Posts Tagged ‘Boardwalk Empire’
* 1. Mad Men 2. Breaking Bad 3. Boardwalk Empire
* Boardwalk “Blackwater”
* I’m consistently entertained by this show, and amazed by that entertainment. I mean it. I haven’t re-read all my reviews so I’m not 100% sure, but I’m almost there: I don’t think I once reached the closing credits this season thinking “Meh,” let alone “Goddammit.” That puts Boardwalk in very rare company indeed. So I’ll go to war for this show, one of the great pleasures of my life over the past few months. I wish a fraction of the ink spilled over that shitty Homeland episode had been spent on this magnificent thing, this pretty hate machine.
* I’m not sure what new thing I can add to all the reasons I’ve cited before as to why I think this show really has become Great TV. Here’s what I said about it this time last year:
I think that when genre material gets sufficiently dark or weird, when its tropes become a form of sinister spectacle rather than just hitting the marks required by convention, that’s a depth all its own — a way to communicate the emotional and philosophical themes more commonly articulated by plot and dialogue, if at all. Boardwalk Empire the balls-to-the-wall engine of gorgeously shot death that perverts and slaughters its characters in periodic fits of nihilism is saying at least as much as some theoretical Boardwalk Empire the meticulously drawn character study, or Boardwalk Empire the rigorously developed allegory for contemporary political issues.
You can quibble over the quality of the execution, and that’s perfectly valid. But to dismiss Boardwalk Empire as phony baloney, as faux-Great TV, to say it’s empty-calorie gangsterism, is to make an argument that aesthetic sensation is inherently empty sensation. Personally, I think watching beautifully backlit bodies jerk from machine-gun fire for half a minute as men whoop and cheer says something without speaking. Same as a distorted guitar. Same as a visit from the Black Lodge. Its superrealism is real to me. There’s a line I wrote down from this episode and now I don’t know who said it, or when, or why, and google doesn’t help, but here: “Where’s the God in this?” As real as it gets.
* Part of the problem, perhaps, is that it’s obvious to everyone watching that this will never be a show that will make its audience complain “When is someone gonna get whacked?” This will never be a show that will frustrate audience expectations — delay their gratification in service of playing a season-long game instead of an episode-by-episode one, sure, but never frustrate them. For God’s sake, Terence Winter wrote “Pine Barrens” and spent the rest of his tenure on The Sopranos trying to convince David Chase to resolve the fate of the Russian. Is there a more perfectly illustrative anecdote than that in the history of television? The trick is to deliver what the audience expects in a way that feels like it fulfills those expectations rather than panders to them. Does Boardwalk pull it off? Watch the Richard sequence from this episode and then you tell me.
* It’s easy to overlook in light of everything else that happened — happened seconds later, even — but I think Gillian’s storyline in this episode was the first time I felt Boardwalk Empire really did right by one of its female characters, really treated her plight, her scheme, her damage with same sense of enormity with which it’s treated those of the men for so long. Her sexual brinksmanship with Gyp Rosetti amazed me.
Having driven away the men who could have protected her and Tommy from the depredations of Gyp and his goons, Gillian realizes, too late, that the Artemis Club truly is no place for a child, or even for her. So she attempts to free herself and her grand/son from captivity with the only weapon she has: her ability to figure out what men want, and deliver. This is likely the most high-stakes gamble she’s ever taken with her sexuality since the bad old days of her childhood relationship with the Commodore. Gyp is a 1) thin-skinned 2) sociopath who gets off on 3) sado-masochistic 4) humiliation and 5) asphyxiation: any one of those ingredients are potentially lethal to a prostitute forced to do business with them, let alone all of them in tandem with nothing less than the life of child in the balance. However monstrous and unsympathetic Gillian’s behavior has been throughout the last two seasons, I felt nothing but tremendous sadness for her as she put her body and dignity on the line, probing Gyp for his sexual secrets, delicately taking one step at a time until at last he put himself where she needed him to be. How devastating for her and us both that her best, the sum total of everything she’d been forced to learn by the men who preyed on her for years and years and made her into a predator in turn, wasn’t good enough. “Someone’s gotta lose.” Ugh, ugh, ugh.
* Her subsequent “conversation” with Nucky, after suddenly appearing, beatific and from out of nowhere, in a hallway full of dead people, was the episode’s most explicitly dreamlike moment, and as I’ve said over and over the show is rarely better than when it’s dragging the structure and imagery of nightmares into the real world. This was Nucky’s earlier hallucinations of a young Jimmy Darmody made real — a sudden and unavoidable encounter with the past in living form. What a nightmare for Gillian, and what a collision with the uncanny for the baffled, then horrified Nucky. Never forget, Enoch.
* Even Margaret’s material worked, at long last. Kelly MacDonald goes a long way toward overlooking how poorly the show has historically done by Margaret. Her rapidfire 180-degree morality turns throughout season one were a mess, and her fixation on religious guilt during season two was more consistent but also more dull, since nothing is death to drama like Roman Catholicism. For a long time it seemed like her newfound interest in women’s reproductive health and freedom was just a new way to atone after the failures of temperance and Jesus.
* But when she stepped out of the communal bathroom after her abortion and encountered the Luciferian presence of Nucky in the hallway, mirroring the miscarriage that brought him to her in the pilot episode, it all clicked for me: For the women of Boardwalk Empire biology is destiny and pregnancy is a life sentence. Margaret loses her baby at her abusive husband’s hands, driving her to Nucky (and driving Nucky to order a murder, for what I believe to be the first time). Years later, her pregnancy with Owen is the final straw for her decision to leave Nucky, and she abandons Nucky and (more importantly?) his money within minutes of reaching down between her legs and finding blood following her abortion. Pregnancy through rape irrevocably altered the lives of Gillian Darmody and her young son. Pregnancy by Jimmy wedded Angela Darmody to a man, a life, and a sexuality she had no business with. The first Mrs. Van Alden was kept in lonely thrall by her husband’s decision not to fund fertility treatments for her, and left him once she discovered he’d impregnated another woman. That woman, Lucy Danziger, viewed her pregnancy as parasitical, sucking away her life and looks and freedom, and ran from it as soon as she could. The inability of women of this time period to control their own lives without being able to control their own bodies is as much of a throughline through all three seasons as anything on the show. You wouldn’t know to look at it that Boardwalk Empire is one of the most feminist and pro-choice shows on television, but there you have it.
* That opening shot. Slo-mo balletic violence! Full Peckinpah! Slowly seguing into normal-speed villain walking up and firing into the camera! Full Scorsese! Margaret closes the door on Nucky at the end! Full Coppola! Nucky puts on a hat and disappears into the crowd! Full Silence of the Lambs! Not a show that’s afraid to wear its influences on its lapel.
* Also not a show that’s afraid to bob and weave a bit in terms of where you expect the weight of the narrative to fall. Who else thought we were headed for a big one-time-only winner-take-all assault? Instead we open with a gang-war montage (Godfather again, but violent like Casino) that takes place over the course of at least a couple weeks. It’s the inverse of how I expected all of season two to lead up to Jimmy, Eli, and the Commodore’s coup against Nucky, which instead happened in the first episode.
* You’d have to dig a couple seasons back into Breaking Bad to find a more delightful cast of heavies, by the way. A brief highlight reel:
** Mickey Doyle’s giddily obnoxious telephone exchange with Arnold Rothstein: “Am I disturbing you?” “Yes.” “Oh. Alright.”
** The sweat pouring down the face of the big undercover cop as he beats Luciano up.
** Meyer Lansky’s face as he contemplates Luciano’s screw-up on their way up to see Rothstein. Yikes. A glimpse of the coldness you expect from the guy who’ll dream up the Commission. (Which, you might have noticed, Nucky Thompson proposed a few episodes back.)
** Rothstein’s “heh, what a goon” smile as Masseria curses at Meyer and Charlie.
** Capone’s street-fighter stance vs. Chalky’s prizefighter stance.
** Michael Stuhlbarg’s inexpressive doll eyes and flat affect as he demands 99% of the distillery as payment for helping Nucky not die.
** Gaston Means leaning into the frame to deliver two whispered words in the ears of a great man and thus change the landscape of American criminality.
* Then there’s the late, lamented Gyp Rosetti. I loved his suddenly gentlemanly affectation as he instructs his goons to please show Miss Darmody in. I loved the obliviously rotten job he did of playing along with Gillian’s affection for children when asked how old his daughters are: “Sixteen and fourteen, I think.” I loved the veiled threat as he repeated Tommy’s age back to Gillian: “Six. Got his whole life ahead of him.” I loved how hungry he was to reveal his masochism, given the slightest prompt, but how he cagily first cloaked it in sadism. This was all in the space of a single conversation, by the way, during which he also split the double Ts in “settled” the way my Brooklynite grandfather used to do. Need I even mention his final scene, the unhinged way in which he launches into his Nucky impression, then launches his face at his goons as he completes it by bugging his eyes out? A magnificent character, a go-for-broke performance, funny on purpose in a way Homeland doesn’t have the brains or stones to be, pretty much ever. Bobby Cannavale, ladies and gentlemen. I mean, this? I’ve had entire mornings like this on a weekly basis for months now. I get it. I get it.
