Spoilers for last night’s Boardwalk Empire coming up:
The first two episodes of Boardwalk Empire, having introduced and expanded the worlds of Nucky Thompson and the New York and Chicago mobs, impressed upon us how dangerous the show’s lawbreakers were, juts as they were poised to become wealthier and more powerful. Last night’s episode emphasized another theme: how dangerous the lawmen are, newly empowered to enforce the draconian provisions of Prohibition.
Played with delicious creepiness by Michael Shannon, agent Van Alden is sort of Deadwood’s Seth Bullock crossed with a Spanish inquisitor. Like Bullock (especially in Deadwood’s early days), he pursues the law with a kind of impractical fury that seems driven as much by personal demons as by dedication to his job. But Van Alden adds to the job a kind of highly selective piety that makes him more sinister and more dangerous. It may be inaccurate, actually, to say that he’s zealous in pursuit of the law. It’s maybe closer to say that he’s zealous in pursuit of a principle—the determination to purge illicit pleasure in the form of alcohol—and the law is a means to do that.
And in those cases where the law is an obstacle, he’s glad to discard it. So seeing his quarry in his grasp, if he can get his portly, Yiddish-speaking detainee to talk, he gets a bogus writ of certiorari, then tortures the dying man for information. The fact that Van Alden is a pious Christian—offended by the taking of the Lord’s name in vein even as he prepares for torture—and his victim is Jewish is not the cause of his brutality, but it certainly underscores his Torquemada-like behavior. (And it sets up a moment of grim comedy as Van Alden recites Gospel at his death: “Isn’t he Jewish?”)
A character like Van Alden can be tricky, as it’s easy to make him a prissy whited sepulcher, but Shannon gives him a mesmerizing intensity, which is important to Boardwalk Empire. Simply as a story of the mob, it might be well-done but overfamiliar. What complicates it—the HBO part of the show, if you will—is its ability to broaden its social scope beyond the mob, and to explore at the same time the threat and moral hazard of an overreaching government. (Complicating this further, we get a sense here that Van Alden’s zeal makes his own bosses uncomfortable.)
It’s clear the dangers of living in a world overseen by rapacious Lucianos and Capones, driven by greed and temper, but Boardwalk balances that picture by asking whether it’s better to give power to a man like Van Alden, a rigid man joylessly eating a roast prepared by his silent wife, as stiff and bloodless as if he himself had long since been cooked past well-done.
Meanwhile, the show advanced on a few other fronts; herewith the hail of bullets:
* As fans of The Wire were breathlessly hoping, Michael K. White Williams appeared on screen for more than a flash as Chalky White, the unofficial black mayor of Atlantic City whose alliance with Nucky is expanding to his bootlegging business. Wait until next week for a really striking storyline involving him—set up by the lynching here—but he delivered some promising moments in the meantime. (Negotiating his cut with Nucky: “I didn’t know you were so sensitive.” “As a baby’s ass, motherfucker.”)
* As fascinating and enthralling as Margaret clearly is to Nucky, she’s also a challenge for him: an intelligent, independent-willed woman whom he can’t simply pay off, yet doesn’t entirely belong in his world, either—as we see when she’s awkwardly required to outfit his mistress in her new job.
* I wasn’t aware of the story about Lucky Luciano purposely contracting gonorrhea to avoid the draft, and from doing some cursory searching am still not entirely sure if it’s a biographical fact or a claim that Luciano invented (I’ve seen references that indicate both). Any mob buffs want to weigh in on this?
* The episode closed with Jimmy, banished by Nucky, lighting out for Chicago. I’ve seen future episodes, so I won’t spoil anything about where this is headed, but it definitely makes clear that, three episodes in, Boardwalk is not yet reining in its ever-expanding scope of characters and geography.