Tony, Tony, Tony… You’ve spoilt me. After watching your intrepid adventures in gangland I’m finding it difficult to enjoy stories of bad men doing bad things that we’re supposed to cheer on. I want my hitmen and mobsters and soon-to-be legit businessmen, honest!, to be morally ambiguous and psychologically interesting. Tony, you’ve ruined me when it comes to enjoying a simple story of hard, ruthless men with chiseled jaws thugging for the camera.
Peaky Blinders is a handsome series, and it knows it. It preens and flexes, often in slow motion. It loves the fact that it got Cillian Murphy as a lead, and it loves watching Cillian be vulnerable yet ruthless as he rides horses, drives vintage cars, wields guns and punches other hard, though less pretty, men. It’s also this preening that is most frustrating about the series. Peaky Blinders has a hell of a lot going for it, from its production values to its fantastic cast. It’s gorgeous to look at and charismatic to boot, but it’s a guilty pleasure: guilty, first and foremost, for not making more of the potential it has.
Perhaps it’s that I’m getting more moralistic as I get older, but I have to admit to finding the unreconstructed macho bad-boy attitude of Peaky Blinders tiresome. One of the innocent bystanders tells Tommy Shelby, played by Cillian Murphy (whose cheekbones could still cut through phonebooks), “You’re bad men but you’re our bad men.” That’s fine, but I’d like to have that badness examined. Instead, that line is exactly as far as it goes – in the world of Peaky Blinders, tribalism rules but it’s rarely called out. The exact same action is presented as slo-mo, hyper-masculine badassery if it’s done by our bad guys and as brutal thuggery if it’s the other side.
The series’ biggest potential lies in Helen McCrory’s Aunt Polly, who could put the fear of God into each and every one of the male Peaky Blinders, but at least as of the beginning of season 2 she’s also something of a cheque that yet needs to be cashed in. McCrory’s performance is magnetic, but the material is often thin, paying lip-service to complexity: we hear about past traumas, but we see too little of this reflected in her behaviour and personality. The same is true for most characters, in that they’re all given the veneer of three-dimensionality, but in practical terms they largely revert to stereotype, in the hope that the sheer handsomeness of the production makes up for the lack of depth.
In general, the series tries to give its female characters agency, but all too often it defaults to the rule of macho: the women comment on the power differential, but in the end it’s usually the men with their fists, guns and posturing that are in the driving seat. Certainly, the world Peaky Blinders evokes is an ultra-male one, but then so is that of Game of Thrones, and that series manages to both show the powerlessness of its women characters and still give them agency. Peaky Blinders undermines the latter in ways that suggest it’s not entirely aware of doing so; in one of the climactic scenes in the first series, a woman with a baby carriage puts herself and her child between two warring factions, facing down both sides, but finally it’s not her who determines what happens next but the men with their guns. The scene plays as one of female agency – until that agency is shown to be irrelevant and of no interest to the characters or the series itself. We’ve had our scene of showing girl power, just don’t expect it to pay off.
As I’ve said: the potential is there. The actors are most definitely there, and the series has style up its smoke-shrowded wazoo. The character dynamics are also there, they just need to be committed to. The Rule of Cool is strong with Peaky Blinders – what it needs is to indulge a bit less in the music video slo-mo aesthetics and show a bit more of an interest in scratching the surface of its world and characters. Yes, Cillian Murphy sure is pretty; how much better would it be if the show put as much of an effort in making him complex? The material is there, the actors are game – what the series could do with is the ambition to be more than a pretty face.