* Finally, Richard. Richard Harrow. This is tricky territory, because whatever else it was, however successful it was, Richard’s rampage was fanservice. I mean, let’s be honest about it. Winter’s described it as such in interviews, not using the term but echoing the intent. As such it could be one of those maybe-slightly-too-cornpone moments — the drunk embittered veteran dad letting Tommy sleep in his late son’s room; Nucky lighting a cigarette and throwing his carnation on the ground — writ show-ruiningly large. And talk about referencing the crime-movie pantheon: This is Taxi Driver given a Jason Bourne makeover. Also a potential disaster.
It worked as well as anything I’ve ever seen on television. The choreography, the staging and layout and pacing, Huston’s performance and how he used his character’s clipped way of moving and his incongruously tweedy get-up and his unseeing eye to turn himself into a totally unique and convincing action hero, all that was great, yes. But what made it was the ending, and the confrontation with that marvelously well-cast creep with the flaring nostrils and the schoolmarmish way of saying “Put it…down” and the totally believable nihilism of “You think I give a FUCK?” When Tommy ran to Richard and hugged him as we watched through the blood-spattered glass, I started to sob. Big tearless spasms wracking my entire body. I sobbed for a little boy’s chance to feel safe and loved again — I have a father’s weakness, now, for children made to suffer. And I sobbed for a man who’s spent years killing people, because he believes people have no connection to each other, finally connecting. Not because I look for the heart of gold inside every mass murderer, but because Richard’s nihilism is something that haunts me every fucking day I get up in the morning, and I want to believe that damaged people aren’t forever trapped in their damage. Hashing this out in the context of an unstoppable killing machine in a Phantom of the Opera mask orchestrating a gangland massacre to protect the child he loves isn’t bullshit, it’s a way to make the event as big as the emotion. That’s why I love Boardwalk Empire. It’s as big as you feel.
* “Everything connects, Charlie, whether you know it or not.”
* I’ll tell you all what: I could get used to this show totally leveling up every time it reaches a season’s penultimate episode, that’s for sure. Last year’s nightmarish, flashback-haunted “Under God’s Power, She Flourishes” displayed the show’s most confident and stylish filmmaking since Martin Scorsese’s pilot and, with its revelations about Jimmy, Gillian, and Angela’s past and its final Oedipal confrontation, essentially unveiled, for the first time, what the show was really about, how it saw itself, how it worked best. I don’t think anything quite so dramatic and revelatory went on here, but what we got was in its own way almost as impressive: thread after thread after thread being firmly pulled in the same direction from opposite corners of the room and woven together with furious determination. Just a relentlessly suspenseful and enjoyable episode. When it ended, I laughed and clapped with delight.
* What a great decision to make Nucky’s relationship with his afterthought of an assistant, Eddie, the center of the episode. For starters, well, who doesn’t like Eddie? He’s virtually never been used for anything but mild and effective comic relief, sort of like a Muppet, so no one in the audience is gonna go “Yeah, ice that guy.” Shrewd.
* On a deeper level, maybe we needed to see the only person left who genuinely loves and trusts Nucky come under threat, and see Nucky rise to the occasion and risk everything because it turns out he loves and trusts him back, to keep us invested in Nucky’s plight. If you were uncharitable you could see this as a cheat on the show’s part, a way to make sure we all see that Nucky’s not a villain but an antihero, that he still has a heart of gold deep down in there despite his monstrousness. But it felt truer than that in the moment. Or at least I was willing to cut it some slack.
* Finally, seeing and hearing Eddie, who normally operates at a consistent level of befuddlement, give way to absolute fight-or-flight panic sold the threat like few other things could have, particularly given the number of assassination attempts Nucky has already survived. There were a lot of standout details in that initial attack on Nucky’s suite at the Ritz, from the dead phone to the shootout staged almost entirely through a hole in the door, but Eddie’s desperate cry of “Noocky!” to warn his boss about the gunman behind him will stick with me most of all.
* And how’s this for an increase in scale: Gyp Rosetti conquered Atlantic City. That took my breath away, when I realized that’s what the show was doing. This wasn’t just a hit squad, it was the vanguard of an invading army. They stormed the palace, killed the royal guard, assumed control. When Gyp’s sidekick started talking about meeting with the ward bosses and letting them know it was business as usual it really brought it all home for me. This was one of the clearest demonstrations yet of the show’s belief that crime, like war, is politics by another name.
* Looks like we’re headed for Richard Harrow’s Taxi Driver moment. A few thoughts about that:
** It would seem like my theory about Richard being Nucky’s endgame against Gyp is both wrong and right. There likely won’t be any collusion between the two of them, but Richard will still fulfill that basic role by killing his way through Gyp’s headquarters.
** “Everything connects” indeed: That scene from early in the season when Nucky learns with awe just how deadly Richard is was done to establish this eventuality. And Richard’s relationships with Tommy and with his girlfriend and her father were done to give him motivation. And Gillian’s murder of a false Jimmy was done to sever whatever loyalty he may once have felt to her.
** Does Gillian not realize what kind of person Richard is? That’s not a rhetorical question, by the way: Does she not know what he did in the war, or what he did in Jimmy’s employ? Judging from her recent dialogue she appears to think of him in the same condescending terms you’d expect from her about someone who was “feeble-minded” — a gentle, damaged freak she takes pity on but no longer has any use for. Do you all think this is a viewpoint she could reasonably have come to?
** Jack Huston is very, very good in this role. The mask hides that, maybe, and the CGI makeup effects, and the monotone voice. But man, even though he only has one eye and half a mouth to work with, when that switch in Richard goes off, boy oh boy can you see it. It’s terrifying.
** And exciting, let’s be honest. As high-minded as I make myself be about art-violence, it’s thrilling and cathartic to see a practiced killing machine let loose. That overhead shot of Richard assembling his arsenal? I mean, come on, that’s the sort of thing you cheer about. At least I do. I don’t respect myself in the morning, if that helps.
* Lucky getting busted for heroin: another “everything connects” moment? This removes him from the playing field as a potential protector for Gillian, his partner in the brothel. It badly weakens Rothstein and Lansky. Given the expense of his and Lansky’s secret deal with Masseria it throws Masseria’s organization into disarray as well.
* Why not make the undercover cop a fake mute with a gnarly throat scar? Why not stage the buy on a rooftop flapping with laundry?
* Very, very happy to see Nucky interact with my beloved Dunn Purnsley, however briefly. I loved Purnsley’s grin after he and Chalky dispatched the Rosetti thugs who were about to search their truck for Nucky, like, “See? I told you we were loyal, asshole.”
* Laugh out loud line from Chalky: “All due respect, General Custer: This ain’t no spot for a last stand.” All the material involving Chalky hiding Nucky and Eddie was gold. Creatively staged in an interesting set, with easy-to-understand parameters for success and failure, and a crackerjack setpiece in the form of Rosetti’s Italians facing off against Chalky’s African-Americans, all of them bristling with firearms.
* Am I the only one with visions of posters for Boardwalk Empire Season Four featuring a picture of Nucky and Chalky standing back to back or face to face with a tagline like “TWO KINGS”? If things go well for them this Sunday, Chalky becomes the single most important person in Nucky’s organization (if he wasn’t already), and a fixture of the boardwalk, AC’s public face. He could easily be the new opposite pole around which the story revolves. That’d be great, wouldn’t it?
* The ending? Pure fanservice. Fuck it, I’m game. So game that I’m willing to forgive the martial drums and, you know, the very notion of Eli and Purnsley showing up with the calvary in the form of Al goddamn Capone, America’s kindliest young gangster. After all, the beauty of this set-up is that the show is harnessing historical inevitability as a tool in its storytelling arsenal as unequivocally as it ever has. A fight between Al Capone and “Gyp Rosetti” can only end one way. Hahaha!
* A fight between “Richard Harrow” and “Gyp Rosetti,” on the other hand…
* What’s Capone’s game here? We’ve established that Torrio’s in semi-retirement, content to leave the operation of the Chicago outfit in Capone’s hands, up to and including picking fights with rival gangs. We’ve established that Remus is down for the count and the Midwest needs a reliable supplier, and Nucky’s man Mickey Doyle is running Mellon’s operation. We know he milked Van Alden for information about Dean O’Banion’s operation. We know that Capone — showCapone, anyway — hates bullies.
* Bravo. Onward to victory.
* A dream comes true. Echoing your opening credits in your opening scene is a surefire signal that something momentous is going to happen in the episode, that’s for sure. And while we’re on the subject of how this show brings the dream world into the real world, that shot of Neptune running into the sea was disproportionately unnerving to me. Typhoon! Typhoon!
