The fact that I have come to write this review brings me much more pain than pleasure, because I used to love the BBC Two crime drama Peaky Blinders. It had a brilliant cast for multi-faced and many-layered main characters, a fresh setting in the interwar period that allowed this gangster tale to explore themes such as communism and PTSD amongst the working class, a beautifully crafted villain, a soundtrack provided by some of the best themes of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds… Goddammit, it had everything! And yet, year after year, the quality of the show’s script and story has slowly decayed to the point where Peaky Blinders almost feels as if it were a masterfully crafted statue left ashore with each season being a wave that has eroded it to a point where one can barely distinguish the charm and aesthetic that once made you fall in love with it.
How did this come to happen?
There are few TV shows that can speak proudly about having a first season so well constructed as Peaky Blinders’s. By the time the first episode ends, you have the perfect picture of the story arc inside your head. On one side we have the Peaky Blinders, World War I veterans and descendants of gypsy royalty, led by the Shelby family, and in the other is inspector Chester Campbell, a ruthless Scotland Yard inspector played by Sam Neill. We have the MacGuffin: a shipment of military weapons that the Blinders have fortuitously acquired and that the government wants back, a tense albeit sincere romance between Tommy Shelby and Inspector Campbell’s spy Grace Burgess, we have family tensions, struggles with PTSD… All the necessary ingredients for a great story that manages to unfold with rhythm and poise, ultimately achieving a more than satisfactory ending.
When season two came out I left everything I was doing to dive right into it, hyped as I was. For the most part, it successfully managed to sustain the quality of its predecessor whilst introducing new characters such as Michael (played by Finn Cole), the long lost son that Polly Gray, or Alfie Solomons, the eccentric leader of a Jewish gang set in London. Nevertheless, it is here that we encounter the first red flags. Firstly, I felt that the sudden departure of communist leader Freddy Thorn’s character was too sudden to be emotional, especially since his love/hate relationship with Tommy was such a pivotal element of the Shelby family drama during the previous season. It is said that Iddo Goldberg (the actor who portrays Freddy Thorn) declined reprising his role to join instead the cast of the American show Salem, in which case Peaky Blinders’s screenwriter Steven Knight has nothing to be blamed for, but still, it was not a rightly executed departure. Another major turnoff from this season was the much awaited reencounter between Tommy and Grace, which turned out to be tragically insipid. After all the effort that was devoted in the previous season to their romance, it felt somewhat rushed and out of place that they sleep together the very night they meet again after she left for two years when her betrayal was discovered by the Peaky Blinders. Although, in all fairness, this season had a mind-blowing ending scene, just as emotional and its predecessor’s.
The third seasons takes off with great energy, presenting an interesting plot involving the conspiracies that surround expatriate Russian aristocrats that have come to England running away from the Civil War in their homeland, but one takes immediate notice the absence of Inspector Campbell. It is a pity, because his death was certainly one of the algid moments of season two, and it made sense for the character to end there, but he was such a great villain and had already so many links to the other characters in the series that Father John Hughes fails to fill his gap as arch villain despite talented actor Paddy Considine’s performance. But here is where it comes to what really marked the beginning of the end of Peaky Blinders for me: Grace’s death. This season begins with her marrying Tommy three years after the events of season two. She is a character with an interesting and tragic back-story which turned her into a fierce woman capable of fencing for herself and provide her with a strong personality that would fit right in the Shelby business. Instead of squeezing this list of very interesting traits to spice up the story, she is just left to hang around the back while Tommy alone takes care of the family’s business. And then, out of nowhere, she dies! While unexpected deaths of main characters are always milestones in TV shows, but they have to be done properly in order to carry enough emotional weight for the audience. When Grace died, I did not feel such shock because it felt like she had become a useless and uninteresting member of the story. Do not even get me started on her “substitute”; Duchess Tatiana Petrovna is by far the most chaotic attempt to create a femme fatale I have ever witnessed… But yet again, season three surprises the audience with a shocking ending that emphasizes his beautifully crafted Machiavellian personality and leaves the audience craving for the series to continue.
Thus, season four begins with a long and intense death row sequence that brilliantly brings you to the edge of your sit, and right after we are hit with an interesting new story arc: the Sicilian mafia marks the Peaky Blinders with the Black Hand. It is shortly after that the new villain is introduced: Luca Changretta. It surprised me to see Adrien Brody playing a mafioso villain, let alone an Italian one, but his performance is for sure one of the highlights of the season. Sadly, after such a great premise, once again we are presented with a sloppy story that at this point just feels messy. There are too many intricate subplots and secondary characters full of wasted potential (such as Aberama Gold, played by Aidan Gillen) that are not structured in the right way to create a dramatic narrative. Thus, these unengaging ramifications blur the importance of the main story arc, which unfolds in an annoyingly disappointing way. The result is a most anticlimactic season finale where the audience was expecting a fierce struggle full of sacrifices in order for the Peaky Blinders to defeat their enemies, but all they got was a plot twist that could be seen from a mile and a most unexciting closing act.
So I ask again, what happened here? Where did Peaky Blinders lose its charm? Was it the loss of Inspector Campbell, the fact that they grew from being a relatable street gang in the industrial suburbs of Birmingham to an archetypical crime syndicate with ties to the government and political movements? Has Steven Knight lost his interest in this series now that he is engaged in BBC’s Taboo? Has he run out of stories to tell about the Birmingham gang? Has BBC Two renewed this show for too long?
This latter theory is the one I am more in favor of. Peaky Blinders was a top quality show for two seasons that presented strong story arcs closely linked to each other and resulting in an interesting catharsis for the main characters. Sadly, after season three the series feels like an anthology of episodic seasons that have little to nothing to do with each other, and whose story arcs lack a driving force strong enough to captivate audiences the way the first two did.
Is it really worth it to sacrifice the presence and quality of a TV show in order to get a longer running time? Or in other words: who’s to decide when a show ends, the writers that can bring it to a meaningful conclusion despite the protests of an audience that is hungry for more, or the producers that see that a product will still sell after it has stopped making any sense?
Definitely something to think about; you know what my answer would be.
Post by Javier Gonzales