By Susanne Köller
The BBC’s original TV drama Peaky Blinders (2013–) ended its fourth season with an episode featuring a long denouement after the central climax, seemingly having resolved the narrative’s as well as the protagonist’s tension. But as the character, Tommy Shelby, subsequently disintegrates emotionally, he discusses the origins of his psychological instability with his confidante and aunt Polly. “Could be the war,” she offers as an explanation, before listing “the booze,” “the nerves,” and “our blood” as additional possibilities (“The Company” 55:00–57:00). Here, the series’ status as a complex trauma fiction, steeped in a neo-historical mode of storytelling, is evident. Peaky Blinders serially and cumulatively critiques and subverts the (narrative) troping of trauma, both regarding its genesis and continuity/persistence, by diversifying and complicating its central properties and classifications in what, I argue, amounts to a parapractic approach to both trauma and historical fiction.
In my wider research I am analyzing how serial narrative complexity in long-form, original storytelling on television — including but not limited to what Jason Mittell has coined ‘complex TV’ — has reshaped the classic genre and modes of serial historical fiction. I am proposing that a new mode of emplotting the past for popular serial narratives has emerged that I am tentatively calling serial neo-period drama. These dramas crucially depend on and creatively utilize the novel affordances of contemporary, so-called quality and complex TV storytelling as they serially evolve into a sophisticated, often subtle, self-reflexive representation and negotiation of period and, by extension, period drama. In doing so, this mode of historical narrativization can act as a basis or frame for further and closely related (re)negotiations of critical and cultural frameworks such as heritage, nostalgia, and this article’s focus: trauma.
Trauma, as established by the vast cross- and interdisciplinary body of work on it, is a cultural and research paradigm; trauma narratives and their analysis are ubiquitous. At the same time, fundamental questions concerning the representability of trauma, its defiance and denial of conclusive textualization and interpretation, have always been at the very heart of trauma theories and contested fiercely (see Caruth, Felman, LaCapra, Luckhurst). For literary studies in particular, trauma’s “challenge to the capacities of narrative knowledge” (Luckhurst, Trauma Question 79) and Cathy Caruth’s assertions that incomprehensibility alone constitutes an adequate mode of trauma representation (153-154) remain a contested subject of discussion.
I am suggesting that serial narrative complexity is a mode ideally equipped to attempt the narrativization of (post-)trauma, addressing and negotiating the issues and challenges noted above. Its defining features and respective affordances align effectively with those of trauma, answering Dominic LaCapra’s call for
forms of narrative that do not unproblematically instantiate the conventional beginning-middle-end plot, which seeks resonant closure or uplift but one of the forms that both contest it and suggest other modes of narration that raise in probing and problematic ways the question of the nature of the losses and absences, anxieties and traumas, that called them into existence. (704–705, my emphasis)
Serial narrative complexity can also provide what Roger Luckhurst, in his work on the narrativization of torture, has begun to consider as the narrative tools able to achieve adequately complex representation (“Beyond Trauma” 16–17) beyond the “dominant aesthetic, backed by an ethical imperative, in which there is a certain mode in which representations of trauma should appear,” namely strictly aporetic and “allergic to realism” (12).
Serial narrative complexity as I understand it — drawing from recent works by Mittell, Trisha Dunleavy and Andreas Halskov as well as the much larger discourses on both seriality and complexity — is grounded in the serial form and therefore segmented and fragmented. It affords and often engages in various iterations and degrees of non-linearity, recursiveness, reflexivity and accumulation; it is usually polycentric and multi-layered. Various constellations of these factors, crucially, serve to create ambiguity and uncertainty, and undermine clear causalities, objectivity, and unequivocal closure, often disorienting and confusing the viewers on various narrative levels simultaneously. I am positing that they also hinder or at least suspend singular, definitive deconstruction or meaning making by the viewer. Beyond merely demanding an active, engaged audience — as in puzzle narratives aiming to solve the riddle at the end — this mode of serial complexity challenges the audience to accept a lack of answers, clarity and/or narrative resolution in a larger endorsement of different modes of knowing and underlying ontological uncertainties.
