Peaky Blinders 4.4 Review: A Postscript on Too Much Plot

Tommy Shelby and Alfie Solomons

Yes, there are spoilers.

In the review I posted yesterday on “Dangerous,” I pointed to an overabundance of plot in Series 4 Peaky Blinders.  So much plot comes at the expense of character development, which is what we’re seeing now.  In this post, I’d like to develop that idea a bit more fully.

As I see it, “Dangerous” follows five story lines:

After the War

•Arthur and Mrs. Ross
•Finn & Michael
•Finn gets a house
•Michael is torn about his loyalties

The Changrettas

•Various shootouts and threats

Dangerous the Horse

•May Carleton’s visit
•The gin distillery

•Lizzie is jealous and pregnant

May Carlton, Tommy Shelby and Dangerous

Bonnie the Boxer

•Bonnie wants to fight Goliath
•Alfie introduces his fighter

Jessie the Revolutionary

•She gives her speech
•The plant manager gives his speech
•Ada takes Jessie for a drink & tells her Tommy’s negotiating offer, which includes a date

There are some subplots I’ve missed, but I think these are the primary stories.  And there are A LOT of them.  Any one of these stories could provide the basis for a solid episode that allows the stories to breathe and the characters to grow.

Take, for example, “After the War.”  I’m struck by a conversation between Tommy, Arthur, and John back in The Garrison in Series 2.  They’re hiring men when the Digbeth Kid comes in, complete with his wooden gun and a holster sewn by his mom — “Well, not my real mum,” the Kid confesses.  “But she does what mothers do,” Tommy says.  After the Kid leaves, Tommy explains to his brothers, “They didn’t fight, so they’re different.”  Finn, Michael, and Isiah are all of that generation that “didn’t fight.”  I’d love to see a contrast between those men who survived PTSD compared to those who didn’t.  Developing this story more carefully would allow us to have a better sense of Finn and his decision not to shoot the Changrettas.  Later when he confesses to Arthur, “I’m not John,” the moment would be more meaningful.  Similarly, Arthur and Mrs. Ross could confront what they’ve gone through.  But the opportunity is missed because there’s another story to get to.

Charlie Murphy as Jessie Eden in Peaky Blinders.

Or take “Jessie the Revolutionary.”  The underdevelopment of her character will be one of the great missed opportunities of Peaky Blinders.  She could have a fully developed character — like Grace did in Series 1.  Jessie should emerge as a complicated woman with a rich history.  Instead, she suffers from a lack of screen time.  She’s extra saucy when she’s onscreen, but because her character lacks development, there’s not a clear sense of where her attitude comes from.  Tied to this could be greater exploration of what Ada’s gone through since she has rejected becoming what Jessie is.  In Series 3, Ada was working as a librarian; now, she’s fully in the family.  How did that happen?  Why did it happen?  Does she feel any guilt?  What is motherhood like for her?  (And where’s Karl?)  In turn, this could shed light on Tommy’s politics, which are muddy at best.  The 1926 General Strike is a significant moment, but in Series 4, it’s largely relegated to background noise, effectively undercutting the significance of the moment and diminishing Jessie Eden as a character.

Television critic Alan Sepinwall has pointed to the importance of the episode as an organizing principle in television.  The entire essay is worth reading, but I’d like to focus on this passage about Breaking Bad:

Vince Gilligan and company were making a television show, by God, with the understanding of the medium’s many distinct and valuable properties. They told a serialized story that’s powerful precisely because you get to see it all unfold over a long period of time, even as each individual episode is treated as its own entity: To borrow the Friends title approach, it’s “The One Where They Dissolve A Body In Acid,” followed by “The One Where Krazy-8’s Locked In The Basement,” or later “The One Where The RV Breaks Down” or “The One With The Train Heist.” Each episode helps add something to the larger story — and takes advantage of the length of a TV series to focus on what Vince Gilligan talks about as “the in-between moments” that crime movies (this fan-made one included) rarely have room to depict — but there’s a specific structure, conflict, and often theme to each that makes it satisfying whether watched a week apart from the others (as it originally aired) or as part of a binge now.

So “Dangerous” was about a lot of things, but what, really, was it about?  To crib the Friends analogy, “Dangerous” was the one where….and I don’t have an answer for that.  Many things happened in “Dangerous,” but I have trouble seeing what, exactly, was the point of the episode and the way in which it moved forward the larger story.  I felt like I was at an all-you-can-eat buffet:  My plate was overflowing with food, but what I really wanted was just a satisfying entree with a small dessert.

Jack Rowan as Bonnie Gold in Peaky Blinders

I suspect a number of factors have led to this.  Peaky Blinders only has six episodes, and Steven Knight is cramming in as much action as he can.  The cramming is exacerbated by including screen time for too many characters.  In addition to the Shelby family, there’s Alfie Solomons, May Carlton, Aberama Gold, Bonnie Gold, and Lizzie Stark.  But does Peaky Blinders really need all those characters and all those stories?

Consider this.  What if Jessie Eden is this series’ love interest?  There’s no need for May Carlton (or horse racing for that matter — a passing reference that Tommy is still in the business will suffice) or Lizzie Stark (or a baby).  Jessie gets the character development she needs, and the strike gets the attention it deserves.

Pick either boxing or horse racing, but not both.  Aberama Gold can still be an assassin, but it’s easy to bring him in because of his family history.  Bonnie’s story is unnecessary.  Or Dangerous’s story is unnecessary.  There’s not room for both.  It makes sense to use the Changrettas as the overarching story that ties the season together, but there are too many subplots.  And Alfie Solomons can wander into any story and hold his own.

Here’s a theory.  Too many well known actors want to be on Peaky Blinders — Steven Knight routinely discusses this.  That’s flattering, so Knight writes parts for some of them.  It gets publicity for the show, and it’s fun.  Omitting the boxing story means losing Jack Rowan; eliminating the horse racing story means no Charlotte Riley.  So both stories get wedged in.  But neither character gets enough time to be really interesting.

I have another theory about this emphasis on plot, but I want to finish Series 4 first.

By the way, in writing blog posts like this, I worry that this will come across as grousing.  And I have to own some of that — it’s a fair criticism.  But I am fascinated by the ways in which a text works or doesn’t work.  Until I can create a theory of a text, I’m a bit unsettled.  This post is me trying to work that out.

Publication Date:  7 December 2017

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