* The smiling old woman with the rotten teeth was a big moment, too. I don’t know…I just feel like this show has gotten really, really confident in its ability to wordlessly, plotlessly communicate itself.
* Gaston Means is fucking phenomenal. That’s mostly Stephen Root at work, of course: the snake-oil accent, the purred one-liners (“I hope you don’t choose a surgeon on the same basis”), the way he smizes after advising Jess Smith to take his money and “consign it to the fires of hell,” the obviousness of how unused to being caught off guard he is with Smith surprises him in the middle of his home invasion, his IDGAF grin after Smith takes care of the job for him. But it’s also how Means is being presented as a character: Here’s a guy who in the case of Smith alone is playing trusted advisor to at least three people that we know of, all of whom are at literally mortal odds by the end of the gambit. Here’s a guy who’ll double-book a hired gun to people on opposite ends of a conflict, only to serve as his own triggerman. He couldn’t be further removed from the immigrant-gangster milieu of the New York/New Jersey/Chicago Jewish/Irish/Italian criminals, yet he demonstrates that a true genius for graft knows no ethnicity. I hope the show gives him room to breathe — its track record for this sort of character puts him at about 2:1 odds against.
* Speaking of: Please let a negro nightclub be Chalky’s ticket to increased screen time and plot prominence.
* Also speaking of: I liked Owen. Hailing as he did from the auld sod, how could I, Sean Thomas Patrick Collins, not like Owen? But…did he ever really get off the ground as a character? Better: Did he ever really reveal his character? It was never clear to me whether he was ever truly down for the Cause or simply a gangster who went where the market for his talents provided. It was never clear to me if he was the compunctionless killer who choked a man to death in a men’s room and remorseless liar who proposed to poor Katie knowing full well he’d be skipping out on her, or the romantic who apparently sincerely planned a life on the lam with Margaret and her two-point-five kids. This made it difficult to know how to feel about pretty much everything he said and did in this episode.
* Crystal clear how to feel about our final glimpse of him, though: jesus, that was grim, grim business — high-Godfather mafia-movie violence at its most dramatic and unpleasant. Margaret’s dragged-out screaming and sobbing and flailing in response was all but unbearable. Certainly that character’s finest moment in a long, long time.
* Regarding Means and Owen, and also Lansky & Luciano’s betrayal of Nucky & Owen to their former rival Masseria: Their respective storylines in this episode embody something Terence Winter said in interviews after the conclusion of season two: that among other things, the show turns out to be a show about the difference between people who are able to make a go of high-level high-stakes criminality versus those that aren’t. This, I suppose, is how he squared the circle of having people named Al Capone interact with people named “Jimmy Darmody” — since we know what the show can and can’t do with those two sets of people, they might as well make it a theme.
* Richard’s galpal looks a little bit like Gillian Darmody, doesn’t she?
* The shovel to the protruding head murder is one of the most appalling I can remember seeing on television. If Owen-in-a-box is The Godfather, Gyp’s execution of his underling’s hapless fisherman cousin is Casino. Makes me wonder if my “Richard is the endgame” theory is incorrect and Gyp’s heretofore acquiescent underling will be his boss’s undoing.
Last week’s thoughts today, again!
* “The man is on the phone. The gypsy.” Nightmare phrasing right there. This show is actually quite good at tipping reality juuust over into nightmare. In fact, now that I write that out, isn’t that what Nucky’s impairment following his concussion is all about? Giving his speech and thought process the non-sequitur, molasses-slow quality of the show’s dream sequences? I thought it was tremendously effective, placing him in a dimension just slightly alternate to reality like that.
* Actually, while we’re on the subject, isn’t that the point of Gyp Rosetti at this point as well? Gyp’s reality is obviously all too real to him — from what we’ve seen last week and this week he’s barely holding it together — but that surreal, unpredictable intensity makes him a nightmare figure to everyone else. The guy strode on to the beach to look on his works while wearing a tri-corner hat, for pete’s sake. If Nucky saw that he wouldn’t know if he was awake, asleep, or hallucinating.
* “I’ll wear that fucking dago’s guts like a necktie.” I wonder if it’s Margaret’s failure to get with the handsome liberal doctor that’s pushing her toward escaping her marriage to a murderous monster by running away with…the murderous monster’s chief enforcer. Maybe it’s just those smilin’ Irish eyes of his.
* Tommy’s an artist, just like his mother.
* Everyone at the Legion hall loves Richard. Whatever’s broken inside him, they don’t see it.
* I still think he’s Nucky’s endgame against Gyp, somehow.
* Enormously depressing, watching all the real-life gangsters wash their hands of Nucky. Depressing even though I know the basic contours of Joe Masseria’s career and thus could predict how this particular segment of it would shake out. Now, I suppose, we learn how well the show can manage building up real-world people into characters knowing full well they can only take them off the board at the appointed time.
Last week’s Boardwalk Empire today! Sorry for the delay — I had a house full of hurricane refugees and time was short.
* Nice to know that you can have half a face and no ability to modulate the pitch of your voice and you can still say something like “Jimmy deserved better than this” and make it crystal clear what you really mean.
* Hey, Hymie Weiss is being played by Meadow Soprano’s fiancé Finn!
* Poor Van Alden, with that whiskey still pumping away amid his kids. That guy is like this weird swiffer cloth, attracting venality and corruption to him wherever he goes.
* Lotta laugh lines in this one:
Nucky’s man Friday: I am so sorry for your loss.
Nucky: Don’t be an idiot.
Nucky: That’s all you’re gonna give me?
Means: Rather more than you came in with.
And of course Esther’s line about running naked through the pages of the United States Criminal Code for fun.
* My notes for this ep, which all my notes for this show are starting to resemble, are basically a series of OMGs. “Jeeeeeesus that club Mellon’s in.” “Sheesh, that low-angle shot of Gillian pouring Nucky a drink.” “Gyp and Richard. Hoo boy.” “That fucking shot of Chicago.” A series of exciting things to see and think about.
* Margaret’s DTF.
* Capone puts on his hat realizing he’s the boss now, right? He is a weirdly lovable figure on this show.
* No question whatsoever that that asshole at the iron company was getting an iron in the face. You really have to admire how far the show went into the absurd with that whole sequence. They’re really making very little effort to either make Van Alden less of a mutant or to tie him into the prevailing tone of the rest of the show.
* The Billie situation was easy enough to see coming, particularly when we start getting her “just a small-town girl, livin’ in a lonely world” backstory. Ah well. Goodbye, Nadine Beckenbauer.
* One thing Boardwalk Empire’s detractors miss is its sense of humor. To hear tell, you’d think it was a thing of leaden tough-guy self-seriousness. In reality it’s the kind of show that cold opens on a corrupt-cop ex-con skulking around his yard hiding what you think is evidence or weaponry, then reveals it to be Easter eggs.
* Another thing they miss — and somewhat more understandably, since the show’s undoubtedly too blustery in this regard from time to time — is how focused it is in delineating the violence its violent characters are capable of. This episode was a high water mark for two such portrayals, Richard and Gyp. We’ve learned over the course of the past couple seasons that Richard isn’t quite the dead-behind-the-eyes broken man who once proclaimed that people have no connection to each other. And in this season — this episode — in particular we’ve seen that there’s enough humanity left inside him for him to be genuinely sweet, protective, and even flirtatious, as opposed to a broken man attempting to recreate what that would be like, like Frankenstein’s monster tossing the little girl in the water. But man, when you trigger him, he is ready to go, the most compunctionlessly lethal man on the show. Listen to how he says “He hits you?” when he misinterprets his would-be girlfriend’s line about going at it with her father like prizefighters, or how he says with evident honesty that he’ll kill the guy if he doesn’t let go of Tommy. Richard’s capable of valuing certain individual lives, but that’s a choice he makes on an ad hoc basis. He does not feel that life has any inherent value. I wonder if his lady friend will realize that before it’s too late for her or someone she cares about — that his threat to kill her father wasn’t bluster at all.
* Meanwhile, I feel more and more confident about comparing Gyp to various Sopranos Bad Guys of the Season (I did that, right? I should have), because he’s becoming what dudes like Richie Aprile and Ralph Cifaretto and Phil Leotardo were — comically creepy funhouse-mirror versions of the protagonists’ more nuanced and tortured villainy. So now, on top of his erotic-asphyxiation fetish and wandering through a bloodbath with his dick out and a dog collar around his neck, we get that hilarious mama’s-boy staring match with his mom and the other ladies of the house, and mugging a priest for the poor-box money, and literally screaming at Jesus for not giving him any friends, and learning that his ill-fated attempt to spite Nucky for allegedly snubbing him cost him most of his territory at home, and just completely failing at convincing his boss he’s good for anything but maybe taking down a few of his enemies in a blaze of glory. So this is our answer to how Gyp could possibly have gotten as far as he did: dumb luck, which just ran out.
