In the turbulent era between the end of the First World War and the full swing of the Roaring Twenties, a cunning and aloof gangster must navigate a treacherous criminal underworld to rise in power, while being pursued by a staunchly religious but morally grey police officer and trying (unsuccessfully) not to fall in love with a timid girl who’s more of a badass than she seems. Shall we visit this case in Birmingham or Atlantic City?
Basically, everyone’s got a bit of a hype for period drama gangsters right now, leading to the existence of both Peaky Blinders, which follows the English gang of the same name, and Boardwalk Empire, which follows the rise to power of a corrupt politician in Prohibition era America. They both bring up questions of morality, power, religion, corruption, family, and a lot of slick dialogue as they play with the intricacies of criminal politics. After watching the first season of each (a while ago, in Boardwalk Empire’s case, and in the case of Peaky Blinders, I watched all of it in the wee hours of one night, so I apologise for any inaccuracies in referring to either) I’ve decided to have a poke at both to see if one of them wins this proverbial turf war for our viewership. Major spoiler free!
Both series feature heroes of the “he manipulates and murders people but he’s a good guy with a troubled past, really” variety, and I’m not sure it’s quite fitting to compare them directly since apart from that surface level they aren’t actually that similar. Both Nucky Thompson of Boardwalk and Thomas Shelby of Blinders are brilliantly played, of course, the famous blue eyes of both Steve Buscemi and Cillian Murphy conveying a wonderfully complex mess of a man beneath all the calculated banter and professional mask.
Nucky is a master of smarm where Tommy is more in the camp of practical menace, but that stems from the former being a politician and the latter being a thug, and I think which character you get more attached to depends what flavour of a anti-hero you prefer. Either way, they’re both legitimately morally complex, a satisfying mix of self-serving and sympathetic; not so much morally bankrupt as keeping a few coins of goodness deep in their pocket waiting for a really special occasion. You’re never quite sure if they’re going to help or use the people around them, and you find yourself hooked on figuring them out.
It’s pretty easy to spot that the main antagonists hunting them down are cut from the same archetypal cloth too: Nelson Van Alden is essentially the Anti-Nucky the same way Inspector Campbell is the Anti-Thomas, the staunch figure of justice and morality brought in to bring down their empire of sin (and an eventual unrequited romantic rival to the main character, which in both cases only serves to add to their creepiness). And by the end of the first season, both of them are shown to be pretty morally grey themselves, usually a result of their inner demons being brought to the surface by their increasingly frustrating cat-and-mouse game with their pet gangster.
The key difference for me was, I just felt sort of sorry for Van Alden, watching everything he believed in slip through his fingers as he was forced to reconcile with the fact he was inherently terrible… whereas I recoiled in cringey terror every time Campbell appeared on screen. It speaks of a well-crafted villain when your viewers mutter “stop that and go away” or much ruder variations whenever they so much as open their moustache-topped mouths.
Oddly enough, the peak of both men’s character arc before it slam-dunks towards utter villainy is a really awkward sex scene where they do a woman of questionable or purchasable virtue from behind. Which is… a strange accidental motif, though it does well to show that in the heat of things they’re just incredibly frustrated, power-grubbing people who aren’t afraid to harm others for their own gain (Campbell hurts and scares the prostitute, Van Alden gets Lucy pregnant)… which is a bit of a shocking realisation to both of them, actually. Though I can’t speak for later seasons, plot summaries indicate Van Alden deals with his new heart of debauchery with less grace than Campbell (who is also going on with less Grace, now that I think about it…)
On the note of sudden and bizarre smut scenes, I’d have to say that Peaky Blinders is much more appealing if, like me, you aren’t entirely enthused by HBO’s at-least-one-boob-an-episode policy. Sex and violence should only be featured when necessary, otherwise we become desensitised and the appearance of both becomes, as well as uncomfortable, commonplace and boring… which, when such things are being used for shock value, is literally the opposite of your goal. And, being HBO, there are in general more shock value shenanigans and random bouts of fan service in Boardwalk Empire, whether you’re talking about people getting shot in the face or Lucy’s entire character essentially being That One Sexy Chick for the majority of the series.
