It’s hard to look at “Peaky Blinders” and not think of
“Boardwalk Empire.” Like Terence Winter’s crime epic, the BBC2 show (whose
first season just landed on Netflix) centers itself around crime after the end
of the First World War. But while the class focus and specific crimes are
vastly different in Steven Knight’s show, pairing it with its American cousin
actually helps. Even when the main stories or individual crimes falter, the
pair of series can be seen as two sides to the same story.
Is it fair to look at a show wrapping up a long run with
another still getting its feet? Definitely. It’s not just that the pilots to
both have eerily similar plot points — ambitious war veterans making dangerous
moves, hot contraband and a socially conservative lawman arriving to clean-up
the town — but their history is similar. They each start from the same idea:
How does a country and society change after a major war? After the end of World
War I, thousands of veterans came home, changed by their time abroad, to
countries with poor economies and major social change. It was a time of aimless
men, empowered women and a strong cultural backlash.
For the United States, that backlash was embodied in the
“Return to Normalcy” movement. Then-presidential candidate Warren G. Harding
wanted to turn the clock back on American society to pre-war, pre-Progressive
Era shakeups. As women gained the right to vote, the country moved to enact
Prohibition and restrict what many saw as a national drinking problem. But
restrictions only fueled the rise of the mobs, ending the reign of corrupt
political machines in favor of the era of the gangsters. For “Boardwalk
Empire,” that transition is the home of Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson, and the
central focus of the series’ overall story.
With the United Kingdom, the postwar issues were of a
different nature. The Russian Revolution was still fresh in Europe’s mind, and
fear of communism and revolt haunted the British government. Even worse for
them was the IRA and the Irish War of Independence. Instead of simply trying to
enforce a law that many hated, the government was as war with revolutionaries
and on the hunt for disruptive influences. It’s that world that “Peaky
Blinders” finds itself in, and it’s a much more engaging one than “Boardwalk’s”
Amid that cocktail of political trouble, “Blinders” centers
on the Shelby clan, a Birmingham crime family neck deep in the major crime of
the day: gambling on the horse races. Middle brother Thomas (Cillian Murphy) is
the ambitious war veteran, trying to move his family up in the rackets scheme.
If the gang’s name and show title seems odd, don’t worry, it’s quite scary in
action (the Blinders gang sewed razorblades into their caps, and then aimed for
their opponents’ eyes in fights). But the actual crime feels secondary to the
social concerns and family intrigue. Chief Inspector Campbell (Sam Neil), newly
arrived in Birmingham after years of hunting the IRA in Belfast, could care
less about the Shelbys’ activities, instead focused on a possible act of
sedition. It’s a war he’s fighting.
“Blinders'” biggest strength is its focus on the war. It
makes sense, since the United Kingdom fought in the war longer, and in greater
numbers, than the United States. The three oldest Shelby brothers fought in
France along with many of their friends and neighbors in Birmingham: An early
scene features Thomas and others having to restrain a fellow veteran having a
PTSD flashback, and Shelby matriarch Polly (Helen McCrory) notes that no one
came back to Birmingham the same.
War service feels so ubiquitous to the show’s characters
that Campbell’s lack of war experience is commonly brought up to insult him. As
for “Boardwalk,” the drama of war is restricted to Nucky’s underling Jimmy
Darmody (Michael Pitt) and his friend, the disfigured hitman Richard Harrow (Jack
Huston), who have to deal with the burden of carrying the show’s commentary on
the States’ involvement overseas. They’re simply the “war characters” in
contrast to the others. Meanwhile, “Blinders” sets the war as the backdrop,
letting it seep into every element. As a commentary on the effects of the war,
it’s far more effective than “Boardwalk” ever is.
But more than anything, “Peaky Blinders” is a show about
family, but the emphasis on the theme does come at a cost to the characters –
they’re more Shelbys than any other identifying factor. Midway in the first
season, subplots about marriage and an absent father dominate individual
episodes more than the crimes in which the Shelbys engage. The family bond is
strong in the writing, and the central actors have the right amount of
chemistry to make it come to life. But that sense of family comes at the
expense of individual characterization.
