Yes, there are spoilers.
I’m opening with Luca Changretta’s command to his Italian friends because that’s what I thought while watching “Blackbird”: “Treat me with respect.”
I should say at the outset that I am, apparently, at odds with other critics whose opinions I respect a great deal, namely Sarah Hughes and Louisa Mellor. They see a compelling story driven by betrayal. I just saw a mess. Where even to begin?
As Tommy and Arthur walk down the factory floor, it struck me that they are out of balance without John. Think of the iconic scene in 2.1 where the three brothers walk away from The Eden Club in London. They’re they are: The Shelby brothers ready to take on the world (complete with a chicken joke). Now, without John, it’s different, and the rhythm is off. That is, I think, deliberate in terms of the story, but I wonder if Joe Cole’s decision to leave the show hasn’t fundamentally thrown off the chemistry of Peaky Blinders. At one level, the show recognizes it and is self-conscious about placing Finn in a position of power. (The loss of his virginity works on any number of levels.) But jokes aside, there’s a problem, and I’m not sure that I see how it’s resolved.
Maybe Steven Knight should explore this in a deliberate way?
Nope. Let’s see just how many plates we can keep spinning, shall we?
So we’ve got Arthur, initially back as the cocaine-snorting mad dog we’ve come to know and love. But then there’s a bit of office seduction, which turns out to be a women-inspired plot to keep Arthur from pulling the trigger. I was relieved that the Arthur we saw in the previews was soaked in red paint rather than blood. I get the metaphor — after all, we watched Arthur literally rinse blood from his hands in Series 3, and Tommy was clear that he had blood on his hands in 4.1. But it became so ridiculous for me that I became fixated on the fact that it was a good thing they were using red paint (symbolism and all that) because if they’d used blue paint that day, the scene would have had a very different look. (Blue Man Group, anyone?) By the end, Linda has reasserted her authority, and Arthur has fired the bullet at his wife’s command rather than at Luca Changretta. (Arthur Shelby: Emasculated again.)
Maybe he needs John, who was always his best counselor. Instead, we’re back to the chickens — in this case, a good case of hen pecking.
I thought the return of Michael’s adoptive mother was an interesting choice, and I found that scene interesting. She jars Michael with mentions of orchards and gifts of apples, invites him to return to the village where he grew up, and then mentions that her husband has died, which startles Michael. But then the logical problems kick in. Wait. She reads about Michael in the papers and makes a visit but doesn’t even send him a note about the death of his adoptive father? Those bits of careless writing distract from what should be a compelling scene.
Helen McCrory continues to do excellent work this series. Her don’t-mess-with-me attitude absolutely works (though I’ll bet money that we’ll find that the deal she offers Luca at the end of “Blackbird” is part of another elaborate Tommy plan). It’s too bad we didn’t get to see Polly’s decision to bob her hair. A woman changes her hair when she’s ready to change her life. The decision to leave out such a pivital moment suggests, again, that Steven Knight really isn’t that good at writing women.
Let me again stress my absolute bafflement at Lizzie Stark. This is not about Natasha O’Keeeffe’s performance; rather, it’s about the character and her story. To summarize, in Series 1, we meet her as a sex worker engaged to John and the subject of the family’s disdain — until Tommy ends their relationship. The next time we see her, she is bent over a desk as Tommy has sex with her at the office, coldly paying her off despite her desire to talk. Later, he makes clear to a grateful Lizzie that she no longer has to do sex work because she will be his secretary — UNTIL SHE IS RAPED BECAUSE TOMMY FORCES HER TO ACT LIKE A PROSTITUTE. In Series 3 the Shelbys beat up her Changretta boyfriend. But, hey, she’s okay with it because….I don’t know why. No one tells us. I guess she’s carrying a torch for Tommy. But anyway, she’s stayed with the company and is now a voting member. In Series 1, she was a joke, unworthy of marrying John; in Series 4, she’s back to having sex with Tommy, who assures her it’s about her, not a dead lover he is nostalgic for. (Dude, just go stare into a fire in the yard and visit a Romany woman to give you absolution. It worked before. Or maybe there was some off-camera khylsty.)
Please, don’t ever @ me about Steven Knight’s “strong female characters.” There’s nothing strong about Lizzie Stark as she’s written here. She’s the old girlfriend Tommy drunk dials when he’s feeling lonely late at night. She shouldn’t pick up the phone, but she does. That’s not a “strong female character.” That’s a stereotype from a bad country song.
I took a vow before this series began that I wouldn’t carry on about Grace. To quote Series 1 Tommy Shelby, “The past is in the past.” Fair enough. But I’ve gotta say that as a member of #TeamGrace, “Blackbird” felt like some serious trolling.
Here’s Jessie Eden. She’s a single women in an apartment — and her gramophone works! She has lace curtains! She likes to dance! She sings! She offers him beer, not rum! This is a very deliberate echo of Grace’s flat in Series 1. (I’ve written about Knight revising earlier scenes here.) And Jessie has her own secret: She knows Tommy’s past — Greta DiRossi, the Italian girl whose family rejected the Shelby boy until he won them over and then, heart broken, held her hand as she slowly died.
Let me be clear about this: A woman dying of consumption is the tiredest trope in literature, the laziest possible way to dispose of a female character. In English departments everywhere, it’s a joke. A colleague used to leave a sign on his office door: “Due to consumption, I won’t be keeping office hours today.” But there’s Tommy Shelby’s lost love, wasting away.
Perhaps I’m just being cranky, but I saw it as a pretty clear message to us #TeamGrace folks: Get over it. Jessie Eden has Grace’s apartment, and another woman had Tommy’s heart first. At least Jessie was tough enough to throw her lover’s photo in the fire; Tommy is still mooning the next day. (And if you’re going to throw in this kind of story, Polly should have done it, not Jessie Eden. Aunt Polly would have known how to weaponize Greta, and she’d have done it with the same deliberation she used when removing a pin from her hair. But this kind of dueling power-plays sets us up for Tommy and Jessie to fall into bed around 4.5.)
This all happens before Tommy’s decision to create new institutes for children, presumeably in Greta’s name — with Lizzie overseeing them! So Greta gets her own Grace Burgess memorial, too!
“Blackbird,” is supposed to be about betrayal, and if the characters are feeling a bit punchy these days, I share their frustration.
Maybe it’s the moment we’re living through in America as we watch powerful men being held accountable for harassing and abusing women. When I woke up this morning, popular Today Show host Matt Lauer had been fired for his treatment of women at NBC; by the time I got home for lunch, Garrison Keillor had lost his job with Minnesota National Public Radio. And that’s just today. This is a long-overdue reckoning that began with Ronan Farrow’s story on Harvey Weinstein.
So I’m not in the mood for female stereotypes right now — and I’m really not in the mood for a frustrated Arthur’s hands wrapped around Linda’s neck.
Bye, bye blackbird.
Publication Date: 29 November 2017
(Note: I’ve written a postscript to this review here.)
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