Which brings me to the ladies, of which there are a disappointing lack of in both series, with only about three or four prominent recurring female characters in each. Again, though, it comes down to the role they play and how they’re treated as characters—which case, Boardwalk Empire still loses spectacularly, despite Margaret being my favourite thing about it. We see her develop as a character and she consistently has her own plotline, which features a battle of morals within herself and central conflict surrounding protecting herself and her family. Nucky-centric as it is, it’s also about her at its core.
If you find that dull, you can always look to the other female characters in the series… where truth be told, you won’t really find anything better, most of them falling under the That One Sexy Chick category (including Jimmy’s mother, who was so sexed-up even around her son it took me a moment to actually figure out their relationship), or another wife or girlfriend. There was that one potentially interesting bisexual love affair storyline, but it got axed and sent Nowhere with such inexplicable speed and force it gave me a neck injury.
Peaky Blinders has about the same amount of women in its cast, if not less, but they’re all distinctly different. There’s the matriarchal gangster figure of Aunt Polly, who has a soft emotional centre and cares deeply about her family and will murder people with a hairpin to protect them; budding flapper Ada who just wants everyone to stop messing around; and undercover agent Grace who’s dealing with her own revenge quest alongside seeking approval from her father figure Inspector Campbell, and having to grow up real fast when she realises she has the ability to kill people.
Apart from all being intrinsically tied to Tommy plot and relation wise, you get the sense that they could exist without him and aren’t necessarily there to fill a role: they have their own motivations and you never get the sense that they’re a prop, least of all for fan service, which was genuinely refreshing coming straight from Boardwalk. They also talk to each other and have relationships of different kinds! Incredible.
Characters aside, the backdrop worldbuilding of both series is fantastic—each sprawling set is beautifully realised, period-accurate as well as tailored to create an appropriate atmosphere and aesthetic, be it the gritty industrial districts of Birmingham or the glitzy tourist-trap boardwalk of Atlantic City. Boardwalk Empire, I have to say, kind of beats you over the head with its historical setting, taking every opportunity to mention current affairs or show characters reading then-contemporary novels. It can feel like a history lesson, or a constant reminder of how knowledgeable the writers are.
Peaky Blinders’ greatest anchor to its time period is all the hark-back to World War I, which is handled much more prominently and deftly than the other show. Tommy suffers from PTSD which manifests everywhere including the soundtrack, which you don’t notice at first, until you pick up on the heartbeat-like drumming of enemy picks in the background of tense and emotional moments. The War is touched on but not really delved into in Boardwalk except that it gave us characters with brutal injuries and sick sniper skills.
I’d say Boardwalk was more showy, but let’s be real, whether or not it’s as glitzy, the cinematography of Blinders is designed to make you drool. It also uses contemporary music as opposed to the jazz Boardwalk usually employs, which could annoy some purists, but serves that beautifully built atmosphere. It’s a joy to watch even when the scenery and action itself should by all rights be boring. Both series feature a lot of talking between white men in suits, but somehow it remains visually compelling. The final moments of Peaky Blinders’ season finale are masterfully put together—as opposed to Boardwalk’s, which faded off as somewhat of an anticlimax while seeming to pat itself on the back for its hard work.
The ugly question rears its head: is one better than the other? It depends on what you like, really: Boardwalk is more glittery and debauched and Jazz Age, shining with the slime of corrupt politics, and Blinders has all the smog-stained brutality of post-war English thug business. It’s smoky alleys and pubs where Boardwalk is fancy hotels and cocktail bars. Whatever your aesthetic of choice is, if you want to watch a morally complex anti-hero strut his way to criminal victory with All the Burdens of the World on his suited shoulders, either show will do you just fine.
I personally found myself more invested in Peaky Blinders—it’s less self-congratulatory and its main cast is more tightly knit and doesn’t sprawl off into subplots spanning multiple cities, and thus you learn more about Tommy Shelby and his family and genuinely feel for them even when they’re slicing people’s ears off with their razor blade hats. Not to say I didn’t feel an attachment to any of the characters in Boardwalk, but its ambitious scale, huge cast and distracting blooms of naked bodies and bloody explosions failed to capture my attention as much.
Case in point: I looked up Boardwalk Empire plot summaries to find out if my few favourite characters would be okay, whereas I plan to actually put the effort in and sit down to watch the second season of Peaky Blinders. And though it does speak of the moreish nature of the series, I will try not to watch the entire thing in one night again.