Peaky Blinders and the Problem of Aunt Polly/Elizabeth Gray

Elizabeth Gray/Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory) in Peaky Blinders

Yes, there are spoilers.

The end of Peaky Blinders Series 4 has given me lots to think about in terms of female characters — and given the repeated praise Steven Knight has received for his “strong female characters,” this strikes me as a relevant subject.  I’ve recently written about the shoddy treatment of Grace Burgess and Jessie Eden; in this post, I’d like to examine the problems with the character of Elizabeth Gray/Aunt Polly, which strike me as equally bad.  (For the fist two episodes of Series 4, I was optimistic.)  This isn’t about Helen McCrory‘s portrayal of Elizabeth, which is always excellent; rather, it’s related to Knight’s view of women and motherhood. (This is a topic I need to think about more but is problematic in his television and film writing.)

The Story of Elizabeth Gray, Series 1-3

Aunt Polly is based on a real person.  As Steven Knight told Den of Geek:

It was a very common thing for there to be a strong woman in any illegal organisation.  My dad had an Aunt Pol, so she’s sort of based on a real character.  It was also to reflect the fact that when the soldiers came back from the First World War, they found that things were being run quite nicely by women, and it was a real source of trouble.  Somebody like Polly, who ran the business perfectly well – probably better – is an interesting character.

In Series 1, Polly is the boss with power equal to that of the men — after all, as she reminds Tommy,  “This whole bloody enterprise was women’s business while you boys were away at war.”  Series 1 is, in large part, driven by Tommy’s reasserting the power of the Shelby men to run the company.  She is, however, also the matriarch of the family who has had her own children taken from her but has raised Arthur Senior’s family as her own.  In S01E06, she tells Grace, “It’s me that runs the business of the heart in this family,” suggesting that she has returned much of the financial power to Tommy.

Peaky Blinders, Series 3
Ruben Oliver and Elizabeth Gray in Peaky Blinders, Series 3

Series 2 emphasizes Polly as a mother, given her discovery that Anna (or is it Elizabeth?  The name of Polly’s daughter keeps changing.) has died.  She is, however, reunited with Michael through Tommy’s efforts.  She is company treasurer and speaks frankly.  And ultimately to ensure Michael’s release from jail, she allows Inspector Campbell to rape her, suggesting the limits of her power.  That said, she has made a choice and acted in her capacity as a parent.

(I see a difference between Elizabeth Gray, a woman who acts in her best interests as well as those of her son, and Aunt Polly, who is devoted to Tommy.)

Series 3 finds Elizabeth’s character unfocused.  She struggles with guilt and tries to keep Michael separate from the company’s most illegal dealings.  Then there’s her baffeling relationship with Ruben.  In an interview with Jess Denham, Helen McCrory has said of Polly, “Her conversation and story is much more with herself this series. . . . To truly be honest with the person you love, you have to be honest to yourself and you have to reveal all. . . . But will you do it or won’t you do it?”  This is Elizabeth, a closet intellectual who wants to have a relationship with a painter and buy a dress in a shop.  Where did that come from?  Character continuity has never been a big concern for Steven Knight, and Polly’s character is the worse for it.

The Story of Elizabeth Gray, Series 4

Here’s what Helen McCrory told Den of Geek (ironically titled “There’s No Stopping Aunt Polly”) about her character in Series 4:

The difference this year, McCrory says, is that Polly’s near-death experience has left her an equal of Tommy. “Because of her lack of fear of death, she now no longer refers to anybody in order to act and that’s what has changed about Polly. She now makes her own decisions and that makes her really dangerous.”

Let’s think about that.  Earlier in Series 4, I wrote about the new empowered Polly and how much I liked her.  It turns out, I rushed to judgment.  Yes, Polly in Episodes 1 and 2 is very much her own woman.  She scoffs at Tommy’s attempts to reunite the family, voting “truce” at the family meeting; she urges Michael to go with her to Australia to escape the Shelby family and to be closer to her now-dead daughter; she appears to strike a deal with Luca Changretta to undercut Tommy’s authority.  This culminates the the end of S04E03 as Polly smokes and watches a seemingly set up Tommy drive off as Luca Changretta follows.

Joke’s on you!

Aunt Polly being led to the gallows

Turns out, Polly and Tommy had planned the whole thing.  When or why this happened is never explained.  Polly’s change of heart is never explained, which would seem to be essential to her character’s development.  Did he offer he money?  Did he resolve to change how they do business?  Who knows?  It just happened.  This effectively undercuts any autonomy Polly has as a character.  I can handle Polly’s decision to rejoin the family; I can’t handle not knowing what changed her mind, especially given her disdain for Tommy in the early episodes.  Her treatment of Tommy at the family meeting is utterly inconsistent with her later behavior, and we don’t know why.  He almost allowed Elizabeth and her son to die, and yet, all is forgiven.  Apparently.

