Yes, there are spoilers.
Steven Knight has said that Series 4 is about the Shelbys returning to their roots :
The whole series is a question of can people from this background with this history escape from what they were and is it actually who they are? What I wanted to do in series three, was to show that to all intents and purposes, they’d made it but they’re uneasy, they don’t quite know who they are, what they’re meant to do and also circumstance keeps pulling them back. Things they’ve done in the past bring them back.
In Peaky Blinders, family meetings are crucial scenes that illustrate the central tensions each series will explore. It’s worth considering the evolution of the family meeting as Peaky Blinders progresses, especially as Polly’s character evolves.
As the eldest Shelby brother and his father’s namesake, Arthur sees himself as the leader of the family business. When Tommy threatens his domanance in S1E1, Arthur responds by calling a family meeting. This is the first time we see the Shelbys together in the gambling shop that adjoins the family home. In this scene, Knight establishes the characters and their relationships to each other:
- Finn, a child, is kept outside, but he watches through a keyhole.
- Ada is present, but it’s clear she’s new to this. She’s also hiding her relationship with Freddy Thorne.
- John emerges as a bit of a hot head.
- Arthur stands at the head of the table, but he soon loses his power to Tommy
- Polly smokes while describing how the women ran the gambling shop while the men were at war, and she makes a key observation: “This family does everything open.” That is, the family meeting has the apperance of a democracy.
In Series 2, the family meeting again takes place in the betting shop. But consider the differences.
- They all wait for Tommy.
- Finn is allowed to attend but not to vote
- Arthur sits alone, having settled into his subordinate role in the family business.
- John attends with Esme, who is relegated to the side, reinforcing that she is not part of the family. She also questions Tommy’s decision to expand to London (“There’s nothing there but smoke and trouble”). Esme expresses fear for John’s safety, underscores her love of being outside, and first mentions the chickens that will be an on-going joke. The implication is that John is “hen pecked.”
- Polly smokes (again) and wears a black dress with elaborate jewelry.
- Tommy enters late and stands in the doorway (as always, framed by it). When allowing Esme to speak, he says, “Everyone is allowed to speak. . . This company is a modern enterprise that believes in equal rights for women.” The family votes, and Tommy easily gets his way.
- Ada is missing. She’s abandoned the family for London and the communists.
- Curly and Charlie attend.
There are two family meetings in Series 3. The first occurs after John’s fight with the Changrettas when only Tommy, John, Finn, Arthur, and Polly attend. The family is never in a single shot: Tommy and John occupy one end of the room while Arthur and Polly are on the other with Finn relegated to the side. The meeting is important because it’s when Tommy gives John permission to attack Angel Changretta, the beginning of the vendetta that shapes Series 4. He makes this decision against the advice of Arthur and Polly.
The second is the family meeting in the series’ finale before the police haul off the family to jail. It’s set in Tommy’s house, and the results are disasterous.
After the Changrettas’ attack on John and Michael, Tommy calls a family meeting in Charlie Strong’s yard, but instead, it’s held in the gambling shop, the site of so much Shelby family history.
Before the family meets, Polly 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.
The next time, we see Polly, she’s at the meeting, which is a clear contrast with Series 2:
- Tommy stands framed in the doorway, but his control is less certain.
- John and Esme are gone, her fears from Series 2 having been realized.
- Arthur sits with Linda, involved in a power struggle with his wife. She is largely silent, but her disapproval is clear. (And why a Quaker crosses herself escapes me.) He also sets on the table a bullet with Luca’s name carved into it as he attempts to reassert himself.
- Finn is allowed to sit at the table and vote after Tommy’s invitation. (Arthur starts to treat Finn like the little brother, but Tommy won’t allow it.)
- Ada is at the table as is Lizzie.
- Charlie and Curly, Johnny Dogs, and Jeremiah and Isiah stand to the side.
Polly attends, too. She sits across the table from Tommy and smokes. She wears a black dress very like the one she wore in Series 2. But her attitude is confrontational. When Tommy says, “There’s been some bad blood between us,” Polly laughs. She disparages his plan to fight the Changrettas before voting “truce” on behalf of herself and Michael, showing that she has assumed a new attitude toward Tommy. That is, the agreeable Aunt Polly from Series 1 is gone.
According to Dean of Geek: “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.’”
I’ve been critical here of Steven Knight’s treatment of women, and I’ve written here about my frustration with Polly’s character, but this family meeting shows that we’ve seen an evolution in Polly’s character, one that finds her taking on Tommy. There are signs here that in Series 4, Knight is moving from pastiche to parody, a change that’s good for Polly and for Peaky Blinders.
Publication Date: 25 November 2017
(For an update on this post, see “Peaky Blinders and the Problem of Aunt Polly/Elizabeth Gray.”)
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