Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Godfather and Peaky Blinders: Why, Oh Why Did Apollonia and Grace Have To Die?

Michael Corleone and Apollonia 
on their wedding night

(Major Spoiler Alert!)

As I approach the computer I have the sensation that when I write this post, I will be playing music on the keys. Mozart, something gentle and soft, such are the emotions I feel toward these two characters that fate or writers or directors has decided to eliminate.

Apollonia, “More Greek than Italian!” The stunner in the film “The Godfather” who caught Michael Corleone’s eye and heart as the thunderbolt hit him while he was in hiding in Italy. The thunderbolt. So Italian to call it that, a misnomer because, really, the thunder roars and the lightning bolts. But, in Italian slang, it hits the mark. “You were hit with the thunderbolt!” cries one of his bodyguards. 

Michael and his bodyguards are walking in the hills. Here is the description of Apollonia as Puzo wrote it in the novel: “They [the girls] were dressed in cheap gaily printed frocks that clung to their bodies…Three or four of them started chasing one girl…The girl being chased held a bunch of huge purple grapes in her left hand and with her right hand was picking grapes off the cluster and throwing them at her pursuers. She had a crown of ringleted hair as purple-black as the grapes and her body seemed to be bursting out of its skin. Just short of the grove, she poised, startled, having caught the alien color of the men’s shirts. She stood there on her toes poised like a deer to run…Her skin was an exquisite dark creaminess and her eyes, enormous, dark violet or brown but dark with long heavy lashes…her mouth was rich…and dyed dark red with the juice of the grapes. She was so incredibly lovely that one of the bodyguards murmured, “Jesus Christ, take my soul, I’m dying.”

Puzo describes what Michael is feeling: “…he found himself standing, his heart pounding in his chest, he felt a little dizzy. The blood was surging through his body, through all the extremities and pounding against the tips of his fingers, the tips of his toes. All the perfumes of the island came rushing in on the wind, orange, lemon blossoms, grapes, flowers. It seemed as if his body had sprung away from him, out of himself. And then he heard the bodyguards laughing. ‘You got hit by the thunderbolt.’" 

When Michael and his bodyguards describe Apollonia to a local café owner who happens to be her father, the man shouts, “No!” saying he does not know her. Michael immediately realizes he has insulted the father; he elegantly proposes marriage in the old way, saving the day. And unless you have been living on the moon, you know all this already and you also know that the old world courtship takes place so beautifully you want to die forgetting that in the old world not every groom was so handsome and fine and not every bride so happy. No matter! When Apollonia disrobes on her wedding night, we swoon. Her dark skin! Her breasts, so innocent and sweet! Michael! Into what unknown country have you ventured?

Here is how Puzo describes their wedding night: “Her flesh and hair, taut silk, now she was all eagerness, surging against him wildly in a virginal erotic frenzy. When he entered her, she gave a little gasp and was still for just a second and then in a powerful thrust of her pelvis, she locked her satiny leg around his hips…” We know from her lovemaking that Apollonia is more than a quiet virgin.

The next time we see Apollonia she is learning how to drive; she is chattering happily and waving her hands about explaining that now she knows everything, “Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday!” Her long dark hair is up, in the old way, when a married woman no longer wore her hair down because a woman’s hair was considered flirtatious and now that she was married she should be more formal and refined.

We fall in love with Apollonia just as Michael did. In the throes of love comes despair. Apollonia is killed by a car bomb meant for Michael, even while we are laughing at the remark made by one of his bodyguards, “She’s gonna make a great American wife!” Even as we laugh at her cuteness at wanting to drive to Michael, as Michael softly smiles, then, as he sees one of the bodyguards sneaking off, he, realizing it’s a trap, screams, “Apollonia, no, no!” Disaster, horror, grief! How can this be?

But, we know. It was the author, Mario Puzo’s decision to kill Apollonia, when he wrote The Godfather. But, it is the director, Frances Ford Coppola, who explains in The Godfather Notebook, “Apollonia’s simple grace and overwhelming beauty MUST DOMINATE THIS WHOLE SECTION OF THE FILM. While she is alive, Michael can truly think of nothing else.” We surmise that Michael would have been too happy, too content with Apollonia, and he needed to be bitter, angry, hard for the work to come. His older brother, Sonny, has been assassinated in New York, making Michael’s return to the real world inevitable. Stylistically, Michael cannot continue to live in wedded bliss in Italy, in the old world, as though the new world and his new responsibilities did not exist.

