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the island of conclusions

December talking meme: Peaky Blinders

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December talking meme: Peaky Blinders

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Way back in December, [personal profile] d_generate_girl asked me to talk about Peaky Blinders. Now, in February, I’m finally able to do that (though this got a little long and academic, sorry!).

This is primarily about S2, which I thought was probably better than the first season, less uneven, with less emphasis on a ridiculous star-crossed-lovers plotline, and more interesting stuff.

Here are some of the things that make the love this show.

I suppose it’s fair to say that the show is really held up by the gorgeous scaffolding of Cillian Murphy’s cheekbones. He’s extraordinary in the second season, more beat-up, more dead-eyed, more commanding. He also trots out his special seduction technique several times. This consists of telling a lady he know they’re going to fuck (his word), so just leave the door unlocked for him later. No flirting, no banter, no eyelash fluttering. It works every time.

That said, though, the second season made much better use of its secondary characters, especially Helen McCrory’s Polly. Also, in the (near) absence of the soggy Grace, Tommy’s relationship to Sam Neill’s Chester Campbell was satisfyingly stripped down to the dick-wagging duel it always was. Some of the new characters and storylines worked really well—especially the return of Polly’s lost son Michael, but I also really enjoyed May Carleton; some worked less well—Tom Hardy as Alfie Solomons was wonderful, but his plot arc never went much of anywhere.

Peaky Blinders is a testosterone-fest, but the women are amazing. They usually get the raw end of the deal, it’s true, but they never go down without a fight (and in some cases, firing their guns). Ada didn’t have much to do this season, but she still had some great scenes, as did even very minor female characters like Esme and Lizzie. Even the soundtrack was dominated by female voices this year—the season was practically a tribute to PJ Harvey, who must have featured in almost every episode.

And speaking of that soundtrack! As you probably know, I’m a sucker for shows with flashy soundtracks, case in point, True Detective. But whereas shows like TD use their soundtracks to build a deeper sense of place and context, Peaky Blinders uses glaringly anachronistic music to construct emotional parallels between the present and the past (yes, like a fanvid). I think one either loves this or hates this; I often hate it (Baz Luhrmann, blech) but in this case, I love it. It’s a blunt instrument at times, like the moment in the finale when you realize the show’s been waiting two whole seasons to juxtapose the show’s theme song, Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” to the Red Hand of the Ulster Volunteer Force—but damn if creator Stephen Knight doesn’t earn it.

My other favorite thing about Peaky Blinders, especially S2, is its interest in ethnic strife—as opposed to class tension, though that’s there, too. The Shelbys themselves, of course, are, to some always unspecified degree, gypsies/tinkers/Romani, and the first season had a lot of scenes set in Birmingham’s Chinese community. The second season, though, pushed this further, with the main plotline having to do with Tommy’s attempt to set an Italian gang and a Jewish gang against each other to make his own stake in London. The Irish, of many different regional and political stripes, are always present. The show has little interest in the cultural practices of these groups (unless you count Solomons' parodic seder); instead, it’s interested their strategic coherence and tactical interplay. It all makes a nice change from the upstairs-downstairs but culturally (religiously, racially) homogenous view one usually gets of the British past on TV.

Moreover, while your typical British show coughDowntonAbbeycough is interested in stratification and insularity, Peaky Blinders is interested in mixture and mobility. The gypsy/tinker thing highlights this—a people in permanent exile, without a permanent homeland (when I was in England last year, people were talking about the nearly hysterical anxiety “travelers” still provoke). And if the gypsies weren't mobile enough, S2 also had a lot to say about the canals that link English cities, and the transatlantic shipping that might make the Shelby fortune. S2 also beautifully foregrounded the race course as a scene of heterogeneity and mixture, lingering over Epsom in the finale as a place of gorgeous, troubling, violent, thrilling mingling (rich/poor, black/white/Asian, male/female, criminal/law-abiding, & etc.). This is Tommy Shelby’s world; this is where he thrives.

Good Lord, that was a great hour of television! There was so much to love, from the standoff between Tommy and Alfie, to Tommy and Campbell’s verbal smackdown with “God Save the Queen” playing in the background, to Polly shooting Campbell, to May’s dress.

My favorite thing about the episode, though, was the clear line it drew between Tommy digging his way out of that collapsed tunnel in France (now identified as Schwaben Hohe) and climbing out of the grave the UVF have dug for him at the end of the episode. The parallels are explicit, I think: not only does he have that moment with the UVF man comparing what part of the Somme they survived, but the field where they intend to kill him is as flat and muddy as any Belgium battlefield. It makes so much sense to think of Tommy as someone who is, as he says to Alfie, already dead, or is “between two deaths.” The break in Tommy’s hitherto glacial composure as he realizes he’s survived a second time, with that stripped down version of "All My Tears" playing over it was devastating. It was a flawless scene, I thought, easily the best of the series.

I’m looking forward to another season, though I’m worried it’s going to involve more Grace, and smaltzy love shenanigans. Maybe it’ll be more like Godfather II, though.

And a rec, if you like the kind of musical juxtaposition Peaky Blinders provides: this extraordinary Lawrence of Arabia vid from festivids
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