Making the world a better place, one show at a time.

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I guess you would like to know a little bit about the person making all these proclamations upon good taste and horrid characters. I'm Andrea and when I was 15 I fell in love. An hour after meeting "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" I was forever altered in the way only love can, and I never questioned for one minute afterwards that television offered me an amazing chance to experience lives and moments that I could never imagine. So now, when I'm not getting distracted by my real life, I write about TV. I also read, am finishing a Master's degree in English Literature, travel, am attempting to learn vegan cooking, am the 5th of 6 children, and drive my roommate nuts by constantly cleaning our already clean apartment. Now that we're old friends, time for you to take my opinions as the be all and end all.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Peaky Blinders Season 1 - Don't Let the Name Throw You

A good recommendation is hard to find.

I haven't been particularly enthused with television for the last while.  (Maybe you can tell by the fact that I didn't post a single review in all of 2014.  Yikes!)  There have been good shows, but nothing that really captured my attention and imagination.  (With the exception of Outlander, but that is whole other story.)

Talking with my friend KP the other day she told me that she was going to start watching Peaky Blinders.  This is show that Netflix recommends to me all the time, based on my viewing history.  But, honestly, I wanted nothing to do with it.  First off, the name is terribly off-putting to me.  It's hard to say and didn't give me a whole lot of information.  Second, the cover art Netflix uses didn't appeal to me.  I wish a were not so easily influenced by trivial matters, but marketing is important.  After explaining my reservations to KP, I asked her to let me know how she like the show.  Less than an hour after we were off the phone I got a text.

"You must watch this show."

Okay, right-e-o, friend.

I'm so glad I did.

Before I start gushing about everything that I love so much, how about I do the "what is it about" part.  Peaky Blinders is Thomas Shelby's story.  Thomas (Cillian Murphy) is the unofficial patriarch of the Shelby family, an Irish/Romany clan running an unlicensed gambling operation (along with other, um, endeavors) in their neighborhood of South Heath in Birmingham, England.  Tommy, his brothers, and his friends are all recently returned from France, decorated veterans of World War I.  The Shelby's are professionally known as the Peaky Blinders (see, I'll explain the name!), because they sew razor blades into the bills of their caps (peaks), allowing them easy access to a weapon (to blind with) when those around them don't want to do things their way.  Tommy, flanked by older brother Arthur (Paul Anderson), younger brother John (Joe Cole), and advised by Aunt Polly (Helen McCrory), is working out his plan to take over the the legal gambling syndicate of his rival Billy Kimber (Charlie Creed-Mills).  Tommy's desires become more complicated when he unintentionally comes into possession of a shipment of guns, which could bring him a financial windfall, but also puts in him the sights of Inspector Chester Campbell (Sam Neill).  Campbell has been sent by Winston Churchill from Belfast, a city he has "cleaned up," to retrieve the stollen guns, and relieve Birmingham from the sway of its criminal element.  Tommy's world is even further complicated by the arrival of Grace (Annabelle Wallis), a mysterious woman recently hired at his pub The Garrison, determined to bring singing back to the pub, a tradition Tommy has banned since his return from France.

Okay, done.  That's enough back story.  Can't hold back the love!

I basically love everything about this show.  The story-lines are intricate, thoughtful, and accessible.  Each piece moves the others forward and while the audience is often at a loss for Tommy's direction, all is revealed in due time, without feeling patronizing.  The characters are real, complex, and completely fascinating.  The styling is superbly detailed.  And the majority of the soundtrack is The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and Arctic Monkeys.  Now that might be a detail that doesn't matter to most people, or that others might find infuriating since isn't "of the period" but the music is used a beautiful compliment to the action.  It just works.  Everything on this show just works.

I could talk in detail about every single character, but I'll focus on the main two: Tommy and Pol.

I'm not always an actor-watcher.  I can tell good acting from bad acting, but I'll put up with less than stellar performances for an engaging story.  No need to compromise here.  The cast is phenomenal.  This is Cillian Murphy's part.  For years, in my mind at least, he couldn't shake the creep factor of Batman Begins.  I didn't disagree that he was talented, I just didn't want to watch him because it was always vaguely unsettling.  Murphy brings all that intensity, intelligence, and restrained passion to Tommy, but also a humanity, dignity, and sly humor that makes Tommy both ruthless and sympathetic.  This is not a case of the viewer being forced to accept a monster as the hero (a trend in TV I'm not super into), but rather an unflinching representation of a deeply broken man.  It's a fine balance that most shows can't manage: displaying the flaws of an individual who has suffered a great fissure in his soul without either sentimentalizing or moralizing.  (Okay, here's my tangent about it.  I love broken characters.  I will go all in with real human beings with real souls.  I detest being told that bad people are good people.  It's almost impossible to turn on the TV without the disingenuous display of characters who behave selfishly, corruptly, and maliciously, but are praised as "really good people."  Besides morally offensive, I find it boring, because it's false.  More on this later.)  In the last episode of Season 1, Aunt Polly says a prayer for her family.  Her words to God for Tommy sum up the situation perfectly, "Protect Tommy, who does what he does for us.  I think."

