Yes, there are spoilers.
I’m a fan of Louisa Mellor‘s writing — she writes for Den of Geek. So it’s important that you understand I’m not trolling here. But she recently made a statement I’d like to explore. In her review of “The Duel,” she wrote this:
As enjoyable as it’s been to watch Adrian Brody hammily Godfather his way through Luca’s visit, he’d hardly be mourned were that to happen. As Paddy Considine’s villainous priest or the mad Russians showed last series, Peaky Blinders isn’t afraid of cartoonish villains. All its character development and complexity goes into the Shelby family. At six episodes a pop and a rotating cast of antagonists, there isn’t time to slow-bake a baddie too. The people Tommy goes up against are heightened and exaggerated. It’s all part of the fun. [Emphasis added.]
There are two statements that strike me. The first has to do with the development the Shelby characters; the second is about “fun.”
Of Character Development
There are two issues to consider. First Mellor argues that Steven Knight spends his time building the Shelby family characters at the expense of fully developed villains. As I’ve blogged repeatedly (but try here and here), I just don’t see that. Not only do the Shelby characters, generally, not grow, they have no consistency.
Why has Ada gone from being a capitalist to a devout communist to a capitalist? (For crying out loud, she named her son for Karl Marx!) Did someone change her thinking? Did she long for the fancy clothes and parties she had as a young women? Ada Shelby Thorne of Series 1-3 has completely abandoned her principles — remember when she rejected the help of her family after Karl had been born? As I wrote here, Ada’s resistance to Tommy’s agenda has always been a key point, but it’s gone now. This could be an interesting — dare I say “character developing”– story. Yet here we are with a well dresssed Ada fully in the family business without explanation. It just happened.
Was John in love with Lizzie or not? He seemed to be in Series 1 — after all, he wanted to marry her. At the end of Series 2, a tender John urges Lizzie to stop doing sex work, showing he’s more concerned about her well being than Tommy is. And at the beginning of Series 3, John gets in a fight over her boyfriend that ultimately begins a mob war. But we don’t know why. After all, Lizzie has been hopelessly (illogically) devoted to Tommy since Series 2, despite his disregard for her.
Or take Tommy. We learn in Series 4, he was, apparently, a communist before the war, although there was no earlier sense of this at all. He utterly disdained communism in Series 1-3. Remember “I do not share their fantasy”? Yet here we are in Series 4, learning from Jessie Eden that Tommy was once a fan of the glorious revolution, which was, apparently, tied to his love for Gretta Di Rossi (WHO DIED OF CONSUMPTION!). Where did this come from? Nothing in Series 1-3 lays any groundwork for this character point.
I have a theory. Here’s Knight in GQ UK:
The way I work, and I’m not recommending it because it’s time consuming, but I tend not to work things out in advance. It’s really problematic sometimes! I mean genuinely. Not very clever at all. And when I left series three I had no idea how he was going to get out of that.
His comment that he “tend[s] not to work things out in advance” strikes me as relevant. Frankly, I don’t see character development here. I see character confusion as Steven Knight twists characters to resolve the plot corners he’s written himself into. And the problem is that, as I argued here, writing based on underdeveloped characters leads to more reliance on plot, and those plots become less engaging because viewers have a decreased stake in the characters.
Second, I’m going take issue that there’s not enough time to develop villains into anything more than caricatures. Breaking Bad did it. We met new “baddies” every series, and yet they were distinctive and complex. Take Nacho or Gus Fring or even Todd. They were all bad guys, but they weren’t ridiculous. (And as the title suggests, Walte White was always the biggest villain.) Justified managed to do it as did Homeland. I could go on. But a writer should be able to create interesting villains, not just rely on cartoon characters. In fact, Knight has already done it in Peaky Blinders with Inspector Campbell, who was anything but a cartoon.
(I suspect this is related to parody and pastiche, which if wrote about here if you’re interested.)
Of Being Part of the Fun
This is the comment that really got me thinking: “It’s all part of the fun.”
I’ve thought a lot about Peaky Blinders, but I’ve never seen it as being “fun.” It’s a drama that began by asking tough questions about the British working class, the aftermath of World War I, the complexity of relationships, and the responsiblities of belonging to a family. Yes, there were moments of humor, but I never saw Peaky Blinders as fun — and I write that as someone who was completely caught up by this show.
Mellor’s comment made me wonder if, perhaps, I had misread Peaky Blinders. Maybe I was holding it to a standard it was never written to meet. But I don’t think so. The first series set the tone, and that tone was serious. There was nothing fun about Billy Kimber when he tried to rape Grace; there was nothing fun about Sabini when he took back the Eden Club; and there was nothing fun about Father John Hughes’ history of pedophilia.
Yes, Adrien Brody’s decision to channel Marlin Brando in The Godfather has led to some ridiculous scenes, but they don’t strike me as fun. They strike me as a burlesque that doesn’t quite work. In the end, Luca is in Peaky Blinders because of Series 3 decisions — and the scene where Tommy begins to torture Mr. Changretta but fails after Arthur pulls the trigger is deadly serious. “We aren’t those kind of men,” he says. It’s a devastating moment. And for me, “fun” just isn’t the kind of series Peaky Blinders is.
So I’m going to respectfully disagree with Louisa Mellor, who likes Series 4 more than I do. I just see a story that’s lost its way. If you see this differently, I’d be eager to know why.
Publication Date: 17 December 2017
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