* Another point in the show’s favor? Its artiness, even when that artiness is self-conscious. Sure, that beautiful shot of the two Mrs. Thompsons as Margaret reveals Nucky’s infidelity, and Eli’s wife’s reaction to that revelation, were heavy-handed, but who cares? It was still a beautiful shot. Unnecessarily so, like the later shot of the flash going off when Richard gets his picture taken on the boardwalk.
* Pretty profoundly anti-war, this show: the patriotic music playing as Tommy discovers the dead son’s toy soldiers, the old man audibly weeping after he shuts himself in his son’s room. Oh jeez, that last bit.
* Remarkably uncomfortable filmmaking, all those lingering and sensual close-ups of Gillian’s hand washing her ersatz Jimmy’s body long after we’ve realized she intends him ill. Injecting him with an overdose of heroin came as a blessed relief compared to the trauma I figured she was about to inflict on that bare flesh.
* I’m glad, by the way, that there was a reason behind this murder, and that she wasn’t simply becoming some kind of Elizabeth Bathory/black widow psychopath.
* How do Richard, and Nucky, handle this obvious bullshit about Jimmy ODing? That’s my big question.
* Another question: In real life, we know that Gyp Rosetti doesn’t kill Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, or Bugsy Siegel. How do they make his quest for vengeance on Masseria’s behalf suspenseful and able to hold its dramatic weight, then? I worry for Margaret’s kids, pretty much. I know I’m supposed to, that this threat has been hinted at for some time this season (giving the dead man’s dog to Margaret, the business with the gypsy man who burned the greenhouse, the son and his knife, the constant references to guards and Margaret asking Nucky whether they’d be in danger, etc.) and could therefore be a misdirect, but I do worry.
Last week’s Boardwalk Empire thoughts today!
* That scene in the Legion Hall gave me that Barton Fink feeling. Not the movie Barton Fink, but a play written by the character Barton Fink — stagey, overearnest, and political, yeah, political! What a funny vibe to go for.
* Some marvelously weird framing in this one: Margaret dismissing her guard who can be seen only through a window on the opposite end of the frame; Billie entering her apartment as viewed from some weird angle on the staircase. Because why not?
* For some reason, the enormous height differences between the singing Boy Scouts made me laugh out loud. That whole scene had this off sense of humor — I love the idea of the thoroughly corrupt Harry Doherty protecting his less than useless old Boy Scout buddy at all costs.
* Amazing how gross and disturbing a mere spanking can be now, isn’t it?
* I was just wondering where the DA played by Julianne Nicholson went! Now we know. Glad to see her.
* Gyp Rosetti, erotic asphyxiator? Sure, why the fuck not. The best thing about this development is how hugely unoriginal it is. The Sopranos went to the “annoying antagonist gangster is a prevert in the sack” well not once but twice! But this being Boardwalk Empire, it took the thing other shows and films have done a million times and just Boardwalk Empired the hell out of it — in-your-face sweaty hairy bare-assed goggle-eyed vein-popping grunting Gyp jerking off and passing out, and later wandering around the climactic overhead shot from Taxi Driver completely naked, his dick covered in blood, the broken belt wrapped around his neck like a mad dog who pulled its leash free of its master’s hand. Let’s throw in the murder of a teenage boy and a waitress’s rather marvelous bare ass in there too, while we’re at it. It’s all about excess, and Gyp Rosetti is the most excessive of all. Let him stagger through a bloodbath in the nude, by all means. Ecce homo.
* Andrew Mellon! Eddie Cantor! Gaston Means! Bugsy Siegel! Boardwalk Empire‘s ambition is starting to outstrip Game of Thrones‘. Hell, they even stuntcast Mellon, paying James Cromwell for two minutes of work — but this is a show that stuntcast a fucking photograph, with Deadwood‘s Molly Parker showing up as a picture of Nucky’s late (and currently completely forgotten) wife in the pilot, and never ever in the flesh. It’s sort of like watching an anthology series, from week to week.
* Which I like, but the sprawl does keep it from focusing on individual characters or relationships the way it ought to. Richard Harrow has appeared in like ten minutes total so far. Chalky White and Dunn Purnsley spent this episode as glorified muscle. How much would you rather follow Richard around, or spend some time with the White family, than watch Nucky make time with Billie Kent or Margaret take up her latest transparent attempt to placate her own conscience with do-gooding? (I know some of you would toss out the Lansky/Luciano stuff too but I’m sorry, you’re just never going to get me to complain about Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.)
* Top TV director Tim Van Patten comes through with those jarring shots of Gillian and Levander staring right into the camera. And those truly wonderful off-center shots of Luciano and Owen waiting for their bosses to finish arguing — their entire lives defined by the small amount of space they’re permitted to occupy relative to the men who call the shots.
* Bugsy’s mostly an easter egg so far, but in showing how unreliable he is for anything other than unfocused mayhem and rampant sociopathy, the show’s setting up a contrast with Gyp — equally wild, but not exactly destined to create Las Vegas the way Siegel would go on to do. Maybe it comes down to the company you keep.
* Hey, it’s Al Capone! Glad to see him again. I’m a mob nerd, yes, but beyond that I find myself enjoying the show’s presentation of him as…well, you know in the commercials for Honey, I Blew Up the Baby where they have shots of the giant toddler wandering around the city like Godzilla? That’s kind of Capone on this show: an overgrown third-grader, sweet in many ways and funny in many other ways but also not at all someone you’d want to entrust with power over life and death.
* Eli’s great…? Am I really saying that? I never thought much of that character before, to be honest, but quiet, humbled, older-and-wiser is a much better look for him than resentful kid brother. Literally a better look for him, in fact: Shea Whigham’s severity is engrossing to behold. So I’m glad to see him as well.
* And I’m glad to see Owen’s girlfriend again too KNOWHATIMSAYIN
* And at least this time they gave us some attractive male nudity too! Alright, it was from a distance and out of focus, but still, beggars can’t be choosers.
* Fuck nuns, fuck Catholicism — not just annoying, but boring from a dramaturgical standpoint. That scene with Margaret and the smarmy doctor trying to get the nun to agree to use the word “vagina” was precisely the sort of self-congratulatory empty-calorie “LOL the past, aren’t you and I glad we’re so far beyond that now” progressivism porn that Mad Men is often accused of but rarely actually indulges in.
* Man, look at the chipped paint and wood rot on the doors and shutters at the thief’s place. Gorgeous. This show’s attention to detail is seamless.
* Wonderful camerawork in that house, too, from the initial scene of Nucky and Owen winding their way through the labyrinth of liquor through all the cat-and-mouse business with the prohies.
* Nucky resents Owen for not being Jimmy. Not being Jimmy didn’t do young Roland Smith any favors, either. Nuck’s not in the protégé market, not anymore.
* I’m not one for plotting the future course of the shows I watch, but I do wonder if the solution to the Gyp Rosetti situation is for Nuck to loose Richard Harrow on him, and if perhaps setting that up was the purpose of their run-in last week.
* How about the way the massacre was treated, huh? Heard from a distance as Eli sits powerless to stop it, then a god’s eye view of the aftermath? And how about those closing shots of the boardwalk, luminously artificial? I maintain my belief that the show is more than just eyecandy, because there’s nothing just about it.
* That said, Chris Allen responded to my recent enthusiasm for the show by writing one of the better rebuttals to such things I’ve come across in a long time, so, equal time. His comment made me think of three things:
* This is Margaret’s least interesting storyline yet, and that’s saying something.
* I think the simplicity of Gyp’s threat is what makes it threatening, or at least that’s how the show is presenting it. There’s nothing to be outfoxed here — just a supremely well-armed lunatic who picked the right location to make trouble.
* I’m curious if the seemingly tangential Capone and Luciano/Lansky/Siegel storylines are going to remain separate now. Game of Thrones opened that door and I wonder if more shows will step through.
Not much to say about this one other than that I continue to find this show enormously pleasurable to watch, on a purely sensual level. It’s like drinking a really really good beer or having a really delightful experience on ambien. Dream sequences, nude scenes, deeply strange actors, nightmare violence, Bugsy Siegel…Even when you’re not convinced the show’s really saying anything, something special still comes across in experiencing how it’s said.
Gyp Rosetti is the best example of this I can think of. The character is absurd, his clichéd gangster brutality offset primarily by wondering just how a person as obviously crazy and impossible to work with as this guy is still breathing given the company he keeps. Moreover, both we and the other characters totally have his number — once you’ve heard Nucky tell him he could find an insult in a bouquet of roses, you’ll never need to think any harder about Rosetti and his motivations ever again.
