Matt Zoller Seitz explains what’s wrong with Terence Winter’s sumptuous but slightly shaky Boardwalk Empire, which returned last night. I appear to enjoy the series a lot more than Seitz does, although I agree with him that it hasn’t hit the heights of the likes of Deadwood or The Sopranos. But vanishingly few shows in the history of television have, after all. If Boardwalk Empire was the worst we could do, we’d be doing pretty damn great, which Seitz has no problem saying.
Seitz’s complaint is that despite being exquisitely dressed, shot, and acted, the show writes character in a comparatively perfunctory and haphazard way, especially compared to the evident glee it takes in delivering gangster genre goodies. In other words, his critique is the mirror image of my circa-Season-One-finale praise, which is that (unlike The Walking Dead) it takes genre stuff I’m predisposed to like (which The Walking Dead has) and surrounds it with lusciously pleasurable filmmaking on other levels (which The Walking Dead doesn’t have). That it has a hard time going further than that — that the writing is inconsistent enough (cf. my complaint about Margaret’s yo-yo morality) to prevent it from getting there — is Seitz’s beef.
The thing is, though, that I do think it has greatness in it. Richard Harrow’s explanation of why he doesn’t read anymore, for example, is maybe my favorite line in television history. “It occurred to me the basis of fiction is that people have some sort of connection with each other. But they don’t.” That is the most brutally bleak thing any TV character who isn’t Livia Soprano or BOB has ever said in my hearing. What makes it even more vicious is that it’s an indictment of the very enterprise its writer was engaged in at that moment. This is followed by a scene in which an unusually empathetic Jimmy Darmody takes Richard back to Johnny Torio’s brothel to relax, at which point some small talk about Jimmy’s piece gradually becomes, to the viewer’s dawning horror, a litany of the arsenal possessed by Harrow, a man who has just professed feeling no connection to the rest of humanity whatsoever. Here’s an example where not only is there brilliant, philosophically minded character work being done, but it actually enhances the bloody, scary gangster stuff in the process.
Harrow is, I think, the emblematic figure for what I believe to be the theme of the show, a theme Seitz hasn’t been able to put his finger on, which is that violence, in war and elsewhere, is just run-of-the-mill corruption and shittiness with its mask off. The Great War that made monsters of Harrow and Jimmy also provided Al Capone with a readymade backstory for why he’s the tough customer he’s made himself out to be, and is used by the Colonel as a justification for the sneak-attack slaughter of a warehouse full of black people, and is echoed in the sectarian strife of Ireland that pops up here and there among Nucky Thompson’s Hibernian politician pals, and on and on and on. If The Sopranos is about how people will choose to do the wrong thing if it’s easy enough, and Deadwood is about the price of doing the right thing anyway, Boardwalk Empire is about the pervasiveness of the wrong thing, so that you’re all but locked into supporting it in one way or another. In his essay, Seitz wonders what Jimmy Darmody’s motivation is — I think it’s your basic post-Great War Lost Generation nihilism. Why constantly bite the hand that feeds? Why not?
Again, Seitz is absolutely right to say that the inconsistent character work muddies the waters. The kindness in Nucky that Margaret saw in Season One and which separated him distinctly from Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen is a lot tougher to detect when he’s complicit in the Ku Klux Klan’s hatecrimes. And Harrow’s bracingly direct expression of human disconnect doesn’t jibe with his now apparent obsession with idealized family life. But somewhere in here there’s a statement about the enormity of man’s inhumanity to man that’s fixing to be made. As long as the show continues to be so pleasant to watch as it meanders its way in that direction, I’ll meander with it.