One of the most fascinating characters on Peaky Blinders is Helen McCrory’s Elizabeth “Polly” Gray. I have argued elsewhere that her character lacks clear definition in Series 3, an idea I’d like to explore more fully.
Aunt Polly is based on a real person. As Steven Knight told Den of Geek:
It was a very common thing for there to be a strong woman in any illegal organisation. My dad had an Aunt Pol, so she’s sort of based on a real character. It was also to reflect the fact that when the soldiers came back from the First World War, they found that things were being run quite nicely by women, and it was a real source of trouble. Somebody like Polly, who ran the business perfectly well – probably better – is an interesting character.
The first season of Peaky Blinders uses this idea as a source of conflict and character development. For both Polly and Grace, their post-war empowerment provides a mechanism for establishing their characters. In the same way that Grace is the infiltrator, taking on a traditionally male role, Polly has assumed a leadership role.
Series 1: Polly as Boss
Much of Polly’s story in Series 1 is driven by her conflict with Tommy over of the future of the company.
From her first scene, Polly is a powerful character. She holds a gun to John’s head, her voice and demeanor tough: “Look, I know having four kids without a woman is hard, but my boot is harder.” Polly isn’t someone to mess with. In the course of Series 1, Polly and Tommy struggle over control of the betting shop. As she reminds him, “This whole bloody enterprise was women’s business while you boys were away at war.” She is able to speak to Tommy with an honesty no other character can.
Polly is also the mother/matriarch of the family. She takes Ada to an abortion provider and reveals that she almost died from a self-administered abortion. When Karl is born, Polly acts as midwife. She cares for Finn and all the Shelby boys. That’s why she’s “Aunt Polly.” These aren’t her biological children, but she acts as their mother.
Two scenes in 1.6 stand out. First, Polly reveals to Ada the story of her children being taken away from her by the church; second, she deals with Grace after Tommy learns he’s been betrayed. The latter scene is electric. Here are two powerful women. As Series 1 ends, although she has lost control of the business to Tommy, Polly emerges as a character with her own story. As she tells Grace, “It’s me that runs the business of the heart in this family.”
Series 2: Polly as Mother
In Series 2, Knight explores Polly as a parent in her own right. She learns that her daughter, Anna, is dead. But she is reunited with her son, Michael. Consider the scene when Michael meets his mother as she walks home after sleeping with a younger man. “I’m looking for someone called Elizabeth Gray,” he says. “What do you want with Elizabeth Gray?,” she asks. “I think she might be my mother,” he answers.
We are so used to thinking of her as Aunt Polly, that it’s a bit jolting to hear Michael use her real name. It also serves as a reminder that Polly had her own life beyond being an aunt.
Tommy has given Polly more power within the company: She’s the treasurer, and she still speaks frankly
with him. But her big moments come with Michael. She wants to keep him close to her, but she knows that if he stays, his chances of getting mixed up in the family business and repeating his father’s mistakes increase exponentially. She is raped by Inspector Campbell to get Michael out of jail, and she ultimately shoots and kills Campbell in one of the series’ most you-go-girl! moments. “Don’t fuck with the Peaky Blinders,” she says, walking confidently through the crowd, blood on her dress. It’s a moment of empowerment.
Series 3: Polly as Lover
[Polly] isn’t someone who deals with guilt well and she is still carrying that. She’s quite a religious woman and in series three we see how that faith is challenged – does she stick with it or does she abandon it and of course she meets a man which sort of changes everything.
Knight’s revelation that Polly struggles with guilt came as a surprise. Nothing in the first two series suggested that was the case.
With Series 3, Polly’s character becomes more difficult to understand. She remains in a position of power within the company, and in the final scene of 3.1, it’s Tommy and Polly who carry the money into the vault – he still trusts her above all others. But her character becomes confusing. I suspect Knight would argue she’s “complicated,” but there’s a lack of consistency.
At the wedding, she seems like the Polly we’ve known – competent, trusted, and arguing with Grace. But when Rupert comes to her room, and she cowers behind the door, hiding a gun, the suggestion is that she is suffering trauma following her rape. (This is never clearly explained though I suspect her rejecting Ruben but keeping the champagne is a hint that she’s self-medicating.)
Her desire to keep Michael safe is clear (though some Redditors would argue that she’s holding him back). In this case, she is dealing with a young man who ultimately rejects his mother’s caution. That’s a resonant story. But Polly doesn’t respond to this in a meaningful way. Just as Michael’s abuse isn’t dealt with clearly, neither is Polly’s discovery that the church, an institution she has trusted, is responsible for harming her child.
Her confession to the priest and revelation of Tommy’s plans to kill Father Hughes seems out of character. If the rape has driven her to this, then Knight needs to be much clearer.
Polly’s interest in art and her romance with Ruben, a painter, are also surprising.
She looks beautiful in her mother’s stolen gown, but Polly standing before a mirror, looking at herself, saying, “A women of substance and class” in what appears to be an exercise in confidence building seems utterly at odds with Series 1 Polly who held a gun to John’s head. That Polly was less well dressed but fearless. Where did that woman go?
Her strike with the other women of the betting shop is a great visual moment – and I adore Polly’s coat and swagger – but it seemed liked window dressing in a series that left women largely out of power. That day, Polly defies the Shelby boys and gives speeches in the bullring to rival Jessie Eden, yet she still needs someone (apparently a man) to validate her.
None of this is about Helen McCrory’s performance, which is always top notch. Polly’s slashing of her portrait followed by her crying over Ruben is fantastic. And when Ruben does show up, she holds a gun to his head – the old Polly is back! But consider what happens after that.
Ruben: Polly, whatever you’ve been told, it’s not true.
Polly: The painting was wrong. She was too sure of herself. I’m not. Not anymore.
Ruben: I can paint another.
Polly [crying]: What the fuck am I doing? I want a dull life. I want you. I want you. I want you. I want you to paint me in a dress that I bought in a shop.
Ruben: We have a life?
Polly: I think so.
Wait. What just happened? Aunt Polly, who is absolutely fearless and as driven as the Shelby boys, wants a dull life with a painter? She wants to buy a dress in a shop? Who is this women, and where did she put Aunt Polly? The damaged painting is obviously a metaphor for Polly herself, but how she got to this point is unclear. And Ruben’s addressing her as “Polly,” not “Elizabeth,” doesn’t work, either. She can’t become someone new if she’s still Polly.
In an interview with Jess Denham, Helen McCrory has said of Polly, “Her conversation and story is much more with herself this series. . . . To truly be honest with the person you love, you have to be honest to yourself and you have to reveal all,” she says. “But will you do it or won’t you do it?”
That’s fine, but Polly’s conversation with herself is missing from Series 3.
Publication Date: 7 July 2016
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