MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD
Before starting Peaky Blinders, I had heard many great things about it, mostly through cultural osmosis. I didn’t know too much about what it was actually about – in fact the only aspect of it that drew me was that Cillian Murphy stars in it. I was hesitant about watching a show about a crime gang, because I suspected it would revolve entirely around men and convoluted illegal activities that would surely bore me to death. But I do adore Cillian Murphy, so on a whim I decided to start Peaky Blinders, and I immediately loved it.
First of all, Cillian Murphy is fantastic as Tommy Shelby, kind of like a grown-up AU Kaz Brekker without the cane and aversion to touch. The first season also assuaged my fears of not being able to follow along; the plot was fairly straightforward and engaging. I hadn’t expected to see women in leading roles, but we had two (or three, depending on how you look at it) who were all pretty cool. I had some criticisms, of course (I always do), but overall, I was really enjoying the show. Then seasons two and three happened and everything went downhill.
I do have some general issues with plot and characterization. The plot became too convoluted and expansive, moving from small-town crime gang stuff to being blackmailed by Winston Churchill, which made me lose interest. One of the antagonists literally turned into a mustache twirling villain of ridiculous proportions and then was killed. But I’m going to focus this post on my main problem with this show, mainly, the treatment of the three main female characters: Polly Shelby, Ada Shelby, and Grace Burgess.
Before I get into their character arcs separately, I want to start by saying that every one of these female characters have been sexually assaulted on the show. Every. One. Polly was forced into sex with the aforementioned mustache-twirling douche in exchange for freeing her son from prison, Ada was nearly gang-raped, and Grace was nearly raped. There’s also Lizzie, a minor character, prostitute-turned-secretary, who was assaulted and raped. Just putting that out there.
Things start out promisingly with Polly, played by the fabulous Helen McCrory. She’s the boys’ aunt, the Peaky Blinders’ treasurer, and Tommy, trusts her more than anyone else. She’s shown to be competent, blunt, and no-nonsense. Soon enough she shows vulnerability when she reveals to Ada that she had an abortion in her youth, for practical reasons. Fine, fine – then came season two.
Suddenly, Polly, smart, competent, wise Polly, is going to charlatan fortune-tellers to try to find out what happened to her children, who were taken from her by the police when they were toddlers. She’s emotional and erratic all the time. Her entire plotline revolves around finding her children. Finally, Tommy discovers that her daughter had died of an illness, but her son Michael is still alive. Michael joins the Peaky Blinders and the show seems to be grooming him to be the next Tommy.
Like, how boring, to be honest. First of all, Polly’s character is sacrificed to build up Michael, who’s your standard run-of-the-mill angsty teen. Second, what a missed opportunity for an interesting female character! Imagine if it had been Polly’s daughter who had survived, and she had wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps within the Peaky Blinders? Trying to assert her authority as a woman in a male-dominated field?
When Michael is arrested, Polly is humiliated and forced into sex in order to free him. When he is released and realizes what she did, he shows zero gratitude and acts like an entitled ass. Polly then tries to get him to leave town for his safety. Then she shoots the dude who raped her. Like, okay, first off, I’m really damn sick of this idea that it’s totally fine to have your female character be sexually assaulted in the worst way as long as she gets revenge after. Like. No. Stop. Rape isn’t the only trauma a woman can suffer and it is not the only way to make her interesting or show that she’s strong.
Ada Shelby is Tommy’s younger sister. In the first season, her story mostly revolves around her love interest, Freddie, a communist who used to be Tommy’s best friend. Tommy is against their relationship but when Ada is pregnant, Freddie marries her.
Ada is actually a pretty cool gal, which you would expect from someone who has grown up with a street gang. She’s tough and and stubborn and takes no shit. One of her most defining moments comes in the season one finale, when the Peaky Blinders are about to face off against another gang in a shoot-out. Ada walks right in the middle of this impending disaster with her baby in his stroller and basically shouts the men into standing down, thereby preventing a total bloodbath. It’s incredible.