The BBC’s Peaky Blinders is an ongoing, long-form original period drama and one such instance of narrative complexity on TV. It tells the story of a sprawling family clan in interwar Birmingham that is also a business venture involving illegal bookmaking and racketeering. At its outset, in 1919, the three young brothers have just returned from the First World War to their poor, working-class home and taken over business activities from the women of the family, with Tommy, the anti-hero protagonist, taking charge in an effort to better their circumstances — financially, as well as in terms of social status and legitimacy. A sense of constant crisis pervades the storyworld that is as much created by references to the (war) trauma afflicting many of the characters, as by the “mechanization and alienation definitive of the rise of industrial labour and capitalist production in the modern age” (Schuhmaier 28) . The latter is represented stylistically in the fire, ashy darkness, noise, and harshness of (living among) heavy industry, marking the series’ bold aesthetics which eschew “the zero-degree naturalism of familiar [UK period drama] treatments of working-class life” (Long 172) and appropriate US-American genre features, like those of the gangster noir, instead.
Season one of the series introduces trauma via a rather straightforward, troped representation, exemplified in dissociative mental states, explosive, uncontrollable aggression and violence, and horrific nightmares and flashbacks which follow the same pattern. The traumatic stressor is shown as quite literally invading the characters’ present reality, taking control of it and leaving them physically and psychologically diminished. Through Danny ‘Whizzbang’ — the stock character of an erratic, violent veteran who never entirely ‘returned home’ and is aided by those who have intimate knowledge of the nature of his trauma — and the publicly more controlled yet perhaps equally unstable Tommy, war trauma is established as a central narrative force of the text. Moving beyond this initially overt and rather conventional trauma representation, Peaky Blinders increasingly offers a more multi-layered and reflected attempt at representing the unrepresentability of trauma within popular televisual fiction. The series makes an effort to construct the notion of ‘the war’ or ‘France’ in line with modern and contemporary trauma theory and discourses as an absent presence, a haunting stressor that resists explicit, unambiguous emplotment. The war is a traumatic stressor which, rather than as a singular, past event is formulated and textualized as an underlying, structuring entity of the narrative that is ongoing and whose exact causal intricacies remain vague and ambivalent, cumulatively so.
The allegorically charged presence and significance of horses throughout the series is a striking example of this practice: they tie together multiple levels of time and meaning by representing the Shelby family’s cultural and ethnic background as Romani/Romanichal, Tommy’s personal past plans to work with them as an occupation, their relevance and ties to a specific combat trauma as war horses, and lastly, as objects to bet on, to own, breed and train as symbols of newly acquired wealth and upward social mobility. These multiple levels then begin to intersect, overlap, and ambiguously merge as horses remain a constant presence, ambiguously tied to past, present, and future, to traumatic memories and the possibility of working through them.
We can read the motif of the horse as one subtle manifestation of how Peaky Blinders – again serially and cumulatively – amends and augments the ‘classic’ definition of combat trauma as the quintessential traumatic event by diversifying the very notion of what constitutes trauma in the first place. This subversion is two-fold:
1. The series explores different manifestations of traumatogenic events as it progresses. It expands the notion of combat trauma from that of fighting to that of inaction, waiting, and being abandoned, while slowly incorporating multiple family members’ traumas, such as children having been taken away by the state. These traumas’ resolutions are repeatedly addressed, attempted, or even seemingly achieved but ultimately remain elusive and destructive, often subtly embedded in generic narrative arcs. The late or absent cavalry, for example, is a salient, cross-seasonal motif (intertwined with that of the horse) which is highly ambivalent: the late arrival of the Prussian cavalry saved the Shelby Brothers’ lives during the war. Meanwhile, their own cavalry, a representation of class and privilege inaccessible to them, failed to save them. This becomes the subtext of tensions at Tommy’s wedding in season three: when the bride’s family of Protestant Irish cavalrymen attend the festivities in uniform, it is a lesser troped, complex iteration of war trauma – abandonment – which results in open aggression and violence between the wedding parties (“Episode 3.1”), spurring the season’s plot into action. Meanwhile, the loss of her children to the state’s welfare system is the source of Polly’s ongoing trauma. When her daughter is revealed to have died, Polly’s son, Michael, becomes the object of an unsuccessful attempt to resolve it. When he returns as a young man, their reunification remains highly ambivalent. He soon joins the family business but ultimately splits from the family unit(y) and fundamentally betrays his cousin, Tommy.