But it’s not his actions that matter, it’s the work done to get there. I keep coming back to the camera lingering on Bobby Cannavale’s leathery neanderthal face in the car as he stews and broods and simmers and finally explodes. I love the internet comment-thread semantics of his one-man crusade against NOT taking things personally: “Everyone’s a person though, right? So how else can they take it?” Or as he more forcefully puts it later: “WHAT THE FUCK IS LIFE IF IT’S NOT PERSONAL?” I love the bizarre Blue Velvet lighting of his sojourn in Gillian Darmody’s salon, where he looks like a dangerous animal someone let in and everyone’s trying very politely not to notice. There’s a fire there that belies the standard gangsterisms they build up to. The parts are more than the sum of the whole.
One more point: Richard Harrow is to Boardwalk Empire what the Hound is to Game of Thrones, from the facial disfiguration on down. Nucky’s past terror at this point, at least when it comes to his criminal associates (though not when he fears for his paramours, obviously), but it was still absolutely fascinating to watch him realize, in awe, that before him stood the single deadliest human being he’d ever met.
* If you asked me “What does Boardwalk Empire do well?” I’d point to this episode, I think. Nothing groundbreaking or earthshaking, just a succession of moments, images, and performances, recorded in an emotionally fraught fashion.
* The opening minutes in particular were marvelous — restrained, dreamlike, unmoored from narrative binding. We go straight from a context-free sequence of hole-drilling and goldfish-dumping to a gaunt Eli Thompson, looking like he stepped out of one of those really severe Renaissance portraits, opening a prison door on the great gray world, and cut from his pas de deux with the great Paul Sparks’ Mickey Doyle (“How are you still alive?”) to a similarly Beckettian exchange between Rosetti, who’s growing on me, and the poor dude who works at the gas station outside his hotel. I loved that non-flow flow, and the absence of background music — no context clues to go by here, you’re on your own. “It occurred to me the basis of fiction is that people have some sort of connection with each other. But they don’t.”
* And this established the template for most of the episode: little one-on-one scenes in which interesting performances bounce off one another. Nucky and his grinning, nubile songbird. Chalky and his buttoned-up future son-in-law, with the reptilian Dunn Purnsley looking on. Margaret and the rude, pipe-smoking doctor. Eli and the genially sociopathic Owen Sleater. Nucky and motherfucking Stephen Root absolutely killing it as a Southern grotesque, transplanted into high-gangster New York as a presence so alien and malevolent and baffling he may has well have been a Great Old One. All these conversations made you feel the futility of conversing in the first place.
* At any stop along the way you could sit back and marvel at the production values, particularly the use of color — the way they captured the gray of the day at the gas station, or the burnt siena walls of the Root character’s empty meeting room, or the joyless white of the recovery room in the hospital when Margaret visits the woman who miscarried.
* Even the violence was effective because it was, at first at least, much lower-key than we’re used to here, and from a different quarter.
* This ep was also a great example of what people talk about when they say Boardwalk Empire sort of misses where its own best stories might lie. How great would a show about Chalky and his family be? Think of how much you could mine from that: city vs. country, wealth vs. self-made men, class and color within the African-American community of the time, the rise of the Prohibition-enabled criminal class and the position of guys like Chalky in that world, the family dynamic, and on and on and on. Or hell, imagine if the season used Eli as its protagonist, and followed his return to this world and his attempt to find a new, much lower place in it. I’d probably prefer that to whatever’s going to go on with Nucky and Margaret at the center, you know? But I’m happy for the tantalizing glimpses, too.
Below are links to all my posts on Boardwalk Empire, to be updated as the series progresses. I hope you enjoy them.
* Season One
* Season Two, Episode One: “21″
* Season Two, Episodes 2-5
* Season Two, Episode 11: “Under God’s Power She Flourishes”
* Season Two, Episode 12: “To the Lost”
* Season Three, Episode One: “Resolution”
* Season Three, Episode Two: “Spaghetti and Coffee”
* Season Three, Episode Three: “Bone for Tuna”
* Season Three, Episode Four: “Blue Bell Boy”
* Season Three, Episode Five: “You’d Be Surprised”
* Season Three, Episode Six: “Ging Gang Goolie”
* Season Three, Episode Seven: “Sunday Best”
* Season Three, Episode Eight: “The Pony”
* Season Three, Episode Nine: “The Milkmaid’s Lot”
* Season Three, Episode Ten: “A Man, a Plan…”
* Season Three, Episode Eleven: “Two Imposters”
* Season Three, Episode Twelve: “Margate Sands”
* As I sat down to write this I thought it would be worthwhile to do a quick re-read of the reviews I wrote last season. There weren’t many; this isn’t a show I felt compelled to examine week after week, even though I invariably enjoyed myself. That changed with the final two episodes, which were haunting, nihilistic, exceedingly well-made even by Boardwalk Empire‘s big-budget standards, and deeply, batshit weird. The penultimate episode in particular developed its own syntax of dialogue and editing the way a great film does, while the finale was the equivalent of chopping your arm off, fully expecting a new arm with superpowers and three-foot claws to grow in its place. The skill, audacity, and brutality had my expectations high for this season premiere.
* Imagine my disappointment when we open with Terence Winter’s fanfic version of the coin toss scene in No Country for Old Men: “If I wrote it, he’d'a BEAT the guy to death with those sunflower seeds!” It turns out that if you rupture the tension by allowing it to vent through violence, you turn the scene into sort of a turd! The rote retread of another, better scene, coupled with the depressing addition of a cute little dog barking in anger and confusion as someone kills her daddy, was a “Man, have I been wasting my time with this shit all along?” moment — a moment many other critics have had, by the look of their tweets and headlines last week. (It didn’t help that we got another warmed-over, dumbed-down cover version of a famous scene from a crime-cinema landmark later on, when Agent Van Alden served as Enzo the baker to the Irish gangster-florist’s Michael Corleone as he bluffed Al Capone out of attacking.) If, as it seems from his position in the credits and the promotional materials, Bobby Canavale’s dyspeptic Chip Rosetti is going to be this year’s Jimmy, I felt like we could be in for a long season indeed.
* But as I went through those reviews I was struck by this passage, which I remembered in terms of the general sentiment since it’s something I think and talk about often regarding genre art but which I’d completely forgotten writing in the context of this show:
I think that when genre material gets sufficiently dark or weird, when its tropes become a form of sinister spectacle rather than just hitting the marks required by convention, that’s a depth all its own — a way to communicate the emotional and philosophical themes more commonly articulated by plot and dialogue, if at all. Boardwalk Empire the balls-to-the-wall engine of gorgeously shot death that perverts and slaughters its characters in periodic fits of nihilism is saying at least as much as some theoretical Boardwalk Empire the meticulously drawn character study, or Boardwalk Empire the rigorously developed allegory for contemporary political issues.
“Balls-to-the-wall engine of gorgeously shot death that perverts and slaughters its characters in periodic fits of nihilism” is as good a way as any to describe Boardwalk Empire when it works. The “periodic fits” thing is key, because this is a far less rigorous show than any of the truly great TV dramas. Its bursts of brilliance are just that, bubbling up from a cauldron of gorgeous clothing and thoughtful lighting and sumptuous sets and giallo violence and a suite of the strangest gangster performances of the post-Godfather era.
* This means you have to put up with some imbalances as the contents shift during takeoff: building up Manny Horvitz as a macher (up to and including a giving him a hand in Jimmy’s death) only to ice him in the season premiere; inexplicably delaying Richard Harrow’s vengeance against the guy for a year and a half even though Richard as we know him would have murdered literally everyone involved in Jimmy and Angela’s deaths before the following weekend; weathering whatever dull do-gooding conscience salve they’re making Margaret apply to herself this season (temperance! Catholicism! prenatal care!); airing a premiere with no Eli or Chalky or Junior Soprano Van Buren; etc.
* But it also means this show has an easier time stumbling into weird little treasures, like Jack Huston’s Richard Harrow or Erik LaRay Harvey’s Dunn Purnsley or Paul Sparks’s Mickey Doyle, that normal shows have to strive for, if they ever even get close. (Paz De La Huerta was just a little too close to the sun.) That’s what you watch for.
* Anyway, the only thing I can really think of to say that doesn’t pertain directly to that Grand Unified Theory of Boardwalk Empire for Better and for Worse is that I’m glad Nucky and Margaret are going full Lockhorns. Nucky’s cool-customer asshole persona, the one that coldly orders a man’s execution while walking out of a room, doesn’t do much for me; we’ve seen that a million times, and it’s Steve Buscemi’s least convincing look. (Although you can make the argument that that’s as it should be, since it’s probably Nucky’s least convincing look, too.) Angry asshole Nucky, on the other hand, is really something — vibrant and frightening and unpredictable. His contretemps with Margaret have historically been where that side comes out most reliably, and I’ll be glad to see it more often, especially in contrast with his new iceman approach to gangstering.
* Oh yeah, one other thing: Nice fakeout, making it look like Van Alden was going undercover to investigate a bathtub gin maker as a kind of vigilante, but then revealing that nope, he really is a door-to-door salesman now.
* Anyway welcome back Boardwalk Empire, the most decadent show on television.
