Peaky Blinders and Steven Knight’s Surprise! Storytelling

Steven Knight and Cillian Murphy (Source: Robert Viglasky)
Steven Knight and Cillian Murphy (Source: Robert Viglasky)

Yes, there are spoilers for Peaky Blinders and Mad Men.

Throughout this series of Peaky Blinders, I’ve been frustrated with the lack of continuity.  Too much is unexplained.  Why is Ada back in the family business?  Why is Linda a completely different person from Series 3?  Why does Polly allow Michael to be sent to America?  And when do she and Tommy reconcile?  Why in the world would Lizzie stay with Tommy?  What happened to that plot with the army?  Tommy was a communist?  What’s the deal with Gretta DiRossi?  Is Polly’s daughter Anna or Elizabeth?  What happened to Jessie Eden?  You get the idea.  Events and characters often seem so random, which leads to a frustrating viewing experience.

I’ve been thinking about the lack of narrative coherence in Peaky Blinders.  What makes a good story, and why didn’t Series 4 Peaky Blinders work?  I think it has to do with what Steven Knight says he values in a story — and I don’t think he’s been this explicit about it until recently.

First, a bit of literary theory in terms of how a story works.  Here’s  a point from Michael Toolan’s “Coherence” section in The Living Handbook of Narratology.  Toolan describes a “storyworld as “a “mental model, a rich projection of the entire, developing situation in which events, characters and their variously motivated actions are embedded.”  Here’s a key point:

“Where such reconstruction or imagining is thwarted (e.g. by narratorial or character-derived vagueness, unreliability, inconsistency, or even self-contradiction), then the sense of coherence is undermined. In these respects, character is perhaps the most striking domain in which coherence within the storyworld normally needs to be protected by the author . . . .”

Peaky Blinders has a clear storyworld — initially, it’s Small Heath, but it expands to London and then Tommy’s estate.  These changes in the storyworld reflect Tommy’s thirst for power.  The problem is that the coherence of that storyworld is consistency undermined, and Toolan points to the central role charaters play in making a storyworld work.  I’ve written at length (see here and here) about Knight’s characters in Series 4 and their troubling lack of coherence.

But I’ve been trying to figure out why Series 3 and Series 4 were less effective for me, and I think it has to do with storytelling and a lack of narrative coherence.

Let me start with a statement Knight made in GQ UK when promoting Series 4.  The interviewer asked Knight if he knew how he would resolve the events at the end of Series 3.  Knight says, “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.”  Knight then elaborates on how he creates plot:

For instance, at the end of series two, when he was standing over the grave, I got him [Tommy] into that position without knowing how he would get out. I think, for all its hardships, when I don’t know how it’s going to resolve, then the audience probably won’t know. So, you’re not tempted to give any clues. If you give yourself a really difficult problem then you have to work backwards and find ways it could feasibly resolve. And there’s normally a way out if you’re lucky. Especially if it’s already been broadcast, then you’re pretty stuck. If you know the characters well, which presumably I do now – is to try and put the characters into a room together in a particular circumstance and let them talk to each other and see what happens. I know it sounds a bit wanky, but you just sort of let them talk and see what they would actually say. Sometimes they say something you’re not expecting and it changes the plot.

I take issue with the “know the characters well” comment, but the larger point has to do with how Knight creates stories.  He is, apparently, motivated by surprise.  Consider his interview with EW :

Knight hopes the six-episode season leaves viewers feeling one thing, if nothing else.

“Shocked,” he laughs. “Deeply shocked. Hopefully, deeply, deeply traumatized. No, what I try to do is make surprises genuine, rather than set up the surprise and then pull the trigger. The ending of season 4? I defy anyone to guess what’s going to happen. It’s a surprise of a different kind.”

Knight’s comments go a long way to explaining the mess of Peaky Blinders Series 3-4.  It isn’t about telling a coherent story or developing characters.  It’s about shock.  Knight is most motivated by SURPRISE!!!  That’s fine (I guess) if you’re watching a horror movie, but when it comes to drama, my take on plot is a bit different.  I’m pretty happy with a writer who “sets up the surprise and pulls the trigger” because, if it’s well done, it’s both unexpected and completely consistent with the narrative.

For me, the best surprises arise from carefully constructed characters whose stories adhere to the logic of a given storyworld.  The surprise, then, stems not from something external but from characters who are complex making decisions that are consistent with their story.  And because those characters are complex, like people, they are unpredictable in the way that real people are, yet they are psychologically consistent.  That’s where the drama comes from.

Let me give an example.  I’m a serious Mad Men fan.  Don Draper was a meticulous character.  He wasn’t a nice guy.  Sometimes he surprised us, but in the end, he just couldn’t do it — he couldn’t overcome who he was.  His character was that consistent.  The tension, then, rested on how that character interacted with other complicated characters around him.  Would be become a better parent?  Would he become a better husband?  Would he become a better boss?  Would he become a better brother?  Would he become a better friend?  “Shock” in Mad Men came from the decision to open an advertising agency, which was both a big change and completely consistent with the storyworld of Mad Men.  And I was on the edge of my seat when the story ended because I didn’t know how it would end.  And you know what?  I wasn’t shocked, but I was surprised — and it was right.  The ending fit perfectly with everything that had gone before.

None of the characters ever changed dramatically although some did evolve.  Roger arrived at a destination that was utterly him.  Joan navigated a complicated world of men to discover that what she thought she wanted wasn’t right for her.  And Peggy’s march into McCann Erickson is pefect, one of the finest scenes in television.  This wasn’t shocking, but it was never predictable.  And it was satisfying.

I could add more:  Breaking Bad (speaking of  “pulling the trigger”), The Americans, The Sopranos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, Better Call Saul, Halt and Catch FireThe Leftovers — my gosh, what a show.  Talk about knowing how to end a series.  It’s probably the most emotionally satisfying hour of television I watched in 2017.  There are more examples, but these shows had a plan.  They knew where they had been and where they were going

Knight’s comments about “shock” explain a lot.  They explain why Tommy is suddenly going into politics.  Where exactly did that come from?  Who knows?  But it was shocking, right?  Me, I’m about a good story — not a writer who’s decided to measure the effectiveness of his narrative by its ability to “traumatize” an audience. (I also don’t think Knight understands how television works and the power of the episode as a unit.)

I think, maybe, that’s why the first two series of Peaky Blinders were so good.  They made sense within their storyworlds.  It made sense that Grace would leave and that Tommy would toss a coin and choose to stay.  It made sense that Tommy would have that stunning moment kneeling beside an empty grave.  What a fine moment, every bit of it.  I wasn’t shocked, but I was engaged.  And it made sense based on everything that had come before and the characters that I knew.

I had lots of problems with Series 4, but the final scene didn’t leave me “shocked.”  It left me rolling my eyes and saying, “Where the hell did that come from?”  That’s not good storytelling.  It’s throwing stuff at the wall and hoping something sticks.

Publication Date:  6 January 2018

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