.
For Thomas, losing Polly was a blow harder than anything that had come before it. As he remarks to Michael in the Peaky Blinders series finale, Polly was “half of himself.” If we believe him, surviving this loss may mean Tommy Shelby has to become someone else and start anew. And if we take Michael’s word for it, the stakes are much higher for the Peaky Blinders. Losing Tommy may well be the beginning of their end.