2. The series’ narrativization of trauma identifiably adopts less ‘canonical’ theoretical perspectives, evolving out of feminist, queer, post-colonial, critical race and Marxist traditions: these theories fundamentally oppose the notion of singular traumatic events and their having to be “outside the range of human experience” (American Psychiatric Association 250) — a still often espoused theoretical tenet that is as vague as it is potent. Judith Herman’s “complex PTSD”, Laura Brown’s “insidious trauma” (“Outside the Range” 122) and, more recently, Angela Onwuachi-Willig’s conceptualization of the “trauma of the routine” (335) all insist on the existence and legitimacy of systemic, quotidian, and therefore often serial trauma and/or retraumatization.
Herman insists on dissolving the boundaries of what constitutes a traumatic origin and the notion of “relatively circumscribed traumatic events”, pointing instead to “the protean sequelae of prolonged, repeated trauma” by which she explicitly means “a state of captivity” such as in “prisons, concentration camps, and slave labor camps” (377–78) but also, crucially, “some families” (378). Brown builds on this notion, noting how individual trauma “is not merely about what happened in the moment but also reflects what occurred before and what transpires next,” (Cultural Competence 3) and that trauma’s “unique meaning arises from the cultural and group memberships in which a person participates and from the multiple, intersecting identities defining each person’s individual sense of selfhood” (4). Onwuachi-Willig takes these ideas as the basis for her observation that trauma then is not always a disruption of a status quo or routine, but it may be the exact opposite: the cumulative harm done by such routines and their public affirmation, “the continuation of what is considered to be a given or expected subordination […] that creates the context in which a cultural trauma can be narrated” (336) — which in her case study is systemic racism. In line with these diversified conceptualizations of trauma, Peaky Blinders serially and cumulatively integrates cultural and systemic classism, sexism, and racism into its narrative, thereby subtly framing its main characters’ acting out as a consequence of much more complicated socio-cultural linkages than just the First World War. It does so in a storyworld filled with characters that have experienced not just concrete and/or singular traumatogenic events, but processes and structures whose (acts of) traumatizing are serially ongoing as they are related to the individuals’ gender, class, and ethnic identities.
I am proposing that Peaky Blinders’ approach to emplot these complex ideas — via complex seriality — is a parapractic one, in Thomas Elsaesser’s terms. The series displays a proclivity for asking questions and refusing answers, which we may read as a deliberate failure in line with Elsaesser’s concept of Fehlleistung or its (contested) English translation parapraxis. Elsaesser’s term is a (re)appropriation of Sigmund Freud’s concept of Fehlleistung, originally denoting the inadvertent revelation of unconscious thoughts, desires or worries — itself popularly misconstrued in the contemporary expression ‘Freudian slip’. He adopts the term due to its paradoxical quality, noting the inherent clash of the notion of ‘Fehl’ (failure) and ‘Leistung’ (achievement), which he deems particularly productive when dealing with trauma representation, thereby approaching it as “as a paradox of representation, not its impossibility” (Donn 16; see also Elsaesser 8–20). By identifying Peaky Blinders’ narrative strategies in representing trauma as parapractic, I am referring to them being founded upon and constructed around an insistence on ambiguity and independent of positive knowledge, embracing a certain degree of ontological uncertainty. The narrative accumulates hints and cues, suggestions for decoding and making meaning of the traumas ostensibly having occurred prior to the discourse time. All the while, serially, more information accrues for the viewer that has the cumulative potential to disturb established narratives, shift temporalities and unsettle causalities. The series’ complex narrativization of trauma is therefore “capable of carrying apparently self-contradictory meanings that do not just delay or suspend resolution but achieve an equilibrium all of their own” (Elsaesser 8).
