The last episode of Peaky Blinders’ first season contained all the elements that have made this show at times enjoyable to watch and at others frustratingly poor in quality. I enjoyed the show, and I do think it deserves a second series, but Peaky Blinders is a long way short of the standards British drama should be aiming for.
The show’s concluding part opened with Inspector Campbell gone totally over the edge, reduced to paying for sex with an Asian prostitute. As many people have pointed out, Peaky Blinders is very similar to Boardwalk Empire, and there are some pretty obvious parallels here with that show’s Agent Van Alden – also a moralistic, special police officer, corrupted by the world he entered; a corruption illustrated by a sex scene. It’s a tough ask for this show to measure up to Boardwalk Empire, but as I’ll argue later, the show’s writers made that inevitable by taking such huge influence from the American drama – as demonstrated in this scene.
After Campbell’s sexual corruption, Tommy showed up to gloat, and the scene was a good example of the inconsistent quality in the show’s writing and dialogue. ‘You and I are opposites’, Campbell said, ‘and also just the same; like an image in a mirror.’ The duality between a protagonist and the antagonist has been done a thousand times before. It’s pretty much standard practice in screenplay writing, and as such, it should never be spelled out in dialogue. ‘We hate people and they in turn hate us,’ Campbell added. That’s better; a more original idea, and an interesting criticism of Tommy. ‘Before the day is over, your heart will be broken,’- and we’re back to the dodgy writing, like something a psychic would say in a daytime Channel 5 movie.
The dialogue in the series was never quite as bad as it was in the first episode, when characters kept awkwardly stating exposition and underlining every point, but it never felt naturalistic either. Away from the dialogue, the writing was as equally patchy. An example of the better quality writing, from this episode, would be how, during the scenes where Tommy geared up to take out Billy Kimber, it was emphasised just how desperate Tommy is for respectability. He sees his criminality as a means to an ends, and doesn’t take pleasure in his wrong doing – in fact, sees it for what it is; wrong and immoral.
Then there’s the poor writing, for example, this episode we had the embarrassingly artificial random black preacher showing up again, like a discarded character from Pulp Fiction. He interrupted a scene between Grace and Tommy, as the former tried to reveal her true identity only to be stopped before she could. This is tension building from the bad TV playbook; like a sitcom character who keeps trying to reveal his love to the female lead but is always interrupted before he can.
Worst of all this episode though was the big showdown between Billy Kimber and the peaky blinders. It was really bad, showy nonsense; riddled with clichés and unrealistic character actions. The conflict started with the two gangs just marching right up to each other without firing a shot. What kind of tactics are those? I thought Tommy was the super-smart strategist. Maybe he learned too much from his WWI superiors who sent him marching aimlessly into the German machine guns.
Things only got worse from there. We had Wild West shots of scowling faces, Freddie appearing with a machine gun like an action movie reveal, Ada walking into the middle of the fight dressed in black, the hero getting shot but surviving, and someone taking a bullet for the hero. Clichés abound.
Kimber shot Tommy and for some reason none of the peaky blinders fired back. And then Tommy killed Kimber and for some reason none of Kimber’s men shot back. Which was very fortunate, because it allowed Tommy to make a big speech which ended the conflict. It was contrived, ludicrous nonsense. Seriously: what was Tommy’s plan? He nearly got everyone massacred.
Closing out the episode was the relationship between Tommy and Grace. As I said the last two weeks, it’s ridiculous that Tommy, whose dominant character trait is his intelligence, failed to work out that the compulsive liar and newly arrived Grace was a spy, despite there clearly being an informant in the gang and Grace being one of the few people with the knowledge to tip the police off. As expected, the excuse given for this was that Tommy was blinded by love. No, there is just too much for that to be believable – too much suspicious, wrong and out-of-place about Grace for Tommy not to notice. It is so unbelievable that the dominant view online in recent weeks was that Tommy did know, and was stringing Grace along.
Alas, he wasn’t, and he finally found out the truth this episode, with the resulting heartbreak finishing the episode. They hung the whole conclusion around Tommy and Grace’s relationship, and it was too weak – there wasn’t enough prep work done to make this engaging. There were few scenes in the early episodes of Tommy and Grace gently flirting, laughing and joking with each other, building a relationship, discovering each other’s personalities, falling in love. Instead, it went: meet/instant love/sex/heartbreak.
The episode had a strong ending though – stylish if a little lacking in the writing. Wracked with indecision, Tommy flipped a coin to decide whether or not to flee Birmingham with Grace, and, meanwhile, a bottomed-out Campbell arrived at a train station were Grace was all set to leave the city. He pointed a gun at his perceived tormentor as Tommy’s coin spun in the air – and cut to black, with a gunshot on the soundtrack.