SPOILER WARNING! SPOILER WARNING! IT’S A SPOILER WARNING
* Aw, y’know, I really don’t have a lot to say about this episode that isn’t self-evident. It was a gutsy, “My god, they’re really gonna do it” hour of television, and between this episode and the last it’s really taken on a horrific new life of its own. It seems to me that Nucky’s final act against Jimmy was as much the show embracing its identity as Nucky doing so. I imagine it has to be really, really freeing to be a show willing to do what it did last night. What have they got to be afraid of now, creatively speaking? This is going to be a magnificently dark and wild new thing if they keep at it.
* I’m also struck by creator Terence Winter’s willingness to admit (“admit”) in the various interviews you’ll find online that Jimmy’s murder by Nucky wasn’t planned from the beginning — not even from the beginning of this season. Hell, not even from the middle of this season! It’s nice to see that nerd culture’s insistence that the execution of a blueprint is the highest form of fiction can still go unheeded in some quarters. Try to imagine, say, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse saying they winged something of this magnitude at any point after Lost Season Two, or the writer of a major superhero-comics event eschewing “we’ve been planting the seeds for this for four or five years now” in favor of “three issues ago we just figured ‘what the hell.’”
* Matt Zoller Seitz is on to something when he says that this episode was Boardwalk Empire embracing its own lack of depth, but only in a sort of backwards way. The other day I wrote the following about the artsy genre-based comics available at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival:
…the genre work and genre pastiche on hand felt neither safe nor slick, hiding behind the safety net of retro or “coolness.” It felt raw, a little ugly, a little exhibitionistic, even a little unpleasant. The closest comparison I can think of is the early short stories of Clive Barker: impressionistic, sexualized stuff that re-awoke the horror in horror. To dismiss it all as shock tactics is to make a pretty big mistake, I think.
And this is sort of what Boardwalk Empire reminds me of now, too. I think that when genre material gets sufficiently dark or weird, when its tropes become a form of sinister spectacle rather than just hitting the marks required by convention, that’s a depth all its own — a way to communicate the emotional and philosophical themes more commonly articulated by plot and dialogue, if at all. Boardwalk Empire the balls-to-the-wall engine of gorgeously shot death that perverts and slaughters its characters in periodic fits of nihilism is saying at least as much as some theoretical Boardwalk Empire the meticulously drawn character study, or Boardwalk Empire the rigorously developed allegory for contemporary political issues.
* I’m going to echo everyone in wishing that this could have happened without eliminating Michael Pitt from the show. That guy was magic in this role; I’m not sure I can be any more articulate about it than that. Just look at the way he commanded the camera, and our emotions, simply by standing there being silent — looking out the window and smoking a cigarette, watching with tears in his eyes as his son rides a pony while his mother waits nearby, standing unarmed in the pouring rain in front of an unfinished war memorial while men of the generation that sent him to kill and die in the trenches gather around to execute him. His limp is already one of my favorite things on any TV show.
* But! Think of all the oxygen this move frees up for the show’s other characters. It’s clear the filmmakers realize they struck gold with Jack Huston’s Richard Harrow — now there’s nothing stopping them from making him as big a role as Jimmy was, if they want. The major organized crime figures — Chalky White or Arnold Rothstein or Al Capone or Luciano & Lansky — will have more room to breathe. The attractively repellent sidekicks Dunn Pearnsley and Owen Sleater can get their days in the sun too. Eliminating Jimmy, Angela, the Commodore, Lucy, and a couple of the aldermen this season ought to enable the show to reshuffle things according to its more recently developed strengths. (I was briefly convinced/concerned that Van Alden had ridden off into the sunset as well, until I read interview after interview in which Winter said it was no coincidence that he’d “retired” to the Illinois town that is soon to be come Al Capone’s stomping grounds.)
* My one complaint about the finale is that in screwing Nucky over by giving away his highway land, Margaret gave it to the one organization less sympathetic than that of organized crime, the Roman Catholic Church. I get the sense that that act is meant to be a period for that whole plot thread and not an ellipsis, and thank god for that because in addition to being less sympathetic than the mob, the Church is about forty seven thousand times more boring. What I’m really curious about is whether this augurs a new Lockhorns model for the Nucky/Margaret marriage, or if this was one last fuck-you she had to get out of her system after his transparent bullshit about the deaths of Neary and Jimmy, and now she’ll be less adversarial but more canny.
* Nucky, Lucky, Jimmy, Mickey, Manny, Waxy, Chalky, Tommy, Lucy.
* There was something truly awful about that final flashback to the trenches. For one thing it implies that even in death Jimmy could not escape the war. But worse is that we never actually see the horror Jimmy experienced. The vision ends when Jimmy climbs over the lip of the trench. What he endured can never be shared with anyone, not even the audience watching omnisciently as he dies. As someone once said, “In the end, you die in your own arms.”
Don’t stop believing. (Via Bohemea.)
SPOILER WARNING, SPOILER WARNING
* Though I’ve been watching Boardwalk Empire faithfully since the series premiere, I’ve only written about it a handful of times. I think that’s because my enjoyment of it is a pretty simple thing. It’s a sumptuously shot, dressed, and acted gangster period piece, featuring increasingly savage and memorable outbursts of violence, and starring real-world organized-crime pioneers like Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, and Al Capone as “playable characters.” In that light my fondness for the show doesn’t require a great deal of explanation. Moreover, the growing pains of a young show striving for greatness, an occasional shaky hand with character development, and (particularly this season) some visible discomfort with its women characters (usually where the rubber meets the road for the really great TV dramas) would seem to defy attempts to delve any deeper.
* Until now. My my my, but that was a magnificent episode the other night. I was actually a bit scared to search for reviews afterwards, since I knew without looking that any episode that took things as far as this one did would be a make or break one for many viewers and reviewers. Put me in the “make” column for sure.
* It was the dreamlike power of the episode that did it for me. By “dreamlike” I don’t mean amorphous, illogical, or surreal, at least not in this case. I mean the heightened reality of dreams, in which words and objects are freighted with meaning through their proximity to the strangeness or momentousness of the events of the dream. It’s gonna take me a bit to explain this, so please bear with me.
* It reminds me of the tail end of Grant Morrison’s big Batman R.I.P./Batman and Robin/The Return of Bruce Wayne storyline, in which the presence of certain artifacts in Bruce’s life — his mother’s pearls, her murderer’s gun, the bell he used to summon Alfred to save his life on the night he decided to become Batman — cast shadows through time, affecting him again and again.
* It also reminds me of an astonishing episode of Little House on the Prairie I happened to get stuck watching while feeding my baby with the remote control out of reach months ago. I found out later that it was the two-parter that served as the finale for Michael Landon’s final season with the ongoing series. Landon’s character’s adopted son gets caught in the crossfire of a bank robbery and is rendered catatonic. Desperate for help, Pa Ingalls rides off with the son to seek a doctor, and the show becomes this series of sweeping vistas as he goes deeper and deeper into the wilderness, until finally the horse dies (I think) and they’re trapped where they’ve stopped, and so thinking they’ll die he builds an altar of stones to pray for divine intervention, and in the middle of a thunderstorm an old man appears to them to help them…It was all image, all emotion. It led with raw power and let the plot draft on its slipstream.
* In this episode’s case, that meant a few things. First there was the repetition of lines, fraught with meaning: “Jimmy, I have to go.” “I’ll remember! I’ll remember!” “There’s nothing wrong, baby. There’s nothing wrong with any of it!” “Then finish it, goddamn you. Finish it!” (Eyes Wide Shut used this same technique.) Other lines were repeated as actions: the bayonet Jimmy told the army recruiter he wanted to shove into the Kaiser’s guts became the knife he used to stab the Commodore in the stomach. Actions were repeated and inverted as well: Jimmy beats his professor for assaulting his mother, then attacks his mother years later. Music cues stretched across scenes, plotlines, and timeframes. Fades to black brought us in and out of flashbacks and simply from moment to moment. Textbook Freudian uncanny doubling. It’s as if all these things operated on a slightly higher level of existence than everyday reality, less fixed in time, playing themselves out on a different scale.
* People seemed more…vivid as well. I don’t want to say mythic, because these days that’s a loaded term indicative of self-conscious Joseph Campbellization. (I know, I know, the show went full-on Oedipus here, so they brought it on themselves, but this felt more raw and real than “modern myths” nonsense. The Commodore didn’t just attack Jimmy with anything, he stabbed him in the back with some kind of spear. And he emerged from nowhere, a towering furious mute Bad Father. Jimmy’s guardian Richard Harrow had similar trouble speaking in this episode — he was a dark angel quietly disposing of the slain father and drawing the curtains on Jimmy’s consciousness with a nod. Van Alden tells us of his life as a living indictment of his parents’ most deeply held beliefs, and ends the episode by fleeing like, I don’t know, Frankenstein’s monster, rejected by his creator. The vulpine priest continued to hover over Margaret, benevolently preying on her guilt in his collar and cassock. Even Jimmy’s increasingly pronounced limp (to my eyes at least), and the way he cloaked the wounded half of his body from his sleepy son with his black jacket like a human yin-yang or the Phantom of the Opera, lent him a monstrous quality as he went about his monstrous work in this episode.
