Tuned In

Boardwalk Empire Watch: The Persistence of Memory

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, put down that Tom Swift book and watch last night’s Boardwalk Empire.

Boardwalk Empire is a work of historical fiction, but the past has its own past. And “Home,” the season’s seventh episode, focused on Nucky Thompson and Jimmy Darmody each settling some scores and dealing with old wounds.

But first, a word about Surrealism.

I know that people have been divided on the title sequence of Boardwalk Empire, with its contemporary rock theme music and visuals that recall a René Magritte painting. I’ll leave the music aside, but it occurred to me watching “Home” that the Magritte allusion is about more than cool-looking images.

Boardwalk Empire is a story of the ’20s. Surrealism was an art movement of the ’20s that was coming to life around the same time as our story. And Surrealism was more than a movement of introspective artists fascinated with the weirdness of the unconscious. It evolved from Dadaism, which was a direct consequence of the Great War, a meatgrinder so horrific—though it’s eclipsed in our minds now by WWII—that it shook many Westerners’ belief in reason and civilized society. Hence the absurdity of Dada, and then the Surrealists—among them war veterans like André Breton—who delved into the subconscious in part as a reaction against the way the rational minds of their time had thought their way into a seemingly inevitable, yet pointless and catastrophic war.

Jimmy Darmody isn’t an artist, but he left the war himself with his sense of his own humanity shaken. And as he has to confront what war and his patriotic duty put him through—taking a “personal inventory” to help the military better psychologically prepare for the next war—he encounters Richard, a former sharpshooter masked by a half-face plate that looks eerily like something from a Salvador Dali painting.

Richard has been changed inside by the war too. He can’t enjoy the novels that his sister sends him anymore. “It occurs to me,” he says, “that the basis of fiction is that people have some sort of connection with each other”—something he can no longer believe in. And yet Jimmy strikes up a connection with him, albeit a grim one, first convincing him to skip out on the interview with him (a small personal rebellion against what the war did to them both), then enlisting  Richard’s dead-eye skills to take out the man who slashed Pearl. (The irony, of course, that the face slasher is killed by a man with half a face.)

In Atlantic City, meanwhile, we got more of the much-alluded-to difficult childhood of Nucky Thompson, as the boss confronted the bitter memories of his rough upbringing by his father, which time and the elder Thompson’s infirmity evidently have not softened. While Lucy sits in a movie theater alone watching Jekyll and Hyde (a callback, it seems, to the good boy / bad boy Nucky that she described to Margaret), Nucky, who realizes that giving away his father’s old house is not enough, douses it in turpentine and watch it burn. The most memorable takeaway from the scene is the lack of satisfaction in Steve Buscemi’s expressive eyes as he watches the blaze.

Beyond the two payback stories, the episode largely seemed concerned with setting the table for the second half of the season, introducing another historical mob figure—the barely-grown Meyer Lansky, a Lucky Luciano associate who rolls into town for the purpose of setting up a rival operation to Nucky’s on behalf of Arnold Rothstein. This, presumably, sets up a showdown down the line between the slighted Rothstein and Nucky, and, by association, between Doyle and Chalky, whose operation Lansky attempts to buy into. (Note: though I have future episodes of the series, I haven’t yet watched them, so I’m not speaking from foreknowledge.)

It also appears to foreshadow something in Nucky and Margaret’s relationship, as Elias reminds us that Margaret is unaware that Nucky had her husband whacked, and Margaret talks about her worries for the future with her fellow “concubine,” who’s been sneaking and squirreling away money from her fella in anticipation of the day he gets tired of her. The future is uncertain; the past is no picnic either.