Peaky Blinders, Breaking Bad, & The Problem of Grace Burgess

The Garrison, Peaky Blinders, Series 1 (Photo by Robert Viglasky)
The Garrison, Peaky Blinders, Series 1 (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

Yes, there are spoilers.

When I read Grace—I think I had the first two episodes— I was like, “She is for me.  She is the only woman I want to play in my career: strong, rich, dynamic, many shades of grey.”  Steven Knight is so good at writing women.  I liked how she was equal to the men: she was fearless, she was brave beyond common sense.

— Annabelle Wallis in Interview

The death of Grace’s character has continued to bother me, and I’ve been thinking about Grace Burgess in light of Skyler White in Breaking Bad.  I’d like to explore that relationship more fully because examining the two series together points to a weakness in Peaky Blinders in terms of how it handles female characters — in this case, Grace.

Peaky Blinders and Breaking Bad

In his interview with The CoP Show, Producer Jamie Glazebrook mentioned Breaking Bad several times, largely because he was so impressed with the first episode and was emphasizing how difficult it is the write the first episode of a series.  But I hadn’t really linked the two until the final image of Peaky Blinders 3.1.

<I>Peaky Blinders</I>, 3.1
Peaky Blinders, 3.1
<I>Breaking Bad</I>
Breaking Bad

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s what struck me:  Consider the similarity of these images:  an impossibly big stack of cash earned through illegal activities, stored in a safe place, and a family disagreeing over how to spend it.  The colors are similar as is the attitude: foreboding.

After this, I began thinking about the relationship between these two programs, even though Steven Knight has repeatedly made clear that he does not watch contemporary films or television.

Breaking Bad and Skyler White

Here’s Breaking Bad in a nutshell according to its official website:

<I>Breaking Bad</I>
Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad follows protagonist Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a chemistry teacher who lives in New Mexico with his wife (Anna Gunn) and teenage son (RJ Mitte) who has cerebral palsy.  White is diagnosed with Stage III cancer and given a prognosis of two years left to live. With a new sense of fearlessness based on his medical prognosis, and a desire to secure his family’s financial security, White chooses to enter a dangerous world of drugs and crime and ascends to power in this world. The series explores how a fatal diagnosis such as White’s releases a typical man from the daily concerns and constraints of normal society and follows his transformation from mild family man to a kingpin of the drug trade.

Walt’s family is central:  wife, Skyler, son, Walter Jr., and infant daughter, Holly.  Walter tells himself he is “breaking bad” to provide for his family, but it becomes increasingly clear that Walker is drawn to the power he has as his alter ego, Heisenberg.

I like this point from Silpa Kovvali in The Atlantic:

It happens when Walt makes the weary admission that his actions were motivated solely by a desire for personal fulfillment. . . . The stereotypically masculine quest for greater power begins as a quest to get things done—to provide for family, to get vengeance for a loyal partner, to help create a sense of order and justice in a seemingly chaotic and amoral universe.  But Breaking Bad suggests that quest ultimately isn’t about family or a greater good.  It’s just about gaining more power.  And as we saw in the final run of episodes, the results can be devastating for everyone involved—including the one who knocks.

<I>Breaking Bad</I>
Breaking Bad

I want to call attention to Walt’s relationship to Skyler.  When I began watching, her character drove me crazy — not because of Anna Gunn’s performance but because of the way in which Skyler’s character was written.  She was a nag — and I wasn’t alone in seeing this.

Creator Vince Gilligan has admitted that when they began, Skyler’s character was not fully formed; rather, her purpose was to provide yet another stressor for Walter and to illustrate ways in which his masculinity had been undermined.  

Here’s Stephen Bowie in A.V. Club: 

But the real sexism is built in to the show, which rarely evinces any curiosity about Skyler’s inner life, apart from how it affects Walt.  (Quick: Try to think of a scene in which Skyler is funny, or just amused by someone else.  Then consider how much humor accrues to even the most dour male characters.)

<I>Breaking Bad</I>
Breaking Bad (Photo by Andrea Coyote)

On this point, I disagree.  For me, Skyler’s character becomes more engaging as Gilligan grows more invested in her, and she grows into her own story.  She must struggle with the moral implications of her actions and who her husband has become.  Consider three scenes:  When she wades into the swimming pool and confesses that she’s waiting for Walt’s cancer to return; when her daughter is taken from her; and her final scene when she sits alone in an apartment, smoking, while Walt says good bye.  In the end, Skyler understands that she has made a terrible mistake that she will pay for as long as she lives.  That is, Skyler White is a dynamic character.

