Yes, there are spoilers.
I take art seriously, and, in return, I expect the producer to take me seriously. I like smart television a lot, and I respect television that doesn’t always give me what I want, assuming that it serves the story and character. David Simon once said of The Wire (and this is a rough paraphrase) that a writer can never allow pleasing viewers to override the story because the writer’s most important act is to serve the story. (As he said elsewhere, “But story required it.”) But right now, I want to vent a bit about how disappointed I was with Series 3 of Peaky Blinders. (Some of these issues I wish to address at greater length later.)
- Grace’s Story — After spending two series setting up this relationship, it’s done by the second episode. There are two possibilities here. The first is that Annabelle Wallis wanted out of Peaky Blinders to pursue a film career, which was reported here. If that’s the case, she should have just passed on the entire second season and gone to Hollywood. Her interviews did not suggest this was the case, however. Who knows? (And if she did choose to leave, pity her @WallisAnnabelle Twitter mentions.)
The second is just poor writing on Knight’s part. And by that, I don’t mean so much the decision to kill Grace (though I have problems with that, too) as I do the way it was handled. One of my frustrations was that her death didn’t seem definitive — we saw no body; we attended no funeral. Given that Tommy had faked Danny Whizz-bang’s death, the lack of definitive proof seemed to leave a door open. And I stupidly walked through it. One of the things that infuriated me was realizing that I had had my chain well and thoroughly yanked. [UPDATE: Steven Knight made this choice, which is explained here.]
In my mind, Knight has violated a part of the contract a writer has with an audience. I can handle characters I love dying. Stringer Bell’s death on The Wire is a moment I will never forget. And David Simon wasn’t cute about it: Stringer was dead. It was clear in the show, and it was clear in the interviews. Fair enough. The same thing happened on The Good Wife. Will Gardener’s death was a surprise, and it was clear: He was gone. Again, we knew it from the show, and we knew it from the interviews. I even knew that Joyce Summers had died on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and that’s a world in which resurrection is an essential plot element. In both the program and the interviews, Peaky Blinders failed its ethical obligation to its audience. It may be that this is the result of varied air dates for an international audience, but that practical reality doesn’t mediate the artistic problem.
Here’s what it did to me as a viewer. I didn’t make the emotional adjustments I needed to make in order to move into a new world where Grace was dead. I was busy chasing a red herring. I suspect Knight would say, “We told you she was dead. You should have believed Tommy.” And that’s true enough. But he’s constructed a character who creates elaborate plans and has a history of cheating death. Knight owed the audience more.
- The Treatment of Women — Where even to begin?
Knight began with strong female characters and has consistently made them pawns in Tommy’s game. Grace. May. Ada. Polly. Linda. Esme. Tatiana. And Lizzie. I don’t think any story line infuriates me more than Lizzie’s. Let me get this straight: In Series 2, Lizzie is lifted from a life of prostitution to become an office manager only to be forced back into prostitution when it suited Tommy’s ends, which results in her rape. She returns to work for Tommy (which makes sense since she’s promoted to office manager) only to have her lover murdered by the Shelbys before Tommy returns to her for consolation sex, for which he pays her only to have her throw the money in his face. Please. This is a masculine fantasy. Lizzie would have taken her new skills and left Tommy for a job in London after Angel’s murder. Yes, there was the ladies’ lovely little Good Friday strike, but that was just a tidy bit of patronizing. In the end, the women were treated awfully. (I’ve discussed this subject at length here.)
- Too Many Tangled Story Lines — I like smart writing.
The Wire was like that. I had to watch it twice to figure out what was going on, but that was fine because it was smart writing that expected a lot from me. But Series 3 of Peaky Blinders was just a mess. How many double crosses were there? Who knows? Worse, who cares? In this series, Knight was being clever, not smart. And in the end, it was just a mess. Plus, there were too many story lines, and good ones lacked development. For example, the plot line about Michael’s being molested came out of the blue and lacked development. A sober exploration of that would provide a foundation for what Michael is becoming, but instead, we rushed to another double cross. In the midst of all this action, let’s have Charles kidnapped! And let’s have Tommy working for Tatiana the whole time! And that last scene with the family. Seriously? Steven Knight wrote Locke, a masterful, understated film where he trusted the actors and his writing. That was missing from Series 3 of Peaky Blinders, which is too bad because the performances were still stellar.
So those are my initial thoughts, but let me point to some great moments among the writing mess. The acting was superb — Cillian Murphy, you leave me in awe. The cinematography was amazing — such ethereal use of light. And the music blew me away — Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army” still stays in my head, and I loved the use of David Bowie’s “Lazarus.” That said, I’m just disappointed and a lot less excited about Series 4 than I was Series 3.
Graphics are from FarFarAwaySite.com.
Publication Date: 31 May 2016
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