This post contains spoilers through the October 23 episode of Boardwalk Empire.
This episode confirmed a suspicion I’ve had about Boardwalk Empire, which is that the parts of the show I’m most interested in aren’t the main conflict. I suppose I care that Nucky doesn’t go to jail, but I’m vastly more interested in Chalky, Angela, Margaret, and the state of Richard’s soul than I am in the blood feud between Nucky, his brother, and the son he’s cast out of his kingdom, as if Satan faced his own rebellion. There’s some interesting stuff about masculinity and the manifest corruption of the Harding administration going on in Nucky’s storyline, but I feel like the show doesn’t have exceptionally developed ideas about these things: rather than sifting through subtext to divine larger ideas, all I have to analyze is the show’s surface.
And surface becomes quite literally important in this episode when, after a melancholy suicide attempt thwarted by the appearance of man’s best friend, Richard comes back to himself by scalping a disappointed investor for Jimmy. His sitting for Angela was one of the best parts of the last episode, and there’s something lovely and sad about seeing him leaf through his scrap-book, a wistful reminder of a life Richard has decided is impossible for him. But there’s a lot of telling here, rather than showing. Some of it’s by necessity: flashing back to Richard’s past would have complicated an already overstuffed show. But I wish the show had found a way to do more than to have us watch Richard watching other things, that it didn’t need to be quite so obvious in its juxtapositions. We already know that Richard doesn’t see himself like Angela does, and that even she doesn’t see him as his old self: putting the two portraits side by side just reminds us of something we already know instead of giving us new information. The show is capable of doing better. In a nice exchange towards the end of the episode, Jimmy tells Angela “Nobody’s hungry. Nobody’s scared. What else is there?” “There’s got to be something. Hasn’t there?” Angela tells Jimmy. There’s a real tragedy here: Richard understands that something better than the man Angela is pledged to, but he isn’t physically whole in a way that Jimmy is. Neither man is complete enough for her, but only one man realizes it.
I did also like like the contrast between Richard’s ruined visage and the face of another dissatisfied business partner after Eli kills him in a fit of rage, and then hacks into his face, doing to a man he’s disappointed what he’s unable to do to his brother. There are a pair of questions here. First, is the war that Eli and Jimmy have enlisted themselves into as decent a cause as the one for which Jimmy says he fought in Europe, telling the Memorial Day audience that “We fought for the idea that democracy was worth saving. We fought for our mothers, for our sons, for our wives. We fought for America. I believe it was worth it.” Or is this just another fight for who gets to be boss with all the attendant brutalities and casualties that occasions? Is Nucky really so bad that getting rid of him would improve the lives of anyone except Eli, Jimmy, and the Commodore, who may not be long for this world?
And second, which of his fathers is Jimmy more like? “Think I can’t play this game?” Jimmy asks Nucky when Nucky tests him by calling him up to speak unexpectedly at the celebration? “I don’t think you even know the rules,” Nucky snaps back at the son who’s disappointed him, then complains that “You know why he enlisted? Because he couldn’t hack it at Princeton.” But Jimmy proves he’s able to put on the same kind of front that Nucky is, whether it’s from the pulpit or the podium. And he moves brutally to take over the Commodore’s kingdom if not by the Commodore’s ingratiating means. Or maybe it’s really just that he’s a product of his mother, who has dreams of her son turning into the next John D. Rockefeller, telling her son: “His father was a bigamist and a confidence man. His mother was a saint. Now he’s worth $1 billion.” Gillian Darmody may be the real monster in this story.