Peaky Blinders 3.6 Review: What Happened to the Strong Female Characters?

Source: Robert Viglasky
Lizzie, Esme, Polly, & Linda (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

Yes, there are spoilers.

I’ve always loved the strong female characters on Peaky Blinders even as I accepted the series would never pass the Bechdel Test.  Still, the women on Peaky Blinders held their own with the men and had compelling stories.  Plus, they wore great clothes!  With Series 3, however, that changed as the women of Birmingham were consistently given supporting status and tired or unbelievable story lines.  (I’ve discussed Steven’s Knight‘s comments that in Peaky Blinders he’s exploring an “impossible masculinity” here.)

I suspect the women are being set up to drive the 1926 strike plot that is coming up in Series 4 — Knight has said repeatedly he wants to write about this.  I’ll address that at the end of this piece.  But in the meantime, I’d like to explore what happened to the female characters in Series 3 of Peaky Blinders.

Consider these examples.

Grace Burgess Shelby

Grace Burgess (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

There’s probably no female character more wasted that Grace Burgess, played by Annabelle Wallis.  In the first series, she carried a gun, survived PTSD, faced her own ethical dilemmas, and fell in love only to find herself getting little screen time in the second series.  In the third, Grace played a role in the first two episodes but did little more than be the dutiful wife (evenstar297 on Reddit called her a “Stepford Wife” in a very insightful comment.)  In the end, she died because of her husband’s sins.  The reasons for Grace’s death as a plot device have not been explained (hopefully that will change), but it’s impossible to see her death as anything but the waste of a fascinating character.  Grace only existed to serve the development of Tommy’s character — and to big him a son.  In terms of strong female characters, Grace marks a significant failure.

Polly Shelby Gray

Polly Gray (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

Helen McCrory‘s Polly, too, was largely wasted in Series 3.  Think back to her role in Series 1.  She had held the betting shop together while the brothers were fighting in France in addition to caring for Ada and Finn.  When we meet her, she is holding a gun to John’s head.  That’s an empowered female character even as we watched Tommy take some of her authority.  In Series 2, we explored her life as a mother as she grieved Anna’s death, found Michael, and struggled with how to keep him safe while holding him close.  And in the end, she shot Major Campbell before uttering the memorable “Don’t fuck with the Peaky Blinders.”  You go, girl!  (And let me just say that Aunt Polly can totally rock a pair of sunglasses!)

In Series 3, Polly is given less to do.  There are hints that she is suffering through her own PTSD after her rape by Campbell, but this plot lacks development.  Ultimately, she her drunken confession leads to Tommy’s near death (a move that undercuts her authority by suggesting that she lacks self-control) and gives into the charms of painter Ruben Oliver.  She also loses control of Michael.  Some on Reddit have been critical of Polly’s attempts to control Michael, but I strongly disagree.  After all she watched her husband die after, as she tells Michael, “falling in with the wrong crowd.”  She desperately wants her son to avoid this fate.  I liked the scene where she slashes her portrait a lot, and I liked her realization that the woman in the portrait wearing the stolen dress wasn’t really who she is.  But in the end, Polly is largely wasted in Series 3.

Ada Shelby (Photo by Robert Viglasky)
Ada Shelby (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

Ada Shelby

Ada’s character, played by Sophie Rundle, has always been uneven although I do love the fact that she works in a library!  In Series 1, she defies her family and marries Freddie; in Series 2, as a single parent, she continues to work in the library in London and makes clear she isn’t a Shelby, but, in the end, she moves into Tommy’s house in an act of compromise; in Series 3, she officially enters the family business.  There’s a sense that she wants to change how the company operates, but her character simply lacks consistency to explain her actions.  Does she want or need the money?  Does she miss her family?  Does she want to use the company as a vehicle for social change?  Is she simply a plot device to allow Tommy to contact the communists?  I have no idea, but Ada lacks autonomy, which makes her character much less interesting.

Linda Shelby 

Linda Shelby (Photo by Robert Viglasky)
Linda Shelby (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

The treatment of Linda’s character (Kate Phillips) struck me as especially troublesome.  Simply put, she is the religious hypocrite with absolutely no backstory.  On one hand, a Quaker, she tells Arthur he needs to “work in the light.”  She wants him to reduce his criminal work before they make their exit to a California reservation to become missionaries.  On the other hand, she is cutting deals with Tommy to make sure Arthur gets the biggest cut he possibly can when the heist goes down.  (Her squaring off with Tommy over tea points to her hypocrisy.)  There’s nothing complicated or interesting in this portrayal; it’s just cynical.  Linda, in effect, takes power from Tommy, first by encouraging Arthur to be less violent and second by urging the women in the shop to strike — after she self-righteously proclaims that she cannot handle betting money in the shop.  This is the first series I watched where I didn’t fear for Arthur’s safety, and this is, presumably, the result of Linda’s influence.  That said, her pregnancy is the ultimate symbol of the ways in which she has emasculated Arthur.  Seriously?  Tommy’s child is a sign of masculinity; Arthur’s is a sign of weakness?  This is a troubling distinction.

