Tommy: So what do you sing?
Grace: Anything you want.
Tommy: Right. Get up on a chair.
(Grace takes a chair and climbs up on it)
Grace: Happy or sad?
Grace: Okay. But I warn you. It’ll break your heart.
– Peaky Blinders, season one.
When I first watched season one of Peaky Blinders, I could hardly believe my own eyes. What have I done to deserve such a perfect television show? I was cheering one minute, almost crying the next, and could not quite comprehend how utterly captivating, heartbreaking, beautiful and nuanced the show is.
It was everything about it – the music, the breathtaking cinematography, the shot of the three Shelby brothers swagging down the streets of post-WWI Birmingham. It was Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby, whose look while smoking a cigarette is a whole genre of its own. Make no mistake – Tommy, or rather Cillian Murphy, anchors this show. The other players – his siblings, his aunt Polly, his many nemesis – are terrific in their own right, but there has always been a sense that Tommy Shelby exists in his own universe. Yes, he interacts with those around him, but in a manner more akin to him gracing others with his presence. He is flawed, sometimes deeply selfish and broken, but almost untouchable in his self-wrapped charisma. Then, enter the show’s secret weapon: Grace.
On the surface, Grace Shelby née Burgess is merely a love interest, but season one proves that she has the capacity to be so much more. At first glance, her romance with Tommy seems cliche; a ‘bad boy’ being changed and softened by a ‘good girl’ who shows him the ‘true meaning of life’. This interpretation does the show, and the character, a great disservice. Grace is an equal to Tommy, not a woman who is incapable of understanding and operating in his world. As Tommy says to her after both of them have killed IRA operatives in his pub, “You’ve seen me”, and she says to him, “And you’ve seen me.” Cillian Murphy himself addresses the relationship:
“He meets this girl who works in the pub and she gets to him. You begin to see the chink and the man that we would have known from before the war. It’s a beautifully observed relationship because it happens very, very subtly and slowly – it’s sort of a gradual defrosting between the two of them. It becomes quite intense over the course of the series. He has that fierce drive and ambition, and capacity for violence but also you see the other side of the man and the beauty of it is that he starts falling in love with this girl.”
Grace, too, has her own “fierce drive and ambition, and capacity for violence.” Remember, she is a spy infiltrating a male-dominated criminal organisation, driven by revenge for her father’s death. She has killed two men, planted a bullet in an aggressive suitor’s leg, and stared down Polly through a barrel of a gun. She leads a sing-along in a gang-infested pub and does not stop singing when the biggest gangster of all walks in. Weak and simple she is not.
Tommy and Grace’s relationship is so beautifully portrayed in season one, I could not wait to discover Grace’s role in the following seasons. In season two, she appears only briefly. In those scenes, it is undeniable that Tommy and Grace still have feelings for each other. However, something is off with Grace and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. There’s something out of character in the defensive and almost paranoid way in which she discusses Tommy with his other lover, May. There is the flippant nature in which she disregards her husband. And there is also her obliviousness to Tommy’s plan of flaunting their affair in Detective Campbell’s face. I tried not to look too much into it, but then came season three. And oh, how us Grace fans wept!
After much hype, the identity of Tommy’s bride is revealed in the season premiere to be Grace, only for her to die immediately in the next episode. During their brief marriage, we see Grace fight, make love, and share some lovey-dovey scenes with Tommy. But out of all the main characters, she is the one who knows the least about his ‘business’, despite her possessing the intelligence and know-how to navigate these situations. One minute, she is trying to make Tommy stay on the straight and narrow. The next, she is accepting a sapphire necklace she surely knows has come from her husband’s shady deals. Then, she plans a party, for the Tommy Shelby foundation no less!
I can’t quite decide. Is Grace simply playing the ‘gangster wife’ trope? Is she a hypocrite? Or is this just bad writing?
Then, to add insult to injury, Grace is killed off by antagonists who are not even part of the season’s overall arc! It’s not the Russians, or the scary Irish priest, or even the mysterious government men in black suits. Rather, it’s the local Italian mob, a footnote conveniently dealt with in the next episode so that Tommy can go back to raising hell with and for the Russians.
Grace remains unexplored in her complexities. Sure, the show explains how she comes to be a spy for the police, but many other tantalising questions have never been addressed. What’s her life like during the war? Why this push-and-pull relationship she has with the man she loves? Who is the mysterious husband she marries and then discards? The things she’s done… do they haunt her, especially after she pulls the trigger at Campbell and walks away in a cloud of smoke?
Now, after she’s been killed off, these questions will never be answered. A little intrigue is no bad thing, but an unfinished character is.
The woman who is able to break the Tommy Shelby bubble perishes, but only to fuel his angst and ‘man pain’, an occurrence we’ve seen happen too often to female characters in films and series.
What a shame, especially for such a brilliant show.
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Photo Credit: Robert Viglasky