In the second season, for some inexplicable reason, Freddie has died of some illness. I’m not sure why their relationship was such a huge part of season one only to kill Freddie off-screen, but okay. In this season, Ada is mostly used as leverage against Tommy by rival gangs. In one harrowing episode, as Tommy is beaten nearly to death, Ada is kidnapped by a group of men and nearly gang-raped, only to be rescued at the last minute by Peaky Blinders. She’s tough about it and it doesn’t seem to affect her much, but like, why? Why was this necessary? We had just witnessed this gang literally carve Tommy’s tooth out of his mouth, did we really need this to show how ~vicious~ they are?
Though Ada does not feature as much as I would like her to, she is shown to be a budding communist with ties to the Soviets and some pretty interesting views on civil society. Honestly, I’d watch a spin-off with her as the main character. She is ten times more interesting than Arthur and John (her brothers, who feature ten times as much), and I’m frustrated that the show doesn’t know how to use her.
Oh, Grace. Rarely have I seen a female character done such a disservice.
Things started off well – they started off fantastic, in fact! In the first season, Grace is first introduced as a young Irish immigrant seeking employment as a barmaid. Soon enough, though, she is revealed to be a spy, working to infiltrate the Peaky Blinders and seeking revenge for her father’s murder. She’s kind of like the female Tommy; their similar personalities are uncanny and probably why they are immediately drawn to each other. They are both stoic, reserved, and tightly-wound, on the verge of exploding, which we see them both do. She is unfortunately nearly raped by a gross gang boss because of a situation Tommy places her in, but he ends up rescuing her from the very mess he created.
Predictably, Grace ends up switching sides after falling in love with Tommy, though she does fulfill her mission. She exits the season in a pretty badass way, though, boarding a train to London after shooting the mustache-twirling villain as he tried to shoot her (for turning down his marriage proposal and sleeping with Tommy).
In the second season, Grace shows up in one or two episodes She’s married to a banker from Poughkeepsie and they are having infertility problems. She has sex with Tommy and lo and behold, she’s pregnant. Aside from how insulting it is that this is her only plotline this season, this is awful, rushed writing. Next, Grace has a weird territorial conversation with another woman Tommy is sleeping with that is frankly demeaning to both women’s intelligence. That’s it for Grace in season two.
And then the coup de grace: in the season three premiere, Grace and Tommy get married. Grace suddenly transforms from competent spy to worried, nagging, clingy, insecure wife. Then, in the second episode, she’s shot with a bullet meant for Tommy and dies.
I didn’t believe it at first. When she was shot I rolled by eyes and thought, “Here we go, she’s gonna spend the next couple of episodes in a bed while Tommy sits next to her and weeps tears of manpain.” But then the next episode opened with the aftermath of her funeral and I had to pause the episode and simply sit there utterly flabbergasted.
First of all, what a complete waste of a brilliant character! Grace is smart and ruthless; she would have been incredible as Tommy’s wife and business partner. Second, I cannot believe that in this day and age a showrunner would bring back a female character only to fridge her for a male character’s manpain. Like, there was no reason for her to die except to create drama for Tommy. They didn’t even have the decency to have someone important kill her; she’s murdered by some two-bit rival gang that gets taken care of in the next episode.
What the hell happened? I’m angry and frustrated, but I’m mostly just tired. I’m exhausted by how often I get my hopes up only to be let down by writers who clearly have no idea how to write women. The writers of Peaky Blinders are basically telling us that they cannot fathom a woman whose life doesn’t revolve around either a man or her children and they have no interest in learning, seeing as there aren’t any female writers on the team. I’m tired. This is boring and amateur and I’m so exhausted by shows that do the bare minimum with female characters getting massive praise heaped on them.
I’ve put Peaky Blinders on pause for now. I’m only on the third episode of the third season, but I highly doubt I’m going to pick it up again.
Has anyone watched Peaky Blinders? What are your thoughts?