This recursiveness, serial revision and subtle refusal of formulaic, easily interpretable representations (both of the past and trauma, often strongly interrelated) as well as the series’ asking of questions it does not intend to answer, can be exemplified by briefly discussing two scenes from the particularly self-reflexive fourth season. During an exchange with the character of Jesse Eden (“Blackbird” 35:50–41:30) — Tommy’s conversations with the women in his life having become an established formula and intrinsic norm to establish his complex emotional interiority — it is revealed that Tommy had wanted to marry an Italian woman, Greta Jurossi, before the war but was rejected by her family due to him being “a Watery Lane Gypsie”. We can identify this fundamental rejection both for his cultural and ethnic background, as well as communal ties and class affiliation, as a crucial, arguably traumatogenic event of the character’s early life, preceding his war experiences. In fact, it must be read in close relation to the subsequent event of Greta’s death from consumption and Tommy’s enlistment in the army. I am arguing that the series here not only complicates the notion of the war as the character’s initial traumatic stressor, solely responsible for his symptoms, but it also complicates its own textual, narrative history by retroactively destabilizing seemingly definitive statements and interpretations about the singular significance of the war and the death of its protagonist’s wife earlier in the series. Both now rather appear as belonging to a seriality of complex trauma. Relatedly, there are several references throughout the series which imply a continuation of characteristics of the protagonist, rather than a complete break, such as when Tommy himself notes that “before the war, when I had an important decision to make, I would flip a coin” (“Episode 1.6” 00:52) and proceeds to do the same then, or the photo shown of him and Greta displaying an equally cold and distant looking Tommy as to what he appears like in the narrative present. Similarly commenting on uncertainties and ambiguities, the finale of the fourth season eminently subscribes to a poetics of parapraxis. Here, Tommy has seemingly prevailed against his enemies and aims to rest and rehabilitate, only to find out that he is too psychologically unstable to stop, breaking down in a dissociative, alcohol-fueled episode. The narrative framing and aesthetics of that scene are reminiscent of the aforementioned overt and troped representations of traumatic flashbacks and the ‘acting out’ earlier in the series. Yet, they refrain from point-of-view shots and thereby forego textualization and literalization of the trauma. In a subsequent, calm exchange with Polly (“The Company” 55:00–57:00), both agree that Tommy’s condition is not singular, but serially ongoing and that, crucially, its origin(s) remain ambiguous: “the booze”, “the war”, “the nerves” or “in our blood”, referring to their Romani heritage and hinting at the presence of complex transgenerational trauma.
Within this rather brief sequence, functioning almost like an epilogue to the fourth season in its self-reflexiveness, the series thus moves from a familiar, troped representation of PTSD to a diversified, parapractic approach by which it “registers a blur that troubles the implied transparency of the ‘facts’”: is it actually (just) the war that caused Tommy’s traumatized state? By opening up an ambiguous space of not-knowing (for the viewer as much as for the characters), where “Parapraxis adds the counter-knowledge of [the facts’] implications, and the doubts and self-doubt that are attached to [their] apparent self-evidence,” (Elsaesser 105) Peaky Blinders refuses resolution and the “resonant closure” which LaCapra (704) points out as unsuitable for trauma fictions. Rather, it indicates where “meaning in the text does not come off, that which in the text, and through which the text, fails to mean” (Felman 112) and thereby establishes for itself an entirely different mode of knowing; a parapractic one.
In this article, I have argued that this parapractic approach provides the framework for and has the potential to engage with complicated processes of trauma representation and narrativization. As a result, the approach acknowledges the impossibilities of such processes, and still strives to attempt, if not achieve, them. Within a larger, neo-historical mode (see Rousselot), such an approach can function similarly for historical fiction more broadly, offering a (para)praxis that “provide[s] a means to critique, conceptualize, engage with and reject [these same] processes” (DeGroot 2) of representation. While these representations must remain by their very nature imperfect or even inadequate in (re)figuring the past and its traumata, complex seriality and its affordances of (self-)reflexivity, recursiveness, accumulation and resulting ambiguity allow them — as I have begun to show here — a commitment to seeking alternative forms of (historical) knowledge in popcultural narrativization.
Susanne Köller, “Ambiguity and Parapraxis: Serially Reframing Trauma in Peaky Blinders,” Alluvium, Vol. 10, No. 1 (2022). Web 29 April 2022. DOI:https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v10.1.02
About the Author
Susanne Köller (she/her) is a lecturer with the literature arts and media department at University of Konstanz, where she is currently finishing her Ph.D. on narratively complex representations of the past in contemporary, original television drama. Her research interests include theories of seriality and complexity, historical fiction, time and temporalities, trauma, and their intersections. Susanne has previously published on cumulative effects on longform storytelling in Mad Men and ambiguously ‘difficult women’ in Westworld. She enjoys teaching primarily twentieth and twenty-first century narratives across media and anglophone cultures with a focus on television and serial texts. Say hello @s_koeller.
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