Why was Joe Cole’s character John Shelby killed off in ‘Peaky Blinders’?
(Credit: BBC)

Netflix Flashback

Why was Joe Cole’s character John Shelby killed off in 'Peaky Blinders'?

Peaky Blinders is arguably the biggest and most successful gangster show since The Sopranos, in large part because Shelby Company Ltd is a family business. There’s enough room in the show for all the Shelby siblings, from Peaky Blinders gang leader Tommy and eldest son Arthur to their sister Ada and younger brother John.

John Shelby was increasingly playing a prominent role in the family business, which just happened to be the most infamous gang of fraudsters, thieves and murderers on the British Isles. And with the character coming more to the forefront of the series, actor Joe Cole, one of the rising stars of British TV and film, was getting more of a chance to shine.

Cole excelled in establishing the development of John from a naive boy in the show’s first season into a married man and leading Shelby henchman as the story continued. He displays his range in various comic turns during the show’s later moments while demonstrating John’s hotheadedness in a confrontation with Italian mobster Vicente Changretta.

It’s this later incident that sets in motion the chain of events which eventually leads to John’s murder by the Changretta gang early in season four of the show. John beats Vicente’s son Angel to a pulp, and is later involved in the killing of Vicente himself. Vicente’s other son, Luca, then vows to avenge his father, placing a vendetta on the heads of the entire Shelby family. It’s John who falls victim to the vendetta, being gunned down by assassins outside his front door, in front of his wife, Esme.

But given John’s important role in the series and Joe Cole’s charismatic performance as the third Shelby brother, it came as a shock to viewers that the character was killed off so suddenly. Many were left questioning whether this plot twist was really necessary or if, in fact, there was more to it than simply a creative decision by the show’s creator, Stephen Knight and his fellow writers.

Indeed, there was. It was actually Cole’s move to leave the show that meant the writers had to kill John Shelby off early in its fourth season. It’s likely they’d originally intended to keep John as an integral part of the Peaky Blinders for much longer.

But Cole felt he was being limited by the part, since the entire series seemed to be firmly centred on the character of John’s brother Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy. “I never really got out of the gates in that role,” Cole told the Metro back in 2020, three years after leaving Peaky Blinders. “It’s Cillian’s show really.” Indeed, it was Murphy’s character which ultimately determined the trajectory of the story.

Since moving on from the show, Cole has established himself as a film actor with several lead roles, including in the 2022 Netflix release Against the Ice. He’s continued playing gangsters too, with a major part in Sky’s ongoing series Gangs of London.

However, while still relatively young, the actor is yet to solidify his standing in the movie industry with a major breakout role. Until then, for many he’ll still be recognised primarily as John Shelby. Sorry, Joe.