In this review as in others, I’ve compared Peaky Blinders to Boardwalk Empire. It’s hard not to for two reasons: first, the show is so heavily influenced by Boardwalk Empire in setting and approach (1920s, WWI themes, similar characters), and secondly, and more generally, it is clearly trying to mimic American drama.
In regards to the second point, Peaky Blinders is making a mistake in trying to be like US, HBO-style shows. By doing this, it comes across as an inferior imitator. Utopia is a great example of how British drama should be done; do your own thing and don’t seek to imitate America. Sherlock is another example.
Away from the writing, other factors also made the show seem like a cheap replica, in particular the directing. There was a scene this episode that was almost a shot for shot recreation of the famous scene in Reservoir Dogs; gangsters walking in slow motion towards the camera inter-cut with side shots, all soundtracked by cool music. There were a ridiculous number of slow motion shots in this series. And loads of shots of Tommy walking at the camera, or shot from behind with a close up of the back of his head as he walked forward. The directing got really repetitive, and was trying too hard to be cool.
I didn’t get the soundtrack either; non-period appropriate rock music. There was a fuckload of White Stripes songs. Why so many? At first I thought it was about consistency but then they started throwing in Tom Waits and The Black Keys. They played one White Stripes song twice. It seems like such a waste. It must be great fun to set music to TV scenes and they instead decided to be so repetitively dull. And thematically, such a restricted choice of artists limits what the music can say; can one artist sum up all a shows themes? The final episode of Breaking Bad included a 1950s western ballad that illustrated the show’s whole story arc (as illustrated in this fantastic video) and also a 1970s punk song that informed the show’s theme. That is a drama making full use of its music. Mad Men does similar with period-appropriate music from its 1960s setting. Peaky Blinders on the other hand squandered its soundtrack’s potential by trying to be constantly, irritatingly cool.
And a final point in regards to the writing; very few of the characters were engaging. Tommy lacked humour, which is an important aspect for a central protagonist. A list of the show’s half-decent characters would probably include Tommy, Campbell, Polly and, being generous, Grace. Its American cousin Boardwalk Empire on the other hand, by the end of its first season, had the funny, multi-faceted Nucky; the haunted Jimmy and his trapped wife; the clinical and intelligent Rothstein; the competent consigliore Lansky, the street-wise Luciano, the intense, conflicted Van Alden, the volatile and loyal Capone, the ambitious and proud Chalky, and on and on. Now, to use an exercise borrowed from Red Letter Media’s demolition of the new Star Wars films, go through the Peaky Blinders characters and try and describe them in a similar way, without resorting to physical description. I doubt you’ll succeed with more than four.
I did enjoy Peaky Blinders. Cillian Murphy did a good job of conveying Tommy. The show was interesting and intellectual in places, and I found Tommy’s intelligent scheming to be really entertaining. But the programme lacked consistent quality, had too many clichés, logical flaws and dodgy dialogue. And the directing and artistic choices didn’t, in my opinion, work, and brought an artificial sheen to the show. A second series is on the way according to writer Stephen Knight (‘Yeah, [it’s confirmed] as far as the BBC ever do, but yeah, we’re pretty safe. I’ve started writing it and it’ll start in 1922 and take us through that year and see Tommy make his next steps’). I’ll look forward to watching that, as long as Knight and his co-writers don’t rest on the praise the show has received, sort out Peaky Blinders’ problems, and seek to differentiate the show from American drama and make it uniquely and originally British.
- This review is pretty fucking long. Congratulations to anyone who read the whole thing, boos for anyone who skipped to the notes.
- ‘It’s not a day for knocking,’ is a pretty good line.
- Grace or Campbell better be dead. Starting the second series without an annoying reveal that Campbell actually shot a duck or something would be an early show of good faith.
- Danny’s death and funeral didn’t carry the weight it was supposed to because his character was barely fleshed out. How long was he on screen for in the series- 30 minutes or so in total?
- The fake-out with Freddie being spoken to by a scary policeman threatening his life, only for him to be let free, was really annoying. Nobody is going to be fooled into thinking Freddie is going to die. I really wish writers wouldn’t pull these cheap tricks.
- Characters kept bluntly stating themes and motivation this episode, like Campbell’s ‘mirror’ speech to Tommy, Polly’s speech to Ada, and the police sergeant’s speech to Campbell. It lacks subtlety.
- Music: The Prowl by Dan Auerbach and Love is Blindness by – wait for it – The White Stripes (and fair enough, this song does fit with the episode’s events).