Tuned In

Boardwalk Empire Watch: Not Out of the Woods Yet

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, have your servant bring the cocoa and watch last night’s Boardwalk Empire.

In a quote that you are probably tired by now of hearing critics like me repeat, playwright Anton Chekhov once said, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” There were a lot of rifles* in “Gimcrack & Bunkum”–loaded, unloaded, described in retrospect–and yet, though this was a gripping and violent Boardwalk Empire, not a one went off. But they certainly took center stage.

Plot-wise, “Gimcrack” dealt with the consequences of The Commodore’s stroke, and the resulting power swing back to Nucky Thompson. Thematically, it was about the question of giving up vs. soldiering on, and how three characters on the bad side of that power swing handled that choice.

The most moving of these plots was only coincidentally aligned with the conspiracy’s setback, as footsoldier Richard Harrow set off into the woods with a rifle, a picnic lunch and the intention to blow his own head off. That he is distracted from this task by accident makes his decision to live no less significant (after all, being maimed in a war is an accident of circumstance too). The dog interrupts him, but the encounter with a living creature also seems to reconnect him with life: “I need that mask!” he cries, taking off on foot, a statement that of course would be entirely untrue if he wanted to finish his job.

I’ve said it before, but Jack Huston is fantastic in this role, speaking or silent, conveying with “half” a face more than most actors get across with a full one. As he settles in, loosens his collar and lies back, we see the momentary peace he gets from being alone and unobserved (free to eat in peace, for instance, something we know he’s self-conscious about). And with the merest twitch of one side of his mouth, he betrays the effort that it takes him to maintain the composure he generally shows to those around him. (Not to mention, in a small but excellent detail, the effort it takes to swallow with half a functioning mouth.) Richard Harrow, he shows us, does not wear only one mask.

“These woods is for living,” one of the “tree rat” hunters tells him, meaning, beyond the woods themselves, that by killing himself Harrow would be spurning a larger gift and betraying something greater than himself. He accepts his identity–“a soldier”–and soldiers on. Which is more we can say for Eli, whose story this week is nearly as compelling in his antithetical weakness.

Eli may actually have been treated unfairly by life. But he is what he is, and in his bitterness he responds to adversity by turning, running and bemoaning his fate. He turns on Jimmy, for falling out with the Atlantic City patriarchs. He turns to sell out The Commodore, then gives into his rage against Nucky when his brother, it turns out, actually carries a grudge for Eli’s betrayal. He’s backed down by Margaret, holding an unloaded gun.

And he finally turns to drink, striking down poor panicky George when Eli’s own inept lies fail to convince him to leave well enough alone with The Commodore. For all this I have to sympathize with Eli–Nucky has treated him badly, The Commodore and Jimmy have brought him to the verge of ruin–but he’s like an animal caught in a net, his instinctive thrashing and lurching from action to reaction only ensnarling him worse.

Whereas Jimmy Darmody, Great War veteran, is used to grinding it out and sticking to a seemingly hopeless battle. (Something prefigured when Nucky attempts to humiliate him at the Memorial Day ceremony, and he guts out a simple, fine speech: “I’m no one’s idea of a hero, least of all mine.” His showdown with the city fathers who bankrolled him, especially Parkhurst, is partly a matter of practical business and personal insult. But it’s also a larger generational conflict, which has come up before on Boardwalk Empire.

Which is why Parkhurst’s rifles–the brand-new Springfields with which he reminisces mowing down 2000 primitively-armed Sioux–are the most significant, unseen rifles of all in this episode. Parkhurst lived his military glory by butchering half-naked natives with modern weaponry, while Jimmy and Richard endured the hell of mechanized warfare against a fully equipped enemy. He got rich selling the army the chipped beef they hated, and has the nerve to demand great respect from “their generation” for being old, rich and fortunate in the timing of his birth. (I don’t know his exact age, but I’m assuming had he been born slightly earlier, he’d have had a less easy time in the Civil War.)

It’s not the only generation gap we’ve seen in Boardwalk Empire. In this episode we’re again reminded that Nucky’s interwar generation doesn’t really relate to the sacrifices of Jimmy’s, grand speeches aside–Nucky sees Jimmy as a patsy and failure for enlisting instead of staying at Princeton. And there’s a similar dynamic playing in the Chicago and New York mobs between an entrenched generation and younger bucks ready to jump the line.

But it’s Parkhurst’s arrogance that cuts more deeply, and drives Jimmy and Richard to respond with a deeper cut: a literal yet symbolic scalping, complete with gross-out scalp prosthesis—a message from one generation to another, and a kind of payback across the generations from the old man’s vanquished enemy.

Sometimes it takes a rifle to get the job done. And sometimes there’s no substitute for a knife.

Now for the hail of rifle fire:

* A nitpick, but it was distracting to know that the episode took place on Memorial Day, yet when Harrow went out into the woods, there was the barest early-spring spray of green on the trees. Obviously, Boardwalk Empire, whose seasons span months, often has to shoot summer for winter, and so on, and I guess CGI can’t do everything. Ironically, if I know my Jersey topography, Harrow would really have been in a pine woods (the show actually shoots in and around New York), which would have taken care of the seasonal-foliage issue.

* Have not watched further episodes in advance, but safe to say that Margaret will eventually ascertain the source of the “screaming” coming from the servants’ quarters? And that she will be displeased for reasons beyond her loss of sleep?

* Second uninformed speculation: considering how heavily the episode pointed to Nucky’s worries that the Feds will not be able to get his charges dropped, I’m guessing we can assume those troubles are not over.

* My dad was a Marine veteran, so I was already familiar with the special status of chipped beef as an especially, memorably hated food. I guess that’s a constant across the ages.

* One memorable, but to me puzzling, gesture: as Richard is found by one of the hunters, he hides his medal. I could make several guesses as to why, but I’m curious what yours are.

* Loaded rifles or not, big props to badass Margaret with the gun. (Even if all she earned from Nucky was an lecture about loading the rifle.) But I also liked her agitated response when the crisis was over: “Is this to be our life now?” I’m guessing she won’t like the answer.

* Speaking of knives: one thing I thought this episode might address, but did not, (Update: on second viewing, I see Jimmy mentions it briefly) is that there’s a certain butcher in Philadelphia who (I assume) paid Jimmy $5K for booze that got blown up. Watch your liver, Jimmy!

*(Update: Or “big guns”; Dennings says in his comment below that some of the pieces were in fact shotguns.)