Peaky Blinders and Grace Burgess

Source: robertviglasky.com
Peaky Blinders, Series 1 (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

In terms of story, the parallels between Breaking Bad and Peaky Blinders are fairly straightforward.  Tommy is an antihero who readily acknowledges his criminal side.  (Tommy to May:  “I do bad things, but you already know that”; Tommy to Charlie: “I’m not good for much, but you’ll know that soon enough.”)  He says he does what he does for his family (Polly to God: “Watch over Thomas.  You know how he is, but he does what he does for us.  I think.”)  In Series 3, CI Moss has come to question that (“Frankly, I think he likes the sport.”)  So the antihero conflicts are baked in.

But consider Grace.  Unlike Skyler who grows more multifaceted as Breaking Bad continues, Grace becomes much less interesting in Peaky Blinders.  Series 1 Grace is complex, mysterious, and absolutely fearless.  She has a history and falls in love against her own best interests.  She must complete her mission for the Crown to be true to herself and her father (her family) — and for Thomas because how can he respect her if she isn’t true to herself?  That Grace is the character viewers fell in love with.

Grace Shelby, Peaky Blinders, Series 3
Grace Shelby, Peaky Blinders, Series 3 (Photo by Robert Viglasky)

But Grace Burgess only lasts through the first series.  Although she has little presence in the second series,  when she’s on screen, her chemistry with Tommy is electric, and the Series 2 cliffhanger rests on whether Tommy will decide to pursue his love for someone who has betrayed him.

Series 3 Grace is unrecognizable.  The fearless, gun-carrying Irish barmaid has been reduced to a wife obsessed with parties, etiquette, and social climbing.  Grace Shelby is a shadow of Grace Burgess — we never even see her interacting with her child.  She even begins to nag Tommy to stop his criminal activities:  “You’ll sell cars; I’ll run the foundation.”  Here are echoes of early Skyler White.

Grace’s death was a great disappointment to viewers, but, really, the qualities that made her interesting in Series 2 were already gone.   She had no agency.  The death of her character just finished her off because any individuality she had was consumed by her relationship with Tommy.

And therein lies the problem of Grace Burgess:  Why was such a rich character with so much potential first turned into a Stepford Wife and then abandoned?

Breaking Bad, Peaky Blinders, and the Lead Character

It’s worth listening to Jamie Glazebrook’s CoP Show interview — there’s a lot there to consider.  But in writing this piece, I thought about this comment, which I’ll quote at length:

If you’ve got a lead character, like a Walter White or a Tony Soprano or a Don Draper, you stick them in the middle, and then you surround then with interesting returning characters, all of whom shine a different light on that lead character. . . .

Before long, you’ve got a really dimensional lead character, and also that lead character . . . what’s the show about?  Look at the lead character.  What’s Breaking Bad about? You know, it’s no coincidence he’s called “Walter White” because it’s about an angry white man, and he starts behaving in a bad way, the way he shouldn’t, because it’s not working for him.  Thematically, it really helps, and it helps you, I think, in terms of the story because you know where you are.  You’re not being asked to care about 85 people.  You know that you’ve got someone in the center. 

In terms of storytelling, for the first few episodes, certainly, and you’ll see it in our show if you go back and watch it, every scene, either, he’s, Tommy Shelby’s in the scene, or he’s the elephant in the room.  Or that scene you’re about to watch is going to come back into Tommy’s face in some way. . . . I think then when as you go through the episodes, if you’ve got an ensemble, you’re always going to be challenged with the thing, well, who am I going to service in this story?  If you know you’ve got a lead character, it’s almost like you know what your direction is.  You can just ask “What’s going on with Tommy?  What’s his dramatic imperative?'” It really helps structure. . . .

<I>Peaky Blinders</I>, Series 1
Peaky Blinders, Series 1

For me, this is key.  One, Glazebrook keeps referencing Breaking Bad and draws some fairly explicit parallels.  Two, he makes clear that Peaky Blinders is the story of Tommy Shelby.  Period.  All the other characters exist to tell Tommy’s story.

