Yes, there are spoilers.
Yesterday, I wrote my review of Peaky Blinders 4.3 very quickly — that’s what happens when you don’t have advanced access. I’m still trying to work through some things and will probably blog a bit more over the weekend, but I want to clarify some ideas.
Let me begin by making a few points clear. I’m not bothered by folks (respectfully) disagreeing with me. I have spent my life as a textual critic, and I enjoy engaging with those who have different perspectives — I’ve changed my mind more times than I can count. And art, always, should encourage disagreement and discussion. Earlier today, Milk Publicity tweeted this: “S4 Peaky Blinders hits 3.44 million consolidated viewers — making it BBC2’s highest rated drama this year.” These numbers suggest there’s considerable interest, and when there’s interest, passionate discussion should follow.
My review drew three primary criticisms:
- One, I need to accept that Grace is gone — and she wasn’t that great anyway.
- Two, why would I think that Tommy had no life before Grace walked into The Garrison?
- Three #TeamLizzie!
I’d like to address these issues, less as a defense and more to develop my ideas more fully than I did yesterday.
On Being a #TeamGrace Dead-Ender
Actually, I don’t see myself as a dead ender. I’ve read and watched many texts — I do this for a living! That means that I’m used to having my desires frustrated. You know what? I wanted Buffy and Angel to be together. (That moment in “The Prom,” my gosh!) But Joss Whedon and his writers room showed why that wasn’t the right choice for any of the characters. I wanted Jimmy McNulty to get his act together, and I wanted Stringer Bell to live, but David Simon and his writers room knew that they couldn’t compromise. I wanted Ned Stark to live and keep his family together, but George R. R. Martin really wasn’t having that. I want Saul Goodman to make good choices and not become the person I know he’s going to become. Vince Gilligan and his writers room aren’t interested. I wanted Alicia and Will to be together, but the Kings had other plans.
And you know what? I stayed with and loved every one of those shows. I’ve got nothing but respect for art that challenges me.
But a good writer has a reason for making those decisions, and a good writer is able to make me understand those changes. An excellent writer can get me to change my mind about what I thought I wanted. Because here’s the other thing. Those writers I mentioned before? They respect their characters, and they respect their viewers. They get they’ve entered into a complex relationship, and they take that responsibility seriously.
I’ve been open about the fact that I’m #TeamGrace, and I’ve been open in criticizing how her death was handled. Here’s the thing for me: Every time I feel like I’ve moved past it, Steven Knight does something that makes me angry again. And it’s impossible to compare the handling of Grace’s death and the handling of John’s death, both in Peaky Blinders the show and by Peaky Blinders the production/publicity machine, and not see a profound difference. The natural question is to ask why? And you know what? I don’t have a good answer.
So when an episode airs like “Blackbird,” which I cannot see as anything other than calculated trolling, I have to wonder about how the writer sees Grace as a character and me as a viewer. The writers that I mentioned earlier understood and respected the complicated relationship they’d entered. That has been utterly lost on Steven Knight. It is impossible for me to imagine any of those earlier writers treating their viewers with such contempt. Knight’s message is clear: Get over it. Any woman can do/mean what Grace did.
Okay, let’s think about that.
Greta Di Rossi
That Tommy had loved other women came as no surprise to me. But if you want to add that dimension to his character, for crying out loud, make her a real character, not a stereotype. Greta emerges from a vague historical ether and is so poorly drawn that she DIES OF CONSUMPTION. If you want me to take Greta seriously as a character, then she needs some, well, character. Greta Di Rossi is a piece of visual clipart. That, however, is beside the point. This isn’t about beautiful Greta having a story; it’s about her existing solely as a poorly conceived plot convention to develop Tommy’s character and provide some manpain. (Did I mention she died of consumption? She doesn’t even get an interesting death!)
If you want to know why fans invested in Grace, well, it’s because we knew her for an entire series, and she emerged as a three-dimensional character, as InTheBleakMidwinter blogs here.
There is a sizeable group of fans who really disliked Grace. They didn’t like her singing or her deception or her looks. Fine. But at least Grace is a fully bodied character. I don’t fault fans who ‘ship differently. But I do fault a writer who thinks he’s going to give me a stereotype and say, “Look at Tommy suffering as he stares out the window! Such suffering!” Sympathy is earned. Always.
Lizzie has always had her own fandom, and good for them. I think Natasha O’Keeffe makes Lizzie as interesting as she can given what she has to work with.
In my review, I laid out my frustrations with Lizzie’s character — she is completely unbelieveable.
But when I watched yesterday, I became furious. Yes, it was about the writing, but it was also about a bigger cultural shift we’re seeing in the United States as women tell their stories of how men in power have abused them in terrible ways. To say there is a new major story (or two) every day is not an exaggeration.
The #MeToo campaign showed women everywhere speaking what we always knew but never said for so many reasons: This kind of abuse is widespread. None of this was news to me, but this moment has made me understand as I never had before (to my great shame, I might add) how damaging this is to our culture. It has consequences, and we are living in a moment when we are trying to address these issues.
So when Tommy does what (some) powerful men do by taking advantage of Lizzie again, it’s more to me than a plot device to establish what a manly man he is — which is probably how I would have seen it a year ago. The context for Peaky Blinders has changed. Good art can handle a new context, but for me, Peaky Blinders failed that test in “Blackbird.” So while I’m watching Tommy lie to Lizzie under a bridge, which is a power play on his part so he can have sex with a woman who looks enough like Greta that he can pretend in the darkness, I’m not seeing sexy Tommy Shelby. I’m seeing The Today Show‘s Matt Lauer using a lock under his desk to close the door and prevent a woman from leaving, a woman, according to reports, that he assaulted. That’s not some charming trope to me. That’s women’s lives. And it’s not sexy or clever. It’s just awful.
You may argue that I’ve unfairly brought contemporary politics into a television show, but good art can handle it.
At this point, you’re probably thinking that I need to just stop watching. And I’ll be honest: It’s crossed my mind. But my response to art has always been to follow my intuition. If something gets me thinking and making connections, I pursue it always. In this case, Peaky Blinders showed me how much my attitude had changed, which influenced what I wrote. And I wanted to explain my thinking to you.
And, by the way, I really love this new Polly, so I’m staying the course.
Publication Date: 30 November 2017
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