Peaky Blinders Series 1, 2, & 3: Which Is the Best?

Yes, there are spoilers.

Which series of Steven Knight’s Peaky Blinders is the best?  Recently, this question has been tossed around on Reddit.  Here’s my take based on these criteria:

  • Plot/story
  • Acting
  • Look/Production
  • Music
  • Overall Effect

Series 1 (2013)

Peaky Blinders, Series 1
Peaky Blinders, Series 1
  • Plot/Story

Here’s where everything begins and where Steven Knight poses his central question:  Is it possible to escape where you’re from?  Knight creates characters, based on stories his parents told him, gives backstory, and sets a foundation for the series that will follow.  It is an overt attempt to meld the western with the gangster drama, all set in post-World War I working-class Birmingham.  The Shelby family is trying to become legitimate.  Add political intrigue involving Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill) and a young Winston Churchill.  Tying together the political with the personal of the Shelby family is Grace Burgess (Annabelle Wallis), the secret agent who falls in love and must find a way to be true to herself, her country, and her lover.  All the pieces fit in a compelling story.

  • Acting

The performances are consistently solid, but none is better than Cillian Murphy’s.  Watch how he moves from being unsure in the opening scenes as he handles Polly (Helen McCrory) and Arthur (and later his father):  He is assuming a leadership role in the family, and his uncertainty is carefully hidden.  His  confidence grows as he learns how to handle fellow gangster Billy Kimber, Inspector Campbell and, by extension, the British government.  Throughout the series, Murphy balances the ruthless gangster and the vulnerable PTSD survivor.  And because of Grace, Tommy learns to love again.  Yes, Murphy is remarkably good looking, and Tommy’s swagger is very sexy, but it’s the understated details that hold the pieces together as Tommy’s confidence grows.  Great work.

  • Look/Production

Series 1 is unlike the others in that it had two directors, Otto Bathurst and Tom Harper.  Bathurst and Director of Photography George Steel, though, set the stylistic pieces in motion after making clear that they want to bring cinematic values to television.  This revision of western iconography is masterful — watch Tommy ride down the street in the opening montage, and The Garrison is a wild-west saloon — and the filming is exciting.  Harper continues Bathurst’s work, creating a visually compelling look.  Oh, and a shout-out to Otto Bathurst for recommending those haircuts!

  • Music

Nick Cage and the Bad Seeds get much of the credit — and well they should given that their “Red Right Hand” plays over the opening as well as the closing credits.  In addition, their music has been used throughout the series to wonderful effect.  But for me, the first series is all about the White Stripes — “The Hardest Button to Button” playing over the burning of the King’s portraits just blows me away, while Jack White’s cover of “Love Is Blindness” at the end absolutely breaks my heart.  Knight has said the music is about keeping the show from becoming nostalgic, and it works.

  • Overall Effect

This is the show I fell in love with.  It’s so rich that it encourages repeated viewings, and I find new things to marvel at every time.  Utterly amazing.

Series 2 (2014)

Peaky Blinders, Series 2
Peaky Blinders, Series 2
  • Plot/Story

In Series 2, the Shelbys begin traveling beyond Birmingham.  This is reflected in the movement away from the western and toward The Godfather look and themes.  The tensions of the family remain, such as Arthur’s substance abuse, but Knight introduces new villains in addition to Inspector Campbell:  Alfie Solomons, Darby Sabini, the IRA, and the British government.  Helen McCrory’s Polly gets her own story, too, as she is reunited with her son, Michael (Finn Cole).  Tommy’s romantic life continues.  It is clear from the beginning that he still loves Grace (his burning her unopened letter gets me every time), and even after an affair with May Carlton (Charlotte Reily), he returns to Grace.  (For me, Grace’s absence works because it leads up to such a powerful reunion in Episode 5.  Everything comes together in the final episode as Tommy and the Shelbys examine their new place in the world.

  • Acting

Again, the performances are solid, but I’d like to stay with Cillian Murphy’s.  This is in every way his show.  Compare Tommy’s confidence in the opening of Series 2 with Series 1.  That Tommy Shelby was unsure; this Tommy Shelby is utterly capable.  Murphy has grown into the role.  He knows this character.  That confidence is undercut twice.  The first is when he sees Grace again in Episode 5.  After they make love, watch their conversation.  He is hopeful and then crushed, and yet he cannot stop himself from loving her.  And then there is the masterful scene in Episode 6 in the field.  Watch the emotions move across Tommy’s face:  anger, grief, acceptance.  When Tommy emerges from the grave, he is a different man:  He cries before collecting himself and looking up with complete rage.