* Objects took on a numinous quality too. Agent Sebso’s gun and shoes are presented as an indictment of Agent Van Alden in and of themselves, dredged up from the river and the past. Margaret’s daughter’s leg braces embody her painful future, and provide the support needed for Margaret and Owen to have the conversation that they’ll both instantly regret. Margaret views the subpoena she receives as literally a divine calling to account. Angela’s white dress and Gillian’s torn dress are loaded with messages for Jimmy. The nearby railroad track, the clanging of its gate bells, gave the passing of time itself new urgency — each moment received its own soundtrack.
* So yeah, just a ton of powerful images and sounds, all of which feel like half-understood things to me, their impact primarily emotional. If you can construct a story out of that stuff, you’ve achieved something pretty special.
* And the episode pretty much could have coasted on the Jimmy/Angela/Gillian material, but in addition, it was Nucky Comes Alive. I’ve read writers I respect (Matt Zoller Seitz, I believe) argue that in retrospect, Steve Buscemi, as enjoyable as he is in the role, was ultimately miscast. But if I had to pinpoint one reason why I disagree, it would have to be scenes like the one in which he more or less threatens to have Margaret, the woman he loves (and I don’t doubt that he loves her!), murdered if she decides to testify about his role in the death of her abusive late husband. It reminded me of an earlier Nucky highlight from this season: His slowly revealed rage at Eli as he pulls the rug out from his own “apology accepted” and browbeats his penitent brother out of any hope of rapprochement with his “get on your knees” speech. The fury in Nucky’s eyes in both these moments! Buscemi spends most of his time as Nucky in more or less harmless emotional modes: gladhanding politician, avuncular friend/father figure/husband figure, “heavy hangs the head that wears the crown” man at the top. But when you really press him, when you do something that strikes at his core — and I don’t even mean run-of-the-mill confrontations with adversaries; this is basically limited to betrayals by family — suddenly the teeth get bared in such convincing fashion that it looks like he could tear someone’s fucking face off. And I have to imagine that this is what the other characters pick up on in a world with Buscemi/Nucky calling the shots. It took a lot to stand out in an episode this epic if you weren’t part of the Oedipal drama at its center; Buscemi and Nucky had what it took.
* The episode also tied in with any number of plot threads I’d enjoyed, and even more interestingly that I hadn’t enjoyed, from the season so far. Take the status of the black workers, for example. During Nucky’s conversation with his sharp new lawyer Fallon, I marveled at how candid they felt comfortable being despite the presence of a third person in the room, Nucky’s butler Harlan. The black servant class is invisible to these guys until they’re needed for something, I thought. But then Harland pipes up at Fallon’s request…and suddenly he’s made himself an indispensable man in two of the longest-running plotlines on the show, Nucky’s corruption charges and Van Alden’s incipient psychosis. It’s like finding out that the last piece of the puzzle was in your hand all along.
* It was nice for Angela to get a last turn in the sun. Her murder by Manny Horvitz last week was appropriately awful — I was hit pretty hard when she begged for mercy on the grounds that she has a little boy — but at the same time she’d been so underutilized all season long that it felt less like the end of her story and more like a page from Jimmy’s. “Women in refrigerators,” in other words. I couldn’t help but feel that in eliminating a character that the show appeared to have little use for anymore, Horvitz was serving as a proxy for the writers. But Jimmy’s flashback also served as an origin story for a character who really needed one. How did a relatively free-thinking lesbian end up with a dude like Jimmy, even given societal pressures of the day? Well, she was a college-age kid discovering her sexuality as she went along, and anyone who’s been that age can tell you how many roads that can take you down before you find the right one, including roads that cut you off from where you really ought to go. In her case she was trapped like a fly in amber by her pregnancy, knocked up and affianced to a guy she likes a lot but probably didn’t and could never really love, pressured against ending either the relationship or the pregnancy by societal stricture, probably guilt about betraying a man at war, possibly fear of what he’d do when he got home given what she witnessed the night before he enlisted. It’s weirdly gutsy of the show to give us its best Angela episode of the season after the one in which it killed her.
* I’m also glad to see Van Alden reemerge. I have nothing against having a baby as a plotline for a fully grown-up character in a drama — it’s not like when you’re a few seasons into a comedy or soap about young people, the writers run out of ideas, and suddenly a character or two gets saddled with a bun in the oven that necessarily closes them off from all sorts of romantic and comedic possibilities. (Cf. this season of Gossip Girl, if you dare.) But the execution of Van Alden’s baby storyline has been every bit as limiting and stultifying as the worst such sitcom. He’s just been completely closed off from the action, existing almost on a show within a show. Gone was the Wrath of God figure from Season One, the guy who made me more nervous every time he was on screen than anyone else. Even to the extent that he threatened Nucky, it was at a remove, as a potential witness Nucky heard about third- or fourth-hand. (Of course, it could be worse — he could be Lucy Danziger, whom the baby storyline granted several mightily creepy-sexy nude scenes and then chased off the show entirely.) But now…but now! What the hell is he gonna do now? He’s a freaking fugitive murder suspect! He foreswore his oath, to be all Game of Thrones about it. A suicide run against Nucky as the architect of his downfall, a Travis Bickle attempt to “rescue” Margaret from inequity — who knows what comes next? That’s some delicious uncertainty is what that is.
* Circling back to the doubling I discussed earlier, although this time in far less uncanny fashion: Two of my favorite developments this season provide a direct compare-and-contrast in terms of styles of criminal leadership — and no, it doesn’t involve Nucky and Jimmy, but Chalky and Eli. I’m gonna spell his name wrong I just know it, but Dunn Purnsley, the charismatic chatterbox (played with silver-tongued malevolence by Erik LaRay Harvey) who threatened Chalky in jail without realizing who he was and then paid the price for it with a beatdown from Chalky’s grateful subjects, is subsequently recruited by Chalky as a valued henchman and the pointman for the strike. Which is great in and of itself because Purnsley’s a wonderfully entertaining character I’m happy to see stick around, like Richard Harrow last year, but also because of the way it demonstrates Chalky’s thoughtful and magnanimous approach to power. By contrast, poor Deputy Halloran is repaid by years of loyal, silent service to Eli with a beatdown of his own, followed by a genuinely menacing but ultimately idiotically transparent attempt at intimidation by Eli himself — all over a treason Halloran was undoubtedly far too stupid to even contemplate, much less commit. And all Eli’s thuggery earned him was precisely the betrayal it was designed to prevent. If you want an illustration of why Chalky’s at the top of his world while Eli’s a perpetual also-ran, look no further.
* I’d also like to sing the praises of Mickey Doyle, believe it or not. One of the weirdest performances on a show full of weird performances, Paul Sparks’s unctuous, nasal, giggling bootlegger has become a favorite occupier of screen time for me, for no more complicated a reason than that he’s funny and strange, moving and sounding like no other person on television. Take it where you can get it!
* Women-wise? This was a step in the right direction. Angela we’ve already talked about, but however predatory and loathsome she may be, it’s abundantly clear that Gillian was broken by the Commodore all those years ago. Her seduction of Jimmy was train-wreck awful but also pitiful — the way she had to repeat to herself that there was nothing wrong with “any of it” could only be referring to the whole freakshow of her life, whether or not she’d ever admit it. Ironically given the circumstnaces, it took some of the archetypal Jocasta out of her and made her into a human being we could understand.
* And while there’s virtually nothing I find more boring in a drama than Catholicism, I can almost appreciate its use in Margaret’s storyline. I think we’ve learned enough about her to understand that this isn’t a real religious awakening in her — it’s a lighthouse as she drifts in the fog of her own guilt over everything else in her life. As she convinces herself that this is the only outlet for her emotions and the only way to right the wrongs she’s committed, she could become as problematic as any legit fanatic.
* So there you have it: An episode that might could represent the moment Boardwalk Empire became Boardwalk Empire — an a-ha episode akin to “College” for The Sopranos, according to conventional wisdom, or “University” for The Sopranos, according to me. And it sets up quite a finale: As best I can tell, Chalky is still gunning for the KKK, Manny Horvitz is after Jimmy, Jimmy has got to be after Manny, Richard seems even more likely after Manny, Mickey Doyle could be up to no good, Van Alden could be up to god knows what, Nucky and Owen might come to blows…
I’m really admiring Boardwalk Empire‘s narrative audacity this season, from a structural perspective. Last season’s cliffhanger was that Jimmy, Eli, and the Commodore were conspiring to take Nucky down. My assumption, and everyone else’s I assume, was that we’d spend much of Season Two watching this happen. It’d be a slow race toward the final coup attempt: the conspirators working to keep their plans secret before the trap is sprung, Nucky working to stay on top and get to the bottom of the setbacks that would surely start to befall him.
