Tuned In

Boardwalk Empire Watch: Unjust Deserts

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In a brutal episode of Old Testament retribution, several characters get what someone else deserves.

SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, stop pricing out autographed Ty Cobb baseballs in eBay and watch last night’s Boardwalk Empire.

God does not take bribes. This moral certainty at least we learned in last night’s Boardwalk Empire, in which Margaret sought to use the one resource she can believe in now—money—to save Emily from polio. She first offers her doctor any price necessary to secure the best care, only to be told, “I wish it were as simple as money. There are things that are out of our control.” That failing, she offers money and jewelry to her priest–a payoff, essentially, to the Almighty, to no avail.

The episode left Margaret realizing that her daughter is never likely to walk again, and trying to suppress the idea that it might be some cosmic punishment on Margaret herself: “I want my daughter to be made whole,” she says. “I want her to run in the grass and swim in the sea. And not suffer for the–for no reason.”

But her daughter will suffer. For what reason? Maybe there is none. At one point, Margaret asks, “Do I deserve this?” a response that seems half self-pitying and perhaps half-hopeful, because to realize that there is no punishment, no calculus of “deserving” behind Emily’s affliction would be the cruelest answer of all. “Georgia Peach” was an episode structured around retribution and people getting what they “deserve,” but that is not to say that it was an episode about justice. People pay for transgressions, yes. But not necessarily the people who transgressed.

As in last week’s “Battle of the Century,” Margaret and Emily’s struggle was mirrored in the power struggle of the larger storyline, as Nucky began his Irish-whiskey move, Jimmy’s troubles deepened and Eli moved to protect himself. (Even Margaret’s attempt to pay off God had a direct echo, as Nucky told his new lawyer that he might not have the money to bribe the necessary judges.) There was payback, but often payback against people who attempted to do the right thing, or who did nothing at all.

Those themes came together in the workers’-strike storyline, as Eli’s loyal deputy Halloran gets beaten down by strikebreakers—”Normal white men!” he exclaims, baffled—as payment for being too loose-lipped with Randolph’s inquiry. Eli explains it to Halloran philosophically: “God, Fate, I don’t know what you call it… It goes in here, it comes out somewhere else.”

Halloran should take a lesson from it, Eli says—”What did I do? What should I make sure I never, ever do again?”—though unsurprisingly, Halloran takes a different lesson from the betrayal: that Eli is a bastard, and doesn’t deserve his protection. Meanwhile, Jimmy–seeing the strike spiraling out of control–tries to emulate Nucky by sitting down with Chalky White to resolve things, but makes the mistake of assuming that money can substitute for justice. Jimmy–pressured one way by his father, another by his business partners who want business as usual restored–agrees to $3000 apiece for the families of Chalky’s murdered men, but balks at the idea of giving up the white men who did the killing. Chalky answers with a wink: “There’ll always be next tourist season, right?”

But the most striking and shocking example of rough justice comes, of course, at the end, as Angela and her lover are shot down by Manny, the kosher butcher from Philadelphia with an appropriately Old Testament idea of vengeance. His plan was to kill Jimmy, and perhaps to leave it at that, but seeing his mistake, he improvises, turning a blunder into opportunity, with a self-righteous veneer: “The most important thing in life, darling, your health. Your husband did this to you.”

Manny speaks a hard, and in Boardwalk Empire absolute, truth: that money alone cannot pay a debt of blood. But whose blood? Suffering, it turns out, is a fungible commodity. God may not take bribes, but in this series, you can always substitute the sacrifice of the innocent.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* Last week I’d been puzzled at how exactly Nucky’s deal with the Irish was meant to help him out: his problem, I thought, was only partially supply but also muscle and distribution. “Georgia Peach” at least offered a partial explanation: by flooding the market with product, the move is meant to break his enemies financially, together with the strike. I’m still not sure how Nucky logistically pulls this off with so much of his network denied to him, but the strategy does make more sense.

* While Emily is still in the hospital, Nucky and Margaret also have a parenting disagreement over Teddy: she believes he has inherited his father’s cruelty, while Nucky thinks he’s just acting out for attention. I like that the series gives us reason to read him either way–on the one hand, he has a pronounced bad streak, but on the other, his rejecting the autographed ball is not just bratty but moral: “Ty Cobb is a bad man.” (And gold star to Nucky for turning that into an, ahem, teachable moment: that it’s OK to have a complete bastard on your team if you’re playing to win.)

* Last week I’d also wondered why Boardwalk, which seemed to be checking off the events of 1921 on a list, hadn’t mentioned Sacco and Vanzetti. Ask and ye shall receive! “Call those two guinea anarchists from Massachusetts and tell them to relax–I found them a new lawyer!”

* A personal note: at Thanksgiving dinner this weekend, my wife’s mother and aunt sat down at the piano and played a ragtime-esque song that sounded roughly period-appropriate for Boardwalk Empire. And I realized that thanks to this series, I can no longer hear happy early-20th-century piano music without expecting someone to be gruesomely murdered.

* Finally, a logistical alert: this was the last episode of the season that HBO is sending out in advance, so I’ll probably be posting my last two season-two reviews later than usual. Any predictions and/or wishes?