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Boardwalk Empire Watch: I Confess

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Let’s try something different this week. This recap will not be a recap. We’re at about the halfway point of Boardwalk Empire season 2, and at the end of the six episodes HBO sent me in advance. “The Age of Reason” advanced things a bit vis a vis bootlegging, Nucky’s prosecution, Margaret’s internal conflict, and the goings on in Lucy and Van Alden’s Prenatal Prison of Crazy. But just a bit on each front, and so this is a good time to reflect on what’s going right and wrong in Boardwalk Empire overall.

I was talking to Salon TV critic, and my Brooklyn neighbor, Matt Zoller Seitz a few weeks ago about the series, and I was finally able to put my finger on what holds Boardwalk Empire back for me. It’s a very good show with fantastic performances that does great work on a scene-by-scene basis. But it lacks one thing that defines most great TV dramas: the clear sense that it is about an idea, or ideas, beyond its literal subject.

HBO’s Deadwood, for instance, was a Western, but if you asked me what it was “about,” I’d say that it was about the founding myths of America, the creation of a society from chaos and the violent transfer of power from individual explorers to powerful organizations. If you asked me what Mad Men is about, I’d say it’s about the idea of inventing one’s own identity and the shifting of social and gender roles in pre-sexual-revolution America. (PS: You might have entirely different opinions as to what big ideas these shows are about–that’s part of what makes them great.)

And Boardwalk Empire? If you asked me what it’s about, I’d probably have to say, “It’s about Prohibition.”

That’s a little glib. Certainly there are themes that come up repeatedly in Boardwalk Empire: the conflict between generations, father-son issues, the way a country moves on after being scarred by a vicious war. But it never seems to fully inhabit one or another: what it mostly feels concerned with is being a very meticulously detailed, well-acted history drama.

This can be a strength (I love the show’s attention to the locutions of period speech) and a weakness (it’s distracting when it calls attention to its use of historical figures–look everybody, it’s Jack Dempsey!). But above all, the top-shelf historical re-enactment seems to be what Boardwalk Empire is getting by on, while it tries to figure out what its bigger game is.

So about “The Age of Reason.” In theory, the Van Alden and Lucy subplot should be something I could be very interested in. It’s an opportunity to take characters introduced through the show’s Prohibition storylines and take them through a story about something other than Prohibition–to expand the series’ scope. But while the subplot is arresting and disturbing in itself–there is something almost operatically hellish about the idea of a lonely woman kept in isolation to have a baby in secret–the show has never found a way to connect it thematically with what’s going on elsewhere. It’s horrid and fascinating, but as far as the whole of Boardwalk Empire is concerned, it has itself been locked off in a separate room somewhere.

“The Age of Reason” at least suggested a way that Van Alden’s own conflict and hypocrisy could be connected with larger themes in the series. This was an episode of confessions: one mandated by the church, one coerced bloodily in a meat locker and one almost arrived at by Van Alden until, at the last second, he realized that his burned agent was merely babbling when he said “I know what you did.”

Van Alden, obviously, is a God-obsessed man, often to the point of caricature, and he’s driven to the point of confession by the thought that he has failed his moral code, that his sins are laid bare and he cannot hide them. The episode begins, too, with the idea of an all-seeing God who, once we attain the age of reason, does not merely look out for us but looks over us, judging us. This is the way you explain the concept to a seven-year-old, but in a way, Van Alden’s literal conception of a stern Daddy of a God who sees our bad deeds is not much more mature than that.

So when he sees that he isn’t being watched, that the judgment he felt was merely the raving of a dying man, I almost wonder whether that was, in a way, more devastating than being exposed and confessing would have been. What if, in fact, no one is watching us, judging us? What if being good or evil matters to no one but ourselves?

Van Alden’s immediate response is—like a guilty but relieved schoolboy—to take his reprieve and get out of trouble. That only gets him so far, as his attempt to turn fathering a love child into an act of fidelity (“I did this for us. That child is for you”) goes over about as well as you would have guessed. But for him—and for the idea of there being some larger, emerging Boardwalk Empire philosophy—at least it’s a start.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* Jimmy’s ambush on Meyer and Luciano in the woods was a nice echo of the one that kicked off the series last season (this time, with Jimmy managing the situation more effectively, despite the death of Waxy Gordon’s guy). But it undercuts the drama a little when the showdown involves historical figures, like Lansky and Luciano, who we know are not going to die yet.

* “I can’t touch him. He’s injured. That makes him trayf.”

* “That’s just something she does.” Where is this kissy-Mommy business going? [Shudders.]

* “Why the fuck would anyone ever go to Cincinnati?” “Remus finds you petty and resentful.” “Well, Remus can go fuck himself.” Poniewozik laughed at that, Poniewozik must admit.

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