And let me give thanks here for the addition of Tom Hardy as Alfie Solomons.  Alfie keeps Tommy on his toes, and watching these two actors work together is always a treat.

  • Look/Production

Colm McCarthy directed all six episodes, and does great work.  Although he is respectful of the aesthetic Bathurst created, he begins making Peaky Blinders a bit more his.  For example, Bathurst loves the shots of Tommy from behind.  McCarthy moves away from that a bit.  And the long, final, continuous shot is paradoxical, both tying up loose ends and setting the stage for Series 3.

  • Music

PJ Harvey does much of the music for this, and it absolutely rocks.  I especially like the use of “When Under Ether.”  Including her music gives Peaky Blinders an more overtly British sound and brings a strong female voice into the mix.  Throw in some Arctic Monkeys, and it’s pure Peaky.

  • Overall Effect

At first, I didn’t like this series as well as the first one. I missed the echoes of the western and Birmingham.  But it grew on me as I saw how carefully it extended the Shelby story.  It’s a new chapter, and it works.

Series 3 (2016)

Peaky Blinders, Series 3
Peaky Blinders, Series 3
  • Plot/Story

In Series 3, Knight takes the Peaky Blinders story in a new direction, heading east, not west, as the Shelbys enter a world of powerful politics.  Tommy’s marriage begins and ends, and he learns how to be a parent, Arthur finds a new direction through marriage and religion, Michael finds his inner self, and Polly begins (maybe) a relationship.  A lot happens in Episode 6, maybe too much, with Tommy realizing that he will never meet his goal of being respectable before allowing his family to be arrested for a variety of crimes.  He has a plan, he says, and they will have to trust him.

In terms of story, I found this to be the most difficult to get through — there was too much going on and not enough explanation.  (Or maybe my British history isn’t strong enough.)  I need to watch this one again before being too definitive.  I was thrown by Grace’s sudden and ambiguous death, and that affected my ability to view the series as I should have.  (I’m also disappointed that Knight hasn’t provided any additional clarification.)  I was disappointed with the stories given to female characters, which I’ve discussed here.  So for me, the jury is still out on Peaky Blinders, Series 3.

  • Acting

Performances are never an issue in Peaky Blinders.  Although Cillian Murphy continues to be brilliant, I’d like to acknowledge how terrific Paul Anderson’s Arthur is.  His conflicted self is visceral and heart-breaking.  And let’s hear it for Joe Cole who continues to grow in this role.  Paddy Considine’s Father Hughes is evil, but I miss the ambiguity of Sam Neill’s Inspector Campbell.  And Tom Hardy is, well, Tom Hardy.  Always.

  • Look/Production

Wow!  Wow!  Wow!  Hats off to Tim Mielants and Laurie Rose! The look of Peaky Blinders, Series 3 is stunning.  Where even to begin?  And Mielants does some interesting echoes of Otto Bathurst’s early iconography — we’re back to lots of shots taken from behind Tommy.  The use of light is effervescent.  In terms of look, Series 3 is outstanding.

  • Music

The use of Radiohead’s and David Bowie’s music is perfect.  That montage at the end of Episode 1 still blows me away.  Throw in The Kills, and the soundtrack is solid.  (This is something I want to write about at length later.)

  • Overall Effect

I’m not sure yet.  As I spend more time with Series 3, I like it better, but my original reservations remain.

Final Thoughts

It’s hard for me to have favorite series because I don’t see Peaky Blinders as having discreet parts; rather, they comprise a whole, telling the story of Tommy Shelby.  Given that one writer and a limited number of directors oversee the production, there’s great narrative cohesion.  And each of the series has its own task to accomplish in terms of telling that story and pulls its own weight. Maybe that’s a cop-out on my part, but it’s one of the things I most like about Peaky Blinders.  So start at the beginning, and work through the story Knight is telling.  It works.  It really works.

Publication Date:  14 June 2016

Return to A Peaky Blinders FanGirl Blog

Related Posts

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

Peaky Blinders Review:  Tommy, Grace, and the Symbolism of Framing

Peaky Blinders 3.6 Review:  Family, Power, and Revolution

Peaky Blinders 3.6 Review:  A Disappointing Finale

Peaky Blinders 3.6 Review:  What I Liked in Series 3

Peaky Blinders 3.2 — Grace


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