Murphy’s Thomas is the ambitious, smart brother, but he’s more
a stoic cypher than an engaging lead — a waste of Murphy’s talents; meanwhile,
older brother Arthur (Paul Anderson) is reduced to playing the hotheaded
muscle. In contrast, “Boardwalk” distills the idea of the American Dream to its
most cynical outcome: Everyone for themselves. The characters are all alone —
Nucky is without his family, Jimmy is a bastard, and Margaret (Kelly Macdonald)
fends for herself after losing her husband. But each character is fully formed,
and their personal struggles often lead to more interesting stories.
The two shows present an interesting look into the focus of
the cultures at the time. It’s individualism versus family history. “Blinders'”
has a stronger theme and more cohesive element, but it’s “Boardwalk Empire’s”
focus on fending for oneself that perhaps speak best for postwar chaos. If
everything and everyone is changing, how long can trust last?
As with its focus on family, “Blinders” devotes itself to
painting a landscape of social change. The laborers of industrial Birmingham
are overworked and underpaid, and the IRA just happens to keep popping up to
secure funds and weapons. Campbell arrives to the city disgusted by all that he
sees, and presents himself as a figure of traditional stability. It’s a
wonderful culture clash, and Campbell’s insistence on crushing dissidence
rather than gangs lays the ground for uneasy dealings with the Shelbys.
The workers’ troubles are embodied in Freddie Thorne (Iddo
Goldberg), Thomas’s friend and war comrade-turned-communist revolutionary. From
his first appearance rousing factor workers, he’s one of the show’s better
characters, torn between personal interest and his beliefs. But “Blinders” is
more concerned with setting the scene than with the specifics. Often-mentioned
strikes never seem to take place on screen, and the revolutionary has to deal
with family issues above all else.
Thorne’s the kind of character “Boardwalk” would never, and
has never, touched — it took four seasons for the show to really take a look
at the racism and inequality in Atlantic City, while communists and the IRA
serve as a distraction to J. Edgar Hoover and a one-time client for Nucky
respectively. In the United States, it’s money that people believe in.
But grand social issues have never been “Boardwalk’s” focus.
For all of its historical in jokes, grand gang wars and commentary, it evolved
into a show about the art of the deal. Almost every scene is about two
characters negotiating an issue – romance, money, favors; the show’s fascinated
by the leveraging of power and human selfishness versus compromise. Betrayals,
surprises and new alliances constantly change the playing field. In a time of
history when a law could easily be outmaneuvered with the right amount of money
and politicians were in bed with the criminals, it all comes down to
negotiation. “Blinders” wants to focus on family and grander social ideas, but
its the one-on-one deal making that creates a more engaging show in
Of course, class does matter to both shows. “Boardwalk
Empire” sets itself in the resort town of Atlantic City. Its protagonists are
wealthy or trying to be wealthy. Even with the desaturated visuals, it’s a
colorful show full of “the good life,” bright colors, and American
cable-standard fan service. It’s a show about the movers and shakers in the
political and criminal worlds. “Blinders” is a different beast. Sure, both
shows enjoy a sense of flair — “Boardwalk” with its flappers and high-end
clubs, “Blinders” with its slow-motion scenes and excellent-if-jarring
selection of modern songs in nearly every scene — but it’s still a show about
those below the people in power.
The production values of “Blinders” are equally
lush, but its Birmingham setting is industrial. Washed out neutral colors
dominate, and instead of bright signs and frolicking vacationers, it’s dust-covered
factor workers who make up most of the background. The Shelbys are well-off,
but compared to Nucky and his peers their tweed suits and homes are pauperish.
Both shows love to work in historical characters, but even then, it’s in
contrast to one another. Nucky mingles with entertainment stars and major politicians,
and the show is partly a who’s-who of rising stars, even in the final season,
which throws in Joe Kennedy and Elliot Ness. But “Blinders” keeps itself
limited to lower-key gangsters. The one big historical figure is Winston
Churchill, Campbell’s superior, who is presented more as an icy boss than a
future prime minister. The show is a period piece firmly rooted in a major time
period, but it’s still a working class period piece.
The postwar era is a fascinating time. It signaled the end
of the old world and the start of the modern age. It also was a time of tough
choices, new beginnings and haunted souls. But it’s too often ignored by the
history books, or looked at solely from a single perspective. That’s why these
two shows do matter. One’s ending, and the other is still just getting started,
yet they go hand-in-hand. As a crime drama, “Peaky Blinders” doesn’t live up to
its potential. But as a look into a society shaken by war, it’s an intriguing picture
of a certain point in history. Paired with “Boardwalk Empire,” and the story of
how different cultures dealt with a great change comes to life.