Peaky Blinders, “Making Things” Stories, and Tommy & Grace

<I>Halt and Catch Fire</I>
Halt and Catch Fire

Kathryn VanArendonk has an interesting piece in Vulture called “Halt and Catch Fire and Why It’s so Hard to Tell Stories about Making Things.”  I happen to like Halt, but her larger point bears further discussion, especially in relationship to Steven Knight’s storytelling in Peaky Blinders

In her essay, VanArendonk discusses the “procedural structure,” a plot formula that works like this:

There’s something odd that can happen to TV series that are, at their cores, about the process of making something. Take Entourage.  (I understand that maybe you’d rather not, but bear with me.)  When you set aside the bro atmosphere and Jeremy Piven’s troubling mania, that show was really about making Vincent Chase’s career.  And from one episode to another, following that arc felt like living in a tiny hamster wheel that looped endlessly from obstacle to resolution and back again, a regular wave of near-catastrophes that were always about to sink the ship until, suddenly, they weren’t. 

She goes on to explain:

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a procedural structure!  It’s so soothing.  The trouble, of course, is a show about making something is exactly the wrong place for this type of structure.  We want shows like this to demonstrate progress, to move forward . . . . Instead, structures like the ones in Entourage feel like they perpetually spin their wheels, starting over again and again without ever going anywhere.  When it comes to the story we want, long-form, open-ended serialized TV and narratives about starting something are uneasy storytelling bedfellows.

And she adds this:

Stories about starting something are always different than reality.  The point of stories is that they end, after all, and they impose celebratory finality on things that too rarely have it in our lived experience.  This is why marriage-plot novels end when they do (in spite of the entire marriage that necessarily follows), and why sports stories can be so satisfying narratively (there’s a winner!), and why we like to tell stories about making something.  In a story, you invent it, you struggle through the trials of getting it made, and then you did it!  Congrats! The end!

I’ve quoted from VanArendonk at length because I think she makes an important point about storytelling that’s relevant to many viewers’ frustrations with Peaky Blinders Series 3.

Peaky Blinders, 1.3
Peaky Blinders, 1.3

As it turns out, Peaky Blinders is also about making things.  I hadn’t thought about the show in this light until reading VanArendonk’s essay.  In this case, Tommy is leading the family in a quest to “make” a legitimate business, which, by extension, attempts to answer Steven Knight’s larger question:  Is is possible for the Shelbys to become respectable in terms of changing their social class?

But I would argue in the midst of this, Knight stumbled onto another “making things” storyline that viewers found compelling:  Tommy and Grace’s relationship.

After watching Series 1 and then Series 2, which ended with a cliffhanger about whom Tommy would marry, it seemed clear that the “making” of a marriage would receive substantial attention, and fans invested in that story.  (And given Tommy’s and Grace’s characters and chemistry, it had real potential.)

Peaky Blinders, Series 3
Peaky Blinders, Series 3

It turns out, however, that Knight saw Tommy and Grace as one of VanArendonk’s “marriage plots” that had run its course, and for whatever reason, he ended that story after the wedding.  That’s too bad because making of a marriage had the possibility of not only developing Tommy’s and Grace’s characters but also disrupting the Shelby family while casting a new light on the making-of-a-business storyline — indeed, fans had been led to expect this.  Instead, Tommy and Grace’s story ended (badly), and we were back to the making-a-business story.

VanArondonk describes repetitive making-things stories as “hamster wheels”:  The same characters have new adventures until the possibilities have been exhausted or the audience gets bored.  And here’s where I disagree with VanArdondonk because I would argue that when characters grow and change, it takes viewers off the hamster wheel.  In other words, even though the story is about making something, changes in the characters provide a significant shift and energize the story.  In a sense, the characters are “making” themselves.

Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones

As far as I’m concerned, if characters aren’t growing and learning, the story becomes stale pretty quickly because the plot becomes narrative based rather than character based.  VanArendonk’s example is Entourage; I’ll go with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.  For me, after the first novel, Claire and Jamie see little character development; instead these characters go on adventure after adventure.  I stopped reading halfway into the third novel because if character isn’t driving the plot, I’m not interested.

That stands in contrast to Game of Thrones.  Say what you want, but those characters learn — and if they don’t learn, they don’t live very long.  I could provide many examples, but the first that comes to mind is Jamie Lannister.  The Jamie we see at the end of A Dance with Dragons is very different from the one we met in Game of Thrones.  He’s experienced some tough things, and they have profoundly changed his character.  He’s much more interesting (and likable) in the fifth book than he was in the first.  Now, that’s good writing because George R. R. Martin, while not a perfect author, knows how to write dynamic characters, which, in turn, leads to better plots.

Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders 3.6
Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders 3.6

I’m concerned that Peaky Blinders may be on a hamster wheel.  Which “big bad” will the Shelbys take on this year?  Grace created the potential to build a relationship with Tommy, which would would lead to character growth and, in turn, richer storytelling.  But in Series 3, her character regressed to a social-climbing party girl before being eliminated altogether.  I haven’t decided whether Tommy has changed.  Obviously, he’s become a father, but it’s not yet clear if that relationship will significantly alter how he does business — a case in point is the ambiguous closing of Series 3.

In Behind the Scenes with Writer and Creator Steven Knight, he is asked if the characters in Peaky Blinders change at all.  He says:

Well, I want the characters to change in that they become more successful financially.  It doesn’t necessarily mean they become more successful human beings.  Can people from this background escape and gain respectability?  I don’t have the answer myself.

I’m okay with the fact Knight doesn’t have the answer yet.  He’s writing his way through a question, which is what authors do.  But I’m not okay with it if the characters don’t grow because no plot can take the place of great characters — and Knight knows this because he wrote Locke, a character-driven movie.  But I’m not sure I’m seeing that in Peaky Blinders, and it’s a show that deserves to be more than a hamster wheel.

Published on 1 September 2016

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