A quick note: I’m not caught up on the first season of Boardwalk Empire yet, though I hope to be by next week. So please excuse any errors, omissions, generalized confusion, etc. I’ll be up and running soon, I swear! This post contains spoilers through the first episode of the second season of Boardwalk Empire.
As a first time Boardwalk Empire watcher, one of the things that struck me most strongly about the show is the extent to which it feels like reading a Little Orphan Annie comic strip. Everything’s a bit of a cartoon, whether it’s the Commodore dashing about his living room with a spear, Jimmy’s mother’s cartoonishly poisonous sweetness towards his new wife, or the show’s racial politics, even when they’re relatively good.
One thing I thought the show did very effectively in that early scene when the Klan attacks Chalky’s operation was to communicate the simultaneous menace and goofiness of the Klan. “Purity, sobriety, and the white Christians’ Jesus,” is a stupid-sounding phrase even within the context of the time. But uttered by a man who’s just shot your warehouse full of holes with primitive automatic weapons, the conviction of that ridiculous phrase actually makes the people uttering it more terrifying. They’re driven to all of this by a flimsy, incoherent cant.
It’s also interesting to see Michael K. Williams, who played the ultimate loner as Omar, have a constituency as Chalky. And even more interesting to see him carve out the best of multiple bad options in what’s essentially a no-win scenario.”I got four boys dead in that warehouse. Half a dozen wounded. Including a woman,” he tells Nucky, sick to death of Nucky’s promises to take care of yet another problem that for Nucky is a business impediment, and for Chalky is a matter of life or death. “How’m I supposed to know that?…I’m done with this shit. I got my family and I got my people…The ten thousand black folks who make this city home, busboys, porters…you go school these crackers less you all find out…You ready for what happens here? I turn up on the end of a rope?” He’s offering himself up as a firewall, a sort of flawed martyr. Chalky can hold back the black community in Atlantic City for a while, but what he’s promises Nucky is sort of an inverse of the crucifixion. White Atlantic City residents essentially have to take the bet that if they hang Chalky, their city won’t explode.
Nucky’s response to that religiously-tinged threat is to code-switch as he tries to calm the city’s white and black residents in their respective churches. The moment when he switches from one audience to another, from the small stained-glass window to the vast organ, is blunt but considerably effective:
Last night four fine young boys were murdered by men claiming to represent the race of white American Christians. I will not speak the name of this so-called organization within this house of God. But I can assure you, as treasury of Atlantic County, and more personally, as someone who has always regarded the members of our colored communities as his friends and equals, that neither I, Sheriff Thompson, or any of his men will rest until these hooded cowards are brought to justice. And the message is sent loud and clear that no one need fear for their safety, or the safety of their wive, children, or property in the face of the obstreperous negro. These coloreds need to learn a lesson, and we are going to teach it with, dare I say in these sacred confines, an Iron fist.
It turns out the black community here is, despite the Klan’s motto, vastly superior Christians than their white bretheren. While Nucky won’t profane a black church with talk of violence, his white congregation is all too eager for its implication. That’s a point driven home by the highly religious Rose Van Alden’s visit to Atlantic City. Horrified by the prospect of infants being cared for by people not their mothers, by the satirical sense of humor exhibited by an author who writes Jesus’s guide to Atlantic City, and unamused by the prospect of a hotel shaped by an elephant, the one thing she does get off on is the prospect of her husband beating up the restaurant manager Nelson entrapped into offering them alcohol and then leading a raid on the dining room where they’ve just had their dinner. “It was thrilling, actually,” she confesses later, and it propels them into bed.