Esme Lee Shelby (Photo by Robert Viglasky)
Esme Lee Shelby (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

Esme Lee Shelby 

Esme’s character (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) always breaks my heart as it becomes increasingly clear that the Shelby life doesn’t work for her.  In Series 3, she is pregnant — again –addicted to cocaine, and demanding sex from her husband because her hormones are out of control.  She has a wonderful speech where she explains that she misses being outside, that self-medicating with cocaine is the only way she can handle working in the shop.  And yet every day, she goes to work, just as she did in Series 1 and Series 2.  There’s a nice scene in Series 3 where John promises he’ll buy her a house bigger than Tommy’s, and they’ll park a wagon and sleep outside whenever they want to.  (This after she is embarrassed for saying in Series 2 that she wants to raise chickens and get lost.)  Instead, she dutifully works inside in the betting shop and raises her children.  Esme should be a much richer character.

Lizzie Stark (Photo by Robert Viglasky)
Lizzie Stark (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

Lizzie Stark

No female character gets worse treatment than Lizzie Start (Natasha O’Keeffe).  In Series 1, she’s a prostitute whose marriage to John Tommy subverts; in Series 2, she moves from being a prostitute to Tommy’s secretary only to be asked to raped at the end of the series when one of Tommy’s schemes goes bad.  She believes she has a bit of autonomy, which Tommy promptly strips from her when it suits his plans.  In the third series, she is the office manager whose Italian lover is killed by the Peaky Blinders before she begins sleeping with Tommy again to console him after Grace’s death.  At the end of Episode 6 when he pays her for “keeping his heart from breaking,” she throws the money in his face.  Neither the women in the betting shop nor the men respect her.  Seriously?  No skilled woman would allow herself to be put in this position.  After Angel’s murder, Lizzie would have taken her skills to London.  But instead, she stays with the Shelbys.  Why?  This is a masculine fantasy of how a woman would behave.  Lizzie deserves better.

Tatiana Petrovna (Photo by Robert Viglasky)
Tatiana Petrovna (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

Tatiana Petrovna

I wasn’t crazy about Gaite Jansen‘s Tatiana — no one who was a fan of Grace would be.  But in the end, Tatiana existed to illustrate Tommy’s man-pain as much as Grace did.  (The fact that she became a sexual surrogate for Grace is not coincidence though I’m going to write about the khylsty scene in Episode 5 at length later.)  Tatiana was clearly unhinged, spoiled, and promiscuous.  She is insensitive to the needs of others and acts without care of the consequences.  In the end, she is shown to be a killer as well when she takes the jewels for herself after shooting the appraiser in the head.  Ultimately, Tatiana existed to shock and provide sex.  Period.

Charlotte Murray

Wealthy girl out for a good time Charlotte Murray, played by Stephanie Hyam, fell into much the same role.  Her job was to validate Michael’s growing ruthlessness.  Although she’s a charming flirt in the first episode, that’s changed be the end as we watch her plead with Michael to stay with her while she has an abortion.  But, hey, it’s now clear that Michael has well and truly changed.  Her work is finished.

Good Friday:  The Shelby Women Go On Strike

I suspect Steven Knight would argue that I’m wrong here.  The fact that the Shelby women join the strike on Good Friday shows that they’re becoming empowered.  As Polly puts it, “Why should the boys have all the fun?”  They’re just not going to take it any more  After all, Polly’s speech in the bullring is very successful!  (It’s worth noting that the men all find this very amusing.)  Moreover, in the final scene of Episode 6, the women are clear that they have ideas for how to change the company, which suggests this is an idea Knight will pursue further, and I suspect he intends to tie this into the 1926 United Kingdom General Strike that he will cover in Series 4.

That’s fine, and there’s great potential there.  After all, this is Steven Knight’s show, and he’s free to do what he wants. But this is about storytelling, not acting — the performances are always terrific.  If Steven Knight doesn’t make fundamental changes to the stories of his female characters, if he doesn’t make them more three-dimensional, if he doesn’t give them stories that serve their characters rather than that of the Shelby brothers, it won’t matter.  It will mean that their “empowerment” in the General Strike will only serve to forward the stories of the male characters.  That’s not a revolution; that’s a return to a constricting form of narrative.

The Shelby men get compelling stories.  The Shelby women should, too.  Polly was right:  “Why should the boys have all the fun?”

Some graphics are from

Publication Date:  9 June 2016

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Peaky Blinders 3.6 Review:  Family, Power, and Revolution

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