Ah, me!

I am bereft. I want it both ways. I don’t see why Apollonia can’t fit into Michael’s new life in America. I still imagine the scenarios. Apollonia in New York. Apollonia shopping. Apollonia wearing her new clothes, sophisticated in her new hat. Apollonia pregnant. Apollonia cooking. Apollonia listening closely to the advice of her mother-in-law, seriously nodding her lovely head. Apollonia with children around her. All these scenes are still in my imagination. I even have imagined Apollonia’s reaction to Kay’s abortion, as though both stories could exist at the same time. I see Apollonia’s face stone cold and proud. She would never, never do such a thing. Never would she think it.

Sigh. I never liked Kay. 

At the end of the day, I miss Apollonia for all the wonderful scenes, comedies and dramas, she would have played. Yes, Michael would have had his hands even more full. Yes, our attention would have been drawn from the decidedly masculine action. Who am I to re-write The Godfather? I am the one who misses her. Perhaps we have to have tragedy before we can appreciate what remains - Mary Corleone. Michael’s beautiful, Madonna-like daughter. 

Oh, nope. Sorry, she also dies.

Grace Shelby

Now, Grace.

Grace, of the Netflix Original series, “Peaky Blinders,” about the Shelbys, a Birmingham, England family, charming Romany criminals led by the noble, intelligent, handsome Thomas Shelby. I’m a sucker for the noble thief. 

When we first see Grace - and her music is tinkling, trés gentile (“dreamy, ethereal,” as the captions call it) - she is walking toward Tommy Shelby’s bar The Garrison where she applies to be a barmaid. What looks like a gentle falling snow surrounds her as she approaches the bar. Suddenly, you realize, that’s not snow, it’s falling ash. This is Birmingham, England and Grace is the only light thing in the darkness.

Grace is a delicate blonde beauty with patrician lines. In fact, we learn Grace comes from a good family. She has joined the police force as an undercover agent to avenge the death of her policeman father by the IRA. Tommy’s not Irish. He is Romany, (aka Gypsy), an English criminal, a bookmaker, who happened on some brand new automatic weapons whilst robbing the BSA company warehouse. Finding these guns becomes the mission of the Crown and law enforcement.

Grace stands out. She wears no make-up, yet her large blue eyes are beautifully expressive. Her light hair is delicate, flowing around her face in soft, natural waves. She’s wearing a sheer white blouse and a soft green suit. The bar manager at first refuses her, saying she is “too nice.” “How do you know I’m nice?” Grace accuses him. She might not be nice.

She tells him she can sing, and she does, not in a sweet high voice you might expect from such a delicate form, but in a clear, bold alto. Riveting.

In fact, Tommy is struck (much like Michael Corelone) with the thunderbolt when he sees Grace for the first time. She obviously doesn’t fit. Unlike Michael, Tommy keeps his head. “Are you a whore?” he asks her, “because if you’re not, you’re in the wrong place.” Grace is hurt, but she perseveres.

Tommy doesn’t allow singing in the bar. He hates the Irish songs. But, he allows Grace to sing. He is feeling particularly down one evening. He tells her to sing. They are alone after hours in the bar. He tells her stand on a chair and sing. She stands on a chair. “Happy or sad?” she asks Tommy. “Sad,” he chooses.

As Grace sings beautifully, Tommy does something we know he can’t do - he falls asleep. We happen to know Tommy cannot sleep; he uses opium to sleep, to block out the night terrors of digging the tunnels in the mud of Flanders.

Grace remains standing silently on the chair.


Grace doesn’t remain a barmaid for long. She quickly moves up to bookkeeper, making her privy to a lot of Shelby family business information. Grace falls in love with Tommy, but she betrays him anyway. Soon, she realizes where the guns are, and she reports this info to her superiors. After killing a few IRA guys, Grace becomes closer and closer to Tommy. Though she betrays him, she also protects him, hiding him in her room in a poor rooming house. The couple make love; they are in love. Tommy sleeps again, through the night. 

