‘Boardwalk Empire’ Open Thread: Loss

This post contains spoilers for the Nov. 20 and Nov. 27 episodes of Boardwalk Empire.

I apologize for the delay in writing last week’s recap, but in a sense I’m glad I get to consider both of these episodes, in their predictability and very strong moments together. I also appreciate a chance to highlight Matt Zoller Seitz’s excellent essay on Boardwalk Empire‘s misplaced priorities when it comes to gender, privileging fairly conventional if convoluted gangster stories over the richer domestic dramas that the show mostly uses as pretty window dressing.

Working backwards, I agree with him that Angela’s death at the hands of Manny Horvitz, who has arrived in Atlantic City intending to kill Jimmy and shoots Louise, stealing a clandestine night with Angela, instead, was emotionally striking. Manny’s shock, and his recovery via the intensely cold like, “Your husband did this to you,” was one of the more precisely-executed emotional moments of the season. And yet, I’m disgruntled by the decision on two levels. First, it’s the equivalent of J.K. Rowling killing Remus and Tonks in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, a moment when a piece of art needs some deaths to winnow the cast and illustrate emotional costs, but its creators don’t have the guts to lower a truly devastating blow on the audience by killing a main character. Second, there’s something really distasteful about the show’s regression to the norms of the past, where gay relationships inevitably end in death. It’s of a piece, I suppose, with the show’s generally punitive attitude towards sex. But I resent both the specific decision to kill off Angela and with her, one of the show’s legitimately interesting avenues of social exploration, and the general decision to default to killing the depressed lesbian.

The decision to have one of Margaret’s daughters struck down by polio seems to come from a similarly vengeful place. Whether she needs to confess that she’s sheltering with the man who murdered the father of her children, or that she’s betraying Nucky, Margaret clearly believes her sin is responsible for her misfortune. But at least that plotline gives rise to a more interesting speculation: in living with Nucky, has Margaret lost not just the health of one child, but the moral direction of another? Teddy plays a cruel joke on her when he pretends he’s stricken, too, and earns himself a slapping for it, while a weeping Margaret tells Nucky, “God help me, but he has his father’s cruelty,” only to have Nucky insist that he just wants attention, and knowing that his sister’s hospitalized “isn’t the same as understanding” the true magnitude of what’s befallen his family. But on their father-son trip to New York, Nucky realizes that something deeper than genetics or the loneliness of a little boy may be at play when Teddy reveals that he witnessed Nucky burn his own father’s house down, a poisonous revelation that ends with a deceptively sweet, “Don’t worry, Dad. I won’t tell.” Maybe Teddy’s just a child. But maybe in Nucky’s house, he’s learned that secrets are powerful, that there is something to be earned by keeping them.

The other fascinating moral evolution — even if it’s temporary — is that of Don Pernsley from Chalky White’s tormentor to his right-hand man in organizing the black strike on Atlantic City businesses. “What if we all say, we ain’t gonna eat this slop, we ain’t gonna work for this wage?” he asks his colleagues in the kitchen of a fancy restaurant, with their support telling the manager. “We want a raise. Every single last one of us. And a lunch you’d eat yourself.” In a moment before the Civil Rights movement, before the establishment of non-violence as a core principal and tactic, there’s something striking about the flying China in the restaurant, the beautiful color of the fruits and vegetables that go flying as the workers tear the kitchen apart. The attack on the picket lines is more in keeping with the established images we have of white repression of peaceful black protestors, and it presages a day when white power brokers wouldn’t be able to crack, as Jimmy’s cronies do, “These jigaboos think they’re Moses.” “Half of them are named that anyway.” Chalky and Don may not know how to shape a narrative to their national advantage yet, but they are trampling down a path that others will follow. And it remains to be seen if Don is in the movement for the chance to do right, or to inflict damage.

And there’s the prospect of another future in a pitch Jimmy isn’t smart enough to accept. “No bottles. No barrels. A million bucks in a suitcase,” one of his confederates tells him about heroin. “You got your artist types. People uptown.” Another chimes in: “That number’s small right now, but they’re very enthusiastic.” Al Capone may complain about Jimmy “moving Chink drugs now.” But Mr. Wu and Al Swearengen seem to have seen the future more clearly half a century earlier than their dapperer counterparts in Atlantic City.