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.