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.
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
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 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.)
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
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.
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. . . .
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
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