And here’s where I disagree with Jamie Glazebrook.  Yes, Breaking Bad was about Walter White, but Vince Gilligan learned that to really tell Walt’s story, he had to interact with an ensemble who had their own stories, hence, the evolution of Skyler’s character from stereotypical wife to a fully realized woman accepting the consequences of her  decisions.

Annabelle Wallis saw Grace as “strong rich, dynamic, many shades of grey.”  She added, “I liked how she was equal to the men: she was fearless, she was brave beyond common sense.”  Apparently, she was too equal because there can be only one lead character.  In effectively destroying Grace’s character before disposing of her altogether, Peaky Blinders lost something valuable:  a character who could have had her own story and enhanced Tommy’s — like Skyler did Walt’s.

In the end, Grace Burgess disappeared every bit as fully as the bodies Walter White dissolved in acid.

Publication Date:  12 August 2016

Return to A Peaky Blinders FanGirl Blog

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Peaky Blinders Review:  Tommy, Grace, and the Symbolism of Framing

Peaky Blinders Review:  What Happened to Elizabeth Gray?

Peaky Blinders 3.6 Review:  What Happened to the Strong Female Characters?

Peaky Blinders 3.6 Review:  The Series Changes Focus — It’s About Masculinity

Peaky Blinders 3.2 — Grace

Peaky Blinders, Series 1 Review:  Why Doesn’t Grace Get Walk-up Music?


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4 thoughts on “Peaky Blinders, Breaking Bad, & The Problem of Grace Burgess

  1. Hi,

    First of all, I would like to thank you for your blog. I am so impressed with your texts and your analysis.
    When I start to be interested in some show, start to invest in it, I always try to find some articles, information about it and your blog became just perfect source for me, especially as I feel that our thoughts and feelings towards developing of this story are often similar.

    I must say that PB seasons 1 and 2 made a huge impression on me. I just swallowed it, and then rewatched some moments again and again.

    But after episode 3 of series 3 I am having trouble of making me watch further. I know that I will finish it one day, but before it was that I used every opportunity to watch it, now I feel that I need some time out.

    I hope it is right place to share my frustration.

    My main point is – what a waste! It is just unbelievable how the write decided to utilize Tommy-Grace story on s3.

    I am also with teamGrace and I read with great interest what you have written about it. And I do feel that all this Grace line was treated so wrongly.

    I don’t know if it is correct word, but “cheap” – that is what comes to my mind. It looks the death of a close person are most easiest ways to push story line further and I am so disappointing with the writer that he has chosen this way after everything that has been achieved in previous seasons.

    It makes me feel so sorry that he wasn’t been capable to make something different out of it. It looks like that as soon as it was shown us that Tommy loves Grace and that he even can be sort of happy with her, her death certificate has been issued at this moment.
    How can we let him be happy with his wife and child? No way, it is not a romance, more and more misery – that is our goal!

    Kill her and let’s see how he will struggle. That is much more interesting then to watch him just little happy, right?

    I wonder if it was Graces purpose from the beginning? Probably that’s why they didn’t tell us what has happened with them during 2 year period from s2 to s3? How did Grace move back from US to England, etc. It can’t be shown us because we (fandom) don’t need to see any light or happy moments of their life.

    To show us that Tommy can have some joy (even with all this mess and his business and everything) and then just take it away, just to increase the level of his misery and unhappiness.
    Just to guarantee that he never will be a men “who laugh a lot” like he was before the war. And that for sure gives strong reaction from the audience, but it is very lazy way of getting this reaction.

    It feels for me that doing like this is much more easier then trying to figure out how it can be combined all together – business, Russians, Grace, kid. Killing – is much easier and is answer to all questions.

    I love Shelby family but I just feel that at this point it is difficult for me to trust the writer again. I don’t like to be fooled.
    I feel so sorry for Grace&Tommy, for their son, for the fandom who invested for them. And I don’t like this feeling.

    Thanks again,

    Polina

    Like

    1. Polina —

      I agree with you completely! — and what you’ve written here is exactly what many fans think. In killing Grace, Peaky Blinders has lost a great opportunity. It’s a source of great frustration. So you’ve got lots of company on this one.