Elizabeth Gray as a Parent

Steven Knight’s relationship to women as mothers is deeply problematic, but I want to focus here on the ways in which he uses motherhood to undercut Elizabeth Gray.

An early defining characteristic is her loss of her children — that makes sense.  It’s a compelling story that should cause Polly to question her allegiance to a church that would deliberately destroy her life.  (The devotion we saw in Series 3 is gone.  Why is that?  Who knows?)  Ultimately in Series 2, Polly is given back her children — by Tommy.  The scene is powerful — I never question Helen McCrory’s performance.  Tommy reveals that Anna has died after trying, repeatedly to return to her mother.  Then he tells her about Michael (whose name doesn’t change, which is nice).  Michael is alive, but Tommy won’t tell Elizabeth where he is, resulting in her holding a gun to her nephew’s head.  Tommy is unmoved.  Ultimately, Michael himself finds Polly.  She worries about Michael joining the family business until Tommy assures here that Michael will be protected from the dirty work.

Elizabeth Gray as a parent doesn’t receive much attention in Series 3 though we eventually learn that Father Hughes molested Michael.  This is a significant development, one that could be rich given Elizabeth’s relationship to the church.  Unfortunately, it is missing entirely from Series 4.  (Seriously, does anyone on the production team actually watch the show to catch this stuff?)

But here’s what happens in Series 4 that’s especially troubling.  Initially, in Series 4, the Gray family is Polly and Michael.  He cares for his mother, encouraging her to address her addiction, and foregrounds her importance to the Shelby Family and to Tommy. Before the family meets, Elizabeth visits Michael in the hospital.  After she shows him the tickets to Australia and says she’s found her daughter’s grave, so they can move there and away from Birmhingham, Michael makes clear what she needs to do:  “I’ll be better slowly,” hs says, “but you need to get better fast.”  Then he explains why:  “Without you, [Tommy] falls apart, and without him, they’ll get us all.”  That is, he understands how important Polly is to Tommy’s emotional well being.

Elizabeth as a mother is bizarrely contrasted with the arrival of Michael’s adoptive mother while he is in the hospital.  (The scene is compelling; the reason for it being there is not.)   To more fully establish his loyalty to Elizabeth, Michael doesn’t tell Tommy about the plot to kill him.  (Wait.  So Polly is in on the plot — she’s integral to it — yet she doesn’t tell her son with whom she is planning to go to Australia? Right.)

Now, consider what happens in Episode 6.  Michael, brought back for Arthur’s funeral, enters the betting shop with Tommy and Polly.  As Polly tells her son, “Tommy has a plan.”  Michael will be going to America.  As Tommy explains, “You made a choice.  You knew I was gonna be shot, and you chose not to tell me.”  Michael answers, “I chose my mum.”  Polly then explains, “When all this business is over, we’ll be free to make our own choices.”  Wait.  So Polly, after almost dying because of one of Tommy’s plans, allows herself to be separated from her son?  Any credibility Polly had is gone.  She has allowed Tommy to take her son from her.  And what is Tommy’s punishment for separating a mother from her child?  SHE VOTES FOR HIM TO GAIN MORE POWER IN AN ELECTION!

So, again, Tommy Shelby is mediating Elizabeth Gray’s access to her son.  Motherhood controlled by men doesn’t mean a “strong female character.”  It means female characters who exist entirely to empower male characters.  Their children, are, essentially, hostages living in service of an “impossible masculinity.”

Spare me the talk of Steven Knight’s “strong female characters.”  Elizabeth Gray deserves better.  Knight’s aunt deserves better.  And so do the rest of us.

Publication Date:  2 January 2018

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3 thoughts on “Peaky Blinders and the Problem of Aunt Polly/Elizabeth Gray

  1. Thank you for this POV and the others. I’m sick of reveiwers complimenting Steve Knight on writing “strong women”. It’s a lie. None of his Peaky characters have any substance or depth; not even his beloved Tommy Shelby who’s basically every tired trope in the book. He only gets away with it because he’s lucked into a fine group of actors and crew who are skilled enough to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ears.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, even stupid ones. If you find 9/10 reviews praising Tommy, then there is a reason for it. You want female “power”? Go watch Supergirl…..P.B is a show about gangs in the early 1900’s……..not a show about trying to make little girls feel better about their status in modern day society.


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