In an interview, Steven Knight told Rolling Stone that in Peaky Blinders he wanted to explore an “impossible masculinity.” By that measure, the series has been an unqualified success. And at its masculine center is Tommy Shelby, the gangster hero who bends the world to his will, a gambling man willing to risk everything. The Shelby family generally gives in to Tommy: Arthur continues to work for him, even though his job increasingly is in conflict with his conscience and his marriage; John stays with the company, even though Esme is desperate to return to her Romany life; and Polly gives in, too, even as she argues for caution.
But not Ada.
Ada is defined by her willingness to defy Tommy. Yet his love for his sister is absolute. He respects her decisions and need for independence while keeping her close to their family. Tommy’s relationship with Ada both humanizes his character and gives Peaky Blinders some much-needed feminine resistance.
In the first series, Ada begins as a frivolous young woman enchanted by fashion who is thrown out of a medical training course for giggling. As Sophie Rundle notes of her character:
[S]he’s a real sort of feral wild child but, because she’s a girl in that time she sort of channels her energy quite differently. Everything that you imagine about the 20s, the flapper girls and the bright young things, Ada kind of embodies a lot of that. She’s part of this new generation with all this energy that’s looking for a change after the First World War. So she’s sort of wild and bright and full of energy. . . . she’s really quite fashion conscious and she’s young and she loves the movies and she’s a real dreamer.
But her character is torn between defying her Shelby heritage and using it for her advantage. Consider the confrontation with Tommy in the theatre when he learns that Freddie is the father of her child. After Tommy has stormed out, she calls to the projectionist, “Oi! I’m a Shelby, too, you know. Put my fucking film back on!” Ada’s primary storyline in Peaky Blinders involves her navigation of that tension.
She says that she loves Freddie because he will stand up to her brothers, but in the course of their relationship, she becomes a committed communist, which places her even more at odds with her market-driven family. Ada must grow up quickly. She defies Tommy by refusing to abort her baby and instead elopes with Freddie. Ultimately, she is estranged from the Shelbys when she believes Tommy has turned her husband over to the authorities. Because of Freddie and her own Shelby stubbornness, she takes care of Karl (named for Karl Marx) alone while her husband is in prison. And in the Series 1 climax, she rolls Karl’s pram between the Peaky Blinders and Billy Kimber to end the conflict. Her words merit examination:
I believe you boys call this “no-man’s land.” Now most of you were in France, so you know what happens next. I’ve got brothers and a husband here, but you’ll all got somebody waiting for you. I’m wearing black in preparation. I want you to look at me. I want you all to look at me! Think about them right now. And fight if you want tom but that baby ain’t moving anywhere . . . and neither am I.
That Ada, a woman, has entered no-man’s land and effectively stopped a war is significant. She uses her body as well as her child as forces of resistance, ultimately providing a feminine and less violent resolution. Everyone but Billy Kimber survives. The last time we see Ada in Series 1, she, Freddie and Karl sleep together as Tommy narrates his letter to Grace.
When Series 2 begins, Ada is still wearing black, this time at Freddie’s funeral. It is a compelling if unfortunate transition. Ada and Karl stand with the communists, away from the Shelby family, separated by the chasm of Freddie’s grave. After the funeral ends, Tommy asks her to return to Birmingham, but Ada makes clear that her home now is with Karl in London where she works as a librarian. As she tells Tommy, “I’m free” and stresses that she’s a Thorne, not a Shelby.
(It’s also worth noting that during the funeral, two IRA women, dressed in black and pushing prams, blow up The Garrison. Their widows’ weeds echo Ada’s from the end of Series 1, but they are starting a war rather than ending one.)
Ada finds that not even London can protect her. In parallel scenes, she and Tommy are attacked by Sabini and his men. When asked if she’s Ada Shelby, she denies it, and later, after Tommy’s men have saved her, one calls her “Miss Shelby.” She promptly knees him in the groin and yells, “My name is Thorne, not Shelby!” That said, both she and Tommy are badly beaten, and both survive.
In Series 2, Ada continues to negotiate between her independence and her need for her family. She agrees to move into Tommy’s house but insists on having all the keys and controlling the decorating. (And Tommy uses the house for his liaison with Grace.) In the end, Ada stays in London, but she seems to have reconciled with her family. She makes tea for Tommy before he goes to the races and tells him that she loves him, even though he never tells anyone what is going on.
Early on in Series 3, Ada is still working in the library in London — her refusal to let Tommy tear out a page from a book again shows her willingness to stand up to him — but she eventually agrees to work for the family business. It’s also clear that Tommy relies on her. After Grace’s death, Ada is the person he uses as a go-between with his family.
But perhaps most important, she wears the barrette that had belonged to Grace.
There are also hints that she and the other Shelby women may be pushing for a different approach to the family business, perhaps one based more on Ada’s communist principles and less on Tommy’s capitalist ones. That said, it also appears that she is hauled to jail with the rest of the family, even though what she has done to deserve prison is unclear.
What waits for Ada remains to be seen, but clearly, she is close to Tommy in a way no one else in the family is. I’ve written about my frustration with the female characters in Peaky Blinders, but I see Ada as a source for hope. She has been the most consistently defiant. Here’s hoping that she continues to lead the resistance.
Publication date: 3 December 2016
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