Tuned In

Boardwalk Empire Watch: Conventional Wisdom

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Spoilers for last night’s Boardwalk Empire coming up:

One of the pleasures of Boardwalk Empire has been how thoroughly and freely it has mixed historical and fictional people and events, without seeming bound to history or constrained by it. The writers have seen fit to change elements where necessary—making Nucky Johnson into Nucky Thompson, for instance, in order to have license reinvent the boss as a fictional creation—but it’s surprising how much history there was no need to change. The 1920 Republican National Convention, for instance, luckily was really held in Chicago, and in “Hold Me in Paradise,” that allowed a visiting Nucky to build alliances on a couple of fronts.

First, the political. We knew from history, or should have, that Senator Edge was not going to become President, so the question was (1) how his betrayal on the road project would affect Nucky and (2) would Nucky go to the convention and back a loser. As it turned out, Nucky found a solution to both issues, using the power of the New Jersey delegation not to help but to punish the backstabber. On top of that, he found a way to make himself particularly useful to the “imbecile” he realizes is bound to be elected, volunteering to help get Harding’s babymamma out of the way for the campaign. Like the fixers in many great political-historical works—All the King’s Men, for instance—Nucky is perceptive enough to know that none of the pols around him are clean, and that there is great advantage to being the man who can spot the dirt early.

(Another actual point from history, reappropriated: Harding was nominated, in a “smoke-filled room,” on a late ballot. Here, the writers give Nucky a line, normally attributed to Harding’s campaign manager Daugherty, about how the candidate had his best shot to get in by pushing weary delegates in the early morning hours. Also, unsurprisingly not fictional: the political corruption of the time and Harding’s women problems. Click on the links if you want background on his mistress, or a preview of coming scandals.)

In the midst of Nucky’s triumph, though, comes word that his brother Elias has been sho tin the casino robbery, and the realization that he’s facing a conflict on an entirely different scale than he’s dealt with before. He needs muscle, and history and geography conspire to provide it to him in the person of Jimmy, who has proven himself in Chicago. Jimmy doesn’t quite tell Nucky I-told-you-so—he was right, it turns out, that Nucky cannot be half a gangster—but not only in terms of their financial arrangement, it seems the power balance between him and Nucky will be different if and when he returns.

Finally, Nucky also empowers Margaret, and adds a new dimension to their relationship, by entrusting her with his liquor ledger while he’s away. It’s an interesting wrinkle in their relationship on both ends. It’s hard to imagine Nucky ever giving this job to Lucy, and while Lucy may be right that Margaret is not the kind of woman Nucky sticks with in the end, it just may be that he sees the value in having not just a mistress but a canny partner whose intelligence he can trust.

Can he trust her loyalty? Nicely, the closing scene leaves it ambiguous as to whether and how seeing the contents of the book changes Margaret’s view of Nucky. Surely she’s bright enough to know that her beau is not putting her and her children up in the Ritz on a county treasurer’s salary. But it may be that she assumed that his riches came from another, and more palatable, brand of corruption than subverting the Prohibition laws she had helped fight for. Sopranos comparisons are dangerous, and Margaret is a different person from Carmela, but in her own way she will have to face facts about where her lifestyle comes from, and her own moral complicity in it.

Finally, the episode came full circle to Prohibition and Chicago with Van Alden’s subplot, which both reaffirmed his absolutist morality and complicated it. We’ve already seen, of course, that Van Alden is a man more concerned about the ethics of his ends than his means; it’s not surprising that he should have no problem intercepting Jimmy’s envelopes home and the money that he has sent to Angela. But the episode pulled a nifty fake-out by having him refuse to use the cash to pay for his wife’s infertility surgery.

There are a couple of ways, at least, of reading his decision. The first is that the moral line for him stems from his calling: rule-breaking is justified if it serves the enforcement of the law, but not if it simply benefits him personally. But it’s also possible that the decision stemmed from the same kind of self-abnegating guilt we’ve seen from him before: if he is faced with a moral dilemma, the right choice is the one that causes him to suffer most. In this case, of course, it is his wife who suffers with him, and probably more than he does. And yet Michael Shannon plays his scenes with her so that he does not seem merely callous: he has difficulty expressing himself, he sets limits as to what he will do for her, yet he genuinely appears to feel for her and to want her to be happy.

All this, of course, while he obsesses on a woman who is a target of his investigation. What’s the cure for that problem? More self-flagellation, no doubt.

Now a quick hail of bullets:

* No HBO period piece would be complete without thorough documentation of the sins of the time, of course, so naturally we got a display of old-timey, hand-cranked pornography. You kids don’t know how easy you have it!

* While Elias can come off as a nitwit, and his jealousy of Nucky has never been attractive, I also found him sympathetic here—and not only after he got shot. He’s getting into the prime of his career, well aware that no one will ever see him as the man that his brother is, and now he finds that he’s faced with an outside threat he can’t handle. (Any bets as to whether some perceptive rival will find a way to exploit his resentment and insecurity?)

* The one drawback to the Chicago-centricity of the episode: not much New York, although I was glad to see a bit of Michael Stuhlbarg again as Rothstein faced a deepening Black Sox investigation. Conversely, if Jimmy does return to Atlantic City, what happens to Al Capone in the story?

* Boardwalk Empire has never been shy about using Nucky Thompson to tell a story about where the real power resides in his world, but his outmaneuvering Gen. Leonard Wood for the Presidential suite was a beaut: “I, on the other hand, am an excellent tipper.” And that made all the difference.