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Boardwalk Empire Watch: Mother, May I Sleep With Danger?

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A younger Gillian and Jimmy share a parent's weekend to remember at Princeton.

SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, wait for that noisy train to finish passing by, then watch last night’s Boardwalk Empire.

“Let’s just say your life is pretty Jacobean all by itself,” Jimmy Darmody’s Princeton professor tells him in “Under God’s Power She Flourishes,” after discovering the young woman he just hooked up with was his student’s mother.

Jacobean or Greek? This episode of Boardwalk Empire was definitely theatrical, and like Webster’s The White Devil, rife with vengeance and corruption. But there was also more than a little Tennessee Williams in the episode’s crazy-gothic domestic horror. And there was plenty of Sophocles, specifically Oedipus Rex, as evidenced by the episode’s concern with whether a man is master of his destiny, or if his fate is predetermined, even from his birth.

Oh, and also by the fact that Jimmy screwed his mother and killed his father! I almost forgot that!

We can tote up a lot of literary/dramatic references and allusions last night–a little F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Princeton flashbacks, a kind of female-Chinatown ending with Gillian promising to take loving care of Tommy–but that’s all a way of saying: this was an insane, no-brakes hour of television, which delved into the festering swamp of crazy beneath the show’s painstaking period reproduction.

Boardwalk Empire has not exactly been subtle this season in hinting that there was something more than mere maternal affection between Gillian and Jimmy (to the extent, in fact, that other characters picked up on it). The scene of Gillian and Jimmy stumbling drunk into his room and undressing seemed like such a brazen setup, though, that I thought for sure it must be a fakeout–right up to the point that they fell into a kiss and the Sexual Metaphor Limited came choo-choo-ing down the track right on schedule.

It was audacious, tough to watch, and probably crossed the line from tragedy to uncomfortable laughter at least once. But it also established something larger about Jimmy’s behavior, and Gillian’s: that so much of what followed in their lives, from his enlisting in the war to her overpowering influence in his life up to the events of this episode were part of a chain of abuse that led back to her rape by The Commodore at age 13. And it ended where it began–in the old man’s groin, which Jimmy stuck an also metaphorical knife into, after almost being impaled by his father’s own giant phallic totem. (That scene alone could keep a psychoanalyst busy for months.)

The lurid way the story played out felt like a tonal shift for Empire, but not necessarily a bad one—in the process of shedding its cool costume-drama attitude for grotesque family dysfunction, the episode felt for once less like a story about Prohibition and more one about a specific set of people. The fact that their encounter takes place in the past explains, or casts in a new light, so much of what we’ve seen Jimmy do ever since his awkward reunion with Gillian at the beginning of the series. And the state Jimmy’s in at the end of the episode—despondent, weak and snorting heroin—shows that his struggles are about much more than being in over his head in business.

Boardwalk Empire has built up a lot of history and incident over the past two seasons, and “Under God’s Power” brought a lot of material from the first season back to the fore: Jimmy’s leaving college to go to war, Van Alden’s investigation of (and furtive feelings for) Margaret and above all, Van Alden’s deadly baptism of his deputy in front of the Shiloh Baptist Church, which I was beginning to think was simply a case of a character going too far that the show had decided to forget.

I’m going to leave this review short for now, partly because I want to see how this all plays out in the season finale, partly because I didn’t get an advance screener and only have so much time to spend on this for now. But also because I could use a little more time to process this hour of Oedipal insanity before next week.

I was a little surprised when HBO decided not to send out copies of the final two episodes before air for fear of spoilers–when, after all, last week’s episode (which they sent weeks ahead) ended with Angela’s death. It’s certainly clear now, and I’m curious to see what they do for an encore. Maybe I should go reread The Revenger’s Tragedy. Or Oedipus at Colonus?

Now for the hail of bullets:

* As long as we’re pointing out the Chinatown-iness of that last scene with Gillian and Tommy, it’s worth remembering that that original multi-generational-incest chiller feature as the villain John Huston, grandfather of Boardwalk’s Jack.

* Speaking of which, an excellent, brief scene of Harrow eyeing the bloodstain on the floor, as he mourned one of the few women to take a deep interest in him since his wounding.

* The title of the episode, by the way, is taken from Princeton University’s motto. Or am I the only one that didn’t know that?

* I spent little time this week on the Nucky plot, though there was plenty going on there–as Jimmy was living a Greek drama, Margaret was getting Biblical, becoming convinced that she was being divinely punished. (Maybe a little too convinced: I believe the power of Catholic guilt, and secular guilt, is strong on Margaret, and crises do push people to their foundational beliefs, but she’s always seemed too rational and freethinking to so literally believe in the work of a personally punishing God. Still, maybe making herself believe this allows her to feel, in some strange way, that she can still fix things.) The ensuing argument was a stark a contrast as you could make of her and Nucky’s worldviews, and I loved his practical, revealing rejoinder to the priests parable of Heaven, Hell and the spoons: “Why didn’t they just hold them higher up the handle?”

* I’m assuming that we are all guessing that Nucky does not end up getting the chair. But any bets on whether he ends up signing those holdings over to Margaret as a precaution, and that that becomes significant down the road?

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