      Thanks for reading!
      APBFG

      Like

  2. I liked some things about Grace in season one, but the writers messed her up since the beggining in my opinion, by making her so impulsive and useless when killing the IRA member she followed, or shooting the other guy and nmessing everything at the pub, for instance, an agent of the crown wouldn’t do that despite grudges and thirst for revenge. She had much more potential, they also wrote her as fully arrogant and self-entitled, she never owned her responsabilities nor the times she screwed things up, like cheating on her husband, she blamed the whole thing on Tommy, and Tommy is a monster starting with what he did to Lizzie and all his micromanaging, brainwashing and manipulation, but somehow Grace is worse, worse than Campbell, I find it really low that the writers did nothing but make up a temptress as if Tommy’s only weakness was to find a social predator with doey eyes, is not only than anti-feminist, it’s ludicrous and lame, is aweful writing, I know humans can be quite ludicrous and lame but his relationship with Grace was cheap and too toxic for that show, at many moments the only issue was Grace messing up everyone’s lives and feeling no regret nor empathy, nothing, they wrote her as an antisocial or narcisist sociopath (exagerating but they almost did), no matter it was her actual job, that suddenly is reduced to a manipulative, shallow and submissive wife, they weren’t even consistent on her twisted complex manipulative drive and used her as a tool to “set Tommy wild”, *eyeroll* was that even necessary? That show throws above acceptable writing in with sh– soap opera moments, long moments, it makes it too predictable and most characters are just plain. They wrote her as a whiny villain, and the other female (and male) characters only nod and obey, they are useless, it gets old too quickly, I know things were even more patriarchal back then but many good things on the show get minimized by writing everyone as brutes that got alcohol poisoning in the womb or something like that, bcs gosh they do drink a lot, and they are all way too easy to handle by Tommy, I’ve met far more evil geniuses in my life and some crazy evil social predators, they are everywhere (beware) and I’m not even that social, they were only relatives, classmates and teachers, reality is almost always more compelling than fiction, maybe the writers should be better human watchers. Tom Shelby has no legitimate competition except for Campbell at some points, and he’s “a devil” as the show says explicitly over and over; it’s too black and white, and the antihero trope deserves much more creativity than basic evil-cop VS charming-gangster. Maybe the only character written as gray and (not too) interesting is Tommy, the rest are brats, wet blankets and whinners, like Ada, Michael, John, Esme, Arthur, EVERYONE. Tommy lives in a world of his own as said on another blog that deals with the matter, bcs everything revolves around him, it’s like a megalomaniac’s fantasy where no one can be trusted with the smallest information bcs they are a bunch of brutes. Again: brutes are persintently abundant in human history, today and until we humans become extinct, but is not an absolute nor homogenic world, even some monsters are smart, the “best” ones are, well, they are good in fiction, running into them in reality can be dangerous and very painful, and anyway is not always typical intelligence what matters the most, it doesn’t matter in life nor in fiction, other character traits are more relevant, like resilence and empathy; plotting and coming up with witty ideas is a huge part of the show, it’s what guides it, but since they seemingly wanted to intensely portray humanity in all its forms like Westworld (as an example of a job well done at least on the 1st season) they could have had explored Polly more, and Michael being so abusive and callous, Polly can’t be reduced to her son being her “weakness”, intense motherly love is important, iconic, frequently unrealistic and heartbreaking, but the writers owe her character some friggin’ development. I feel they did the same thing that Vikings did with Ivar and his brothers and the rest of the characters being all useless and ornamental once he appeared, as if he and Tommy needed to be surrounded by good hearted well intentioned mediocrity and jealousy to shine, well some people can seem smart or genius if the rest are pathetic, there’s no merit in that when main characters can’t be challenged and on top of that are unkillable, so many at the verge of death experiences have stole some of my care for wheather he lives or dies. All of it is fiction, some people do behave that way like when that loser was trying to fit into Grace’s family and was ashamed of his origins, that’s actually the most typical thing on new rich people and ascending gangsters mindsets and behaviors, the political class of most countries is full of climbers that are very ashamed of their origins and “marry up”, but this is fiction, there could be some pride. I don’t feel like watching the show anymore, and I’m only at the beggining of the 3rd season. Anyway, they owe so much to Grace (and the rest of the characters) since the start.

    Like

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