This post contains spoilers through the Dec. 4 episode of Boardwalk Empire. And are there ever spoilers!
As Benjamin Freed said on the Twitters at the conclusion of last night’s episode of Boardwalk Empire, “so much for the all-Darmody spinoff.”
It’s actually fascinating to compare the approach that Boardwalk Empire and Shame take to incest narratives. While the latter shows us a brother and sister between whom the appropriate behavioral boundaries clearly and disastrously were shattered long ago, it never confirms the means of their destruction, or shows us the immediate aftermath of the breach. By contrast, Boardwalk Empire has been building up to the revelation that, while he was at Princeton, Jimmy had sex with his mother at her initiation, telling him, “There’s nothing wrong, baby. There’s nothing wrong with any of it.” Whether she’s been telling Angela that she used to kiss Jimmy’s penis when he was an infant; or her smooth slotting of him into the Commodore’s role; building his sympathy for her by discussing her sexual abuse at the Commodore’s hands; or in flashbacks tonight showing us Gillian trying to simultaneously destroy Angela’s budding relationship with Jimmy while forcing him to transfer his affections from his lover to his mother by telling him “Oh, baby. I’m just the loneliest person on earth. Do you love that skinny girl?” Boardwalk Empire isn’t really showing us the day-to-day routine between two people who have violated sexual norms. It’s been telling us that it’s going to tell us something even more shocking than what we’re seeing on screen so far. And so it’s not particularly shocking when we see the inevitable happen, when we learn the real reason Jimmy ran off to join the Army. Oversignaling is a problem in this show generally, and this isn’t the only plotline where that’s a problem tonight. The only genuinely shocking moment in this plotline was the implication that Gillian might target Jimmy’s son next, telling Jimmy that “One day soon, he won’t be a little boy anymore. It happens, just like that. I’ll put him to bed. And I’ll be upstairs.”
I’m actually much more interested in the prospect of Jimmy falling into heroin addiction. He’s always been a weak personality, shaped by Nucky, manipulated by his mother, eager for the Commodore’s affections when the old man reemerges to offer them. But this would be a weakness of his own choosing, to a certain extent. And if this is a story less about Prohibition than about the transition from alcohol to drugs in the role of public menace, it would be interesting to see Jimmy personify it. Certainly, had his confrontation with Gillian and the Commodore not fallen short of double murder, it would have had the flair of a crime of the century — the beautiful young mother, the spear, the old man, the blood on the brocaded wallpaper.
I’ll admit, this may be the most sensationalistic storyline, but I was far more engaged by the continuing trials of Nelson Van Alden, about whose childhood I would love to see a movie. “They don’t enjoy my company,” Nelson tells his daughter’s nurse of his parents, who fell under the sway of a messianic preacher “who prophesied the second coming in 1892. In anticipation of judgment day, my father gave away our farm. We lived in a tent, penniless, for an entire year waiting for the Lord to return cloaked in fire and glory…My father never got over it. And somehow the mere fact of my ongoing existence is more than he can bear.” It’s a shattering story, one that makes Van Alden’s own rigid religiosity look like emotional expansiveness. And it’s a nice counterpoint to what we know is coming, Nucky and Atlantic City’s black community dropping a dime on Van Alden to spring Nucky from a federal investigation. He’s so frozen, mutely accepting his nurse’s judgment that “You are a good man, Mr. Van Alden. There is nothing to be frightened of,” and acquiescing to Rose’s request for a divorce. But on the brink of the worst kind of exposure, he springs into action, fleeing his offices and into an uncertain future, and I’m fascinated to know where he’ll go next.
I really appreciated the racial dynamics in tonight’s episode, the fact that Nucky’s lawyer’s insistence that they listen to what Harlan has to say is what gives them their best tool against Van Alden. It’s a marvelous piece of writing, illustrating Nucky’s underestimation of his manservant at every step in the exchange. “You kept me working these past weeks, with the strike and all,” Harlan begins, only to have Nucky wearily tell him, “You don’t need to thank me.” “Yes, but I belong to the Shiloh Baptist Church,” Harlan presses on. “I don’t need your prayers,” Nucky preempts him once again. And when he’s given a chance to speak, what he has to say is explosive. “About a year ago, our deacon held the annual week of miracles,” Harlan explains. “Your agent Van Alden show up one afternoon, with the other lawmen. And he drowned that fellow, in front of us all.” Until that moment, Nucky may have respected Chalky, but he doesn’t see how other individual black men have anything to offer him. It’s a nice little rebuke.
Unfortunately, it’s a reminder of how predictable Nucky’s relationship with Margaret has become. I didn’t see the specific plot twist of Margaret considering testifying against Nucky coming, but it’s entirely of a pattern with her misplaced fit of conscience. I appreciated their debate over the priest’s story: “So they couldn’t bend their arms?” Nucky wants to know of the incredibly uncreative people in the parable. “The spoons were too long!” Margaret insists, wanting to believe. “Why couldn’t they just hold them higher up on the handle?” Nucky asks her in a perfect summation of his approach to life. So what will survive? Faith or accommodation? Nelson and Margaret, or Nucky and Gillian? And what happens to Jimmy, who’s lost without a theory of life, and has a hole in his heart to accompany it.