Grace writes to Tommy proposing a new life in America. Tommy writes back that he will consider her proposal. He says, “I learnt long ago to hate my enemies. But I’ve never loved one before. The idea of New York is interesting, but I have worked so hard for this day. For this victory. (Though Grace betrayed him, Tommy still won the fight.) I have responsibilities here. For people I need to protect and people who I love…I will give you my decision in three days.” He signs the letter, “All my Love, Thomas Shelby.”

Grace is already at the train station, where she must defend herself against her former boss who holds a gun to her head. :51 seconds to the end, Grace shoots her gun through her purse.


I suppose it’s the same as Michael Corleone. Thomas has responsibilities. His way of life is extremely dangerous. We wouldn’t want Thomas to become too soft or too happy. But, unlike Apollonia, Grace is trained in warfare. It was and still is hard for me to suffer that the day they return from their honeymoon, Grace dies from a bullet meant for Tommy. She would have been sooo much fun to watch develop as a character, she might have even stolen the show from Tommy.

I wonder, too, as I watch, how deep does this phenomenon go? I mean, Apollonia, Grace, Mary Corleone, these are the things we fight for, die for: home, hearth, love, family, all the good and beautiful things in life. These we fight to protect. Yet, these are the sacrifices. Are the stories saying, in effect, I guess we can't have nice things? Someone, or some force, is always trying to take them from us.

Peaky Blinders is not the same without Grace. All the other blondes on the show are brassy, fakey, creepy, angry, stupid. They’re just not Grace. They don’t have her natural, well - grace. Not her intelligence. Her stature. Her poetry. Her way with Tommy. Grace goes deep.

I couldn’t bear to watch the new season. Season 5. It took me a long time to come around, but when I did, what a lovely surprise! 

Grace. Tommy talks to Grace. He sees her. She speaks back. “Happy or sad?” she asks. And she holds Tommy’s weary head to her breast. Tommy has a death wish. Twice, we see him struggle with the urge to harm himself. Then, after a colleague is killed by a car bomb, Tommy hesitates to start his car. Grace is in the backseat. “Push the button, Tommy. Come home to me,” Grace says. Tommy pushes the button. The car starts up safely and Grace disappears again.

At the end of Season 5, we have what people are calling “a strange ending.” This is the third time Tommy expresses his death wish. He is unable to stop a fascist movement in England. He has said he would stop when he met the man he couldn’t defeat. The screen goes X-Files blue. Tommy and Arthur are at home, in front of their house, with Arthur trying to console Tommy about the events gone wrong, “Let’s go inside. We’ll work it out. Have a drink.” “I need to walk.” Tommy sets off into the blue fog over the field where the landmines had been; he sees Grace, there is a dark horse, as in the Jew’s dream. Grace says, “The work’s all done, Tommy. It’s all done. We can walk away from all of this. It’s so easy. It’s so soft. Such a small change.” 

Tommy puts his gun to his head and screams. 



Spoiler Peaky Blinders - There will be a Season 6 and 7 - Cillian Murphy (Tommy Shelby) has already signed on. After all, we didn't hear a gun shot.

Two things I learned about The Godfather while researching this post - 1. Michael and Apollonia lived in Italy for months before she was killed. When Apollonia died, she was pregnant. 2. The guilty bodyguard disappeared after the bombing, but many years later, Michael tracks him down to a pizza parlor in Buffalo where a Corleone soldier kills him with, “Michael Corleone sends his regards.”

©Patricia Goodwin, 2019

Patricia Goodwin is the author of When Two Women Die, about Marblehead legends and true crime and its sequel, Dreamwater, about the Salem witch trials and the vicious 11-year-old pirate Ned Low. Holy Days is her third novel, about the sexual, psychological seduction of Gloria Wisher and her subsequent transformation. Her newest poetry books are Telling Time By Apples, And Other Poems About Life On The Remnants of Olde Humphrey Farme, illustrated by the author, and Java Love: Poems of a Coffeehouse.