The counter-voice of the Shelby endeavor is Aunt Pol, played to perfection by Helen McCrory.  Pol is unsettled, having been displaced from her position of visible authority as leader of the Shelbys by the return of her nephews.  Pol is unsure of her place or her influence, but this doesn't lead her to desperation or foolishness.  She loves her family, but it is a demanding love.  While she cannot understand the changes in Tommy, she is unwilling to let her fear of what he is hiding from her damage her respect for him.  Pol could easily devolve into a caricature of a displaced woman, shrill and uncompromising, but thankfully, Pol is delicately balanced between vulnerability and tenacity.

Commentary on John Donne focuses on his use of metaphor, especially his use of multiple, often contrasting, metaphors within a single poem.  Donne layered metaphors because he understood that a single metaphor, no matter how oft repeated, would be incapable of expressing the inexpressible and therefore multiple metaphors must be blended in order to illuminate the motions of the soul.  Peaky Blinders is steeped in metaphor, because it strives to illuminate the nature of loyalty.  From the overarching cultural surroundings, down to the details of the character's haircuts, each element is designed to more fully explore loyalty.  The larger cultural divides (Irish vs English, Catholic vs Protestant) are present, without becoming pedantic.  They are noted as a part of the atmosphere the character live in, without being the overriding concern for them.  The deepest division is between those who served in the Army and those who did not.  Campbell chooses to see an affinity between Tommy and himself; he wants to assert an identity between the them.  Tommy sees no such thing.  Campbell is unworthy of consideration or respect in Tommy's eyes because he didn't serve in France.  Tommy gave his loyalty to his King and was repaid with tragedy, therefore he cannot indulge the moral preening of a man who considers himself a servant of the Crown from behind the safety of a desk.  Tommy is driven to pursue the life he does so that he never need be in a position again where is loyalty is abused.  Campbell's eventual moral quagmire is the natural result of his lack of awareness of where his loyalty lies.

On the weaker side of things is the romance between Shelby princess Ada (Sophie Rundle) and Freddie Throne (Iddo Goldberg), a Communist agitator and Tommy's former best friend, who saved his life in France.  The benefit of almost a 100 years of history, and 10 of millions of brutal deaths, make is pretty much impossible for me to look with any kindness on Communism, so Freddie's plight (pursued constantly by police as he attempts to organize a strike at the BSA) holds no sway for me.  Ada is spoiled and lazy.  She seems to be devoid of Aunt Pol's intellectual gifts, as well as any desire to productive or useful.  But they love each other.  The obvious irony of their affair is fairly easy to dismiss, both for them and for the viewer, because Tommy is the really threat to their future happiness.  Ada and Freddie are meeting clandestinely for fear of Tommy's wrath, but while Ada is correct that Freddie and Tommy are divided, she wrongly ascribes the motive to herself.  The division between Tommy and Freddie may come to head over Ada, but it is fundamentally religious in nature. Freddie saved Tommy during the war.  Tommy's hatred toward Freddie is the conflict of a salvation.  Freddie has denied Tommy the death that would have ended his suffering and a man who wishes for death will be unable to love the man who delivers him to life.  The promise of healing their relationship holds more interest than the eventual fate of Ada and Freddie's romance, though the later provides the potential for the former.  Ada's role in the season finale confrontation between the Peaky Blinders and the Kimber gang displays some growth on her part, but she still has a long way to go.  (Here's hoping Season 2 gives Ada some depth and wisdom.)

In contrast to the somewhat flat Ada/Freddie storyline is the love between Tommy and Grace.  Slow, subtle, and controlled, Tommy and Grace fall in love with a natural passion that the viewer cannot help but be entranced by.  Tommy and Grace are drawn toward each other, and united by conflicting self-interested motives.  As Tommy draws Grace into his business world, she draws out of him the memory of who he was before the war.

Peaky Blinders doesn't do the work for you.  Often, when a show is culturally enclosed, the viewer is subjected to awkward exposition that defies any naturalism.  (Think about product placement in Top Chef, and how no one would every say the name of the brand of broth they were using while making dinner, or the model of car they are getting into.)  This is what separates a good show (or just an enjoyable show) from an excellent show.   At no point when discussing the BSA does anyone turn to anyone else and say "Oh, you mean the British Small Arms factory?  The large manufacturing concern that is one of many in this flourishing industrial town in southwest England.  That BSA?"  (Okay, at least that is what the internet told me the BSA is, because seriously, it is never explained.)  The show gives the viewer all the information necessary to understand, without twisting in knots to avoid accusation of difficulty.  I strongly suggest using the subtitles, though.  It helps.

Sometimes you find a show that feels like it was made just for you.  I can't wait to dive into Season 2.