Instead, the coup happened in the season premiere. It turns out Nucky’s too big to take down in one fell swoop, but that aside, he learned that his brother, mentor, and protege had all betrayed him; that the city bigwigs were backing his enemies; that he was all alone, with his money and clout in serious danger. Instead of whether the coup would take place, the season is about what happens afterward. Smart stuff.
So too is the arrangement of the warring parties. In a battle between Nucky and Jimmy, there’s no default for the audience’s sympathies. Nucky’s the guy in the credit sequence, but the story we were really sold from the beginning is the story we’ve seen many times before — the hungry young man on the make. In other words, there are two protagonists, and after watching them work together for a full season (albeit with some hiccups), we’re now watching them become one another’s antagonist. Who do you root for? What’s more, their primary allies on the criminal end of things are the show’s two most compelling such characters, Chalky and Richard. We’re obviously to root against the conniving, child-raping Commodore, and the politicians on both sides aren’t worth spit, but there really is no easy way to take sides between the primary players. Obviously there are plenty of big prestige cable dramas who at least attempted to split audience sympathy between rival factions, but for the most part there were still clear good guy/bad guy lines established initially, regardless of where things went from there — sheriff versus crime boss, cops versus druglords, stern but kind Northerners versus arrogant, hedonistic Southerners. Boardwalk Empire has really split things down the middle, and I’ve got no idea what side I’m gonna come down on. Mostly I hope for a rapprochement. Don’t you?
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.
All season long I have been watching and greatly enjoying Terence Winter’s Boardwalk Empire. In its way it’s just as much a creature of genre as The Walking Dead, at least in terms of being the sort of thing I’d watch simply for the pleasure of seeing some of my favorite tropes get a workout. I enjoy stories in which Meyer Lansky plays a supporting role on the same “yippee!” level that I enjoy stories in which small clusters of shambling corpses remove and consume someone’s small intestine.
The difference, of course, is that surrounding Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein and Al Capone in and so on in Boardwalk Empire is an entire edifice of pleasurable things to watch, from the casting on down. What a treat, for example, to watch Steve Buscemi play against type as a quietly impressive alpha dog instead of a shouty, squirrelly loser. I’m not even sure we’d buy him in a similar role set in the present day, but something in all those period suits suits him. Meanwhile, given Martin Scorsese’s role in the series, I was tempted to make “I’m not Leonardo DiCaprio, but I play him on TV” jokes about Michael Pitt same as everyone else, even though I’ve always thought more of him than that in the bits and pieces of his work I’ve seen. (A Law & Order: SVU episode and his side of the screen during the good bits of The Dreamers, mostly.) But lo and behold, Jimmy Darmody harnesses Pitt’s dead-eyed vacancy just as well as DiCaprio’s Scorsese roles make use of Leo’s angry runt-of-the-litter aged babyface; there’s no question in my mind, looking at him, that something vital was blown right out of him in the trenches, never to return. Kelly Macdonald keeps her good Irish girl believably poised between willful, indignant, and willfully ignorant; she’s had to work with a character arc that’s yanked her back and forth and back and forth, but she’s sold it during all those “Margaret learns something and must choose” by seeming to keep the immigrant dream of a better life somewhere in her mind at all times as a driving force, for better or for worse. Then there are the Michaels: Michael Stuhlbarg (and what a discovery that guy was! we really owe the Coen Brothers so much) is such a dapper menace, it sounds like his every word is wearing a tuxedo and carrying a small knife of some kind. Michael Shannon’s sepulchral voice and bug-eyed intensity make him my favorite hapless zealot law-enforcement officer since Edward Woodward’s Sgt. Howie. I do wish Michael Kenneth Williams had more to do as Chalky White, although of course the “These my Daddy’s tools” speech was gold, and hey, two out of three ain’t bad. And so on and so forth: The show’s basically heaven for ruddy-faced repeat Law & Order guest stars, and if you have the kind of thing for pale brunettes that I do, this is the greatest thing on television since Twin Peaks.
What’s more, it’s often astonishingly lovely to look at. The period costumes and sets are impeccable, and I’ve even come to love the somewhat obvious greenscreen nature of the Atlantic City boardwalk set precisely for its unreality, its pink and blue cotton-candy sky. That seems to me to be how many of these characters would see it. After all, Boardwalk Empire is a sentimental show, much more so, I think, then its two most direct antecedents, The Sopranos (New Jersey gangsters, Terence Winter) and Deadwood (charismatic communitarian criminal overlord, story of a city). Nucky Thompson has “a kindness” in him that the writers of The Sopranos and Deadwood never let us see in Tony Soprano or Al Swearengen without quickly reminding us that they’re horrible people who do terrible things routinely. Nuck’s clearly shown to be more at home shaking hands and kissing babies, or wining and dining potential contributors, than he is at ordering murders or extracting payments by force, things that Tony and Al do with evident glee in episode one. Moreover, none of the victims of his enterprise thus far are innocents (unless you count Jimmy’s young mom, which maybe you should), which again is something Al and Tony’s handlers were a lot less squeamish about.
Maybe it’s this sentimentality that the show’s naysayers are picking up on. But honestly, I get the sense that a good deal of shoulder-shrugging about this show has to do with things other than the quality of the show itself — it’s expensive, it’s the channel’s second gangster series, it’s not Mad Men, it’s not self-evidently A Great Show. But neither was The Sopranos in Season One. Hugely entertaining, sure, but I don’t think it became what it was until “University” in Season Three. And neither was The Wire, if you’re a Wire person. After all, it was impossible to get a sense of the show’s scope, and the game it would play by shifting focus with each season, until there was another season to watch. So if you’re only enjoying the show, instead of flipping out over it, I say give it time. Unlike certain other shows I could mention, what you already have can be savored rather than endured.
Another show I’ve been watching and enjoying all season long is Gossip Girl. It’s a shame that last season’s repetitive “look, I was gonna tell you, but…” storylines knocked me out of the habit of recapping/reviewing/whatevering these things every week, because this season deserves it. My goodness, the lengths to which I could have taken my “Chuck Bass as Batman” metaphors with that opening arc! (For example, they have the same goddamn catchphrase–”I’m Chuck Bass”/”I’m Batman”–and in this season Chuck even said it in order to reveal his secret identity!)
But as my friend Ben Morse has eloquently explained, it’s new villain Juliet who gave the show new life. Episode after episode I spent saying “this asshole has to go” as scheme after crudely manipulative scheme blew up in her face…but she didn’t go. They didn’t chase her into Europe or the military academy or Jesus camp. She simply stuck around, recalibrated, and formulated a new line of attack. She’s like the goddamn Borg! And over the past two episodes, it became clear: She means business. After suffering the most epic beatdown in Gossip Girl history, as all four rich kids teamed up to verbally crush her and banish her forthwith from
the kingdom of Rohan New York, she simply dusted herself off and hooked up with the other two most insufferable characters on the show, the odious, tedious Vanessa and trying-too-hard Jenny — and blam, she’d finally found the right combination to utterly annihilate Serena. In one evening’s work, she ended her relationship with Dan, torpedoed her friendship with Blair, estranged her from her family, got her kicked out of college, drugged her, fucking kidnapped her, and got her first hospitalized and then fucking committed. Juliet is the Black Glove, for Christ’s sake! And as Ben pointed out, underneath all this is one of the show’s most explicit class-war elements yet, in which the poor side is evil. Not since Blair stopped even pretending to give a fuck about anything but money and status while wooing that prince in the pilot has the show been this hilariously decadent.
The best part is that by centering Juliet’s evil scheme on Serena, Juliet forces our sympathy for her plot, even while we find it infuriating. After all, Serena really is a kind of gross, lazy, entitled creep who blows off almost any available chance to better herself and follows her vagina wherever it takes her, yet insists upon being seen as a paragon of put-togetherness and go-getteritude. (That’s the difference between her sluttiness and Chuck’s: Chuck makes no bones about what he is.) Plus, and let’s not forget this little season-one tidbit, girl has a fucking body on her! No, wait, that came out wrong — I mean, yes, that too, but what I was trying to say was she pretty much killed a dude! Sometimes I want to destroy Serena’s life Kingpin-from-Daredevil-Born-Again-style, and I don’t even exist in the same reality!
The funny thing about Gossip Girl is that fulfilling the role played in other shows of famous real-life gangsters or awesome zombie gore is simple eye candy. I love staring at the impossibly beautiful faces of Chace Crawford and Ed Westwick, I love the way they pour Blake Lively’s body into those dresses and festoon Leighton Meester with lingerie, I love the Patrick Bateman parade of guest stars. But this season, it’s fun to watch what they do again, too, and that’s just delightful. It’s fun to watch television shows that don’t involve “putting up with” something! (Well, other than Vanessa of course. Ugh.)