Tuned In

Boardwalk Empire Watch: The Body of an American

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Nucky travels to the old country to try to find a solution for his own Troubles.

SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, gather all your friends around the wireless and watch last night’s Boardwalk Empire.

Over a season and a half of Boardwalk Empire, I’ve seen men have their throats slashed and get bludgeoned to death. I’ve seen someone reach inside a dying man’s wound to torture him. I’ve seen a body hauled in with the day’s catch of fishes. I’ve seen burnings and drownings and guttings and face-stompings. But I’m pretty sure the first scene that’s made me cover my eyes and ears was when Emily, helpless in her bed, was subjected to the painful spinal tap that would confirm she had polio.

It was a wrenching incidence of a girl’s fate and natural suffering, in contrast to a series that has been about men dooming themselves or bringing suffering on others. Polio, as anyone who knows their FDR history, is a story of Boardwalk Empire’s time, just as Prohibition is. But the contrast here to the other plotlines developing in “Battle of the Century” is clear: a little girl is engaged in a battle she didn’t ask for, while everywhere else in this story, men try to whip up wars of choice.

The war Nucky walks into in Ireland, of course, is not new or of his making .But when he arrives with the “body” of his father–in reality, a dozen Tommy guns–he finds that there may be a peace agreement just when he doesn’t need one.* So his finds his war, and the men within Sinn Fein willing to continue it, so that he can win his own battle at home.

*(I’ll admit to being a little confused about the plan still: at this point, I would think Nucky’s problem is not so much getting liquor as it is muscle and distribution, but I’m sure you’ll all set me straight.)

I’ll let others argue the necessity of the armed rebellion against the British, which isn’t my battle any more than it is Nucky’s. The point here is that the only Cause Nucky actually supports is the cause of money finding its way to his pocket. He’ll sail home to America where the Irish whiskey flows, and not need to see the Irish blood spill. McGarrigle, self-righteous prick though he was, gets the right of it not long before he’s killed: he and his kind, at least, act on some kind of principle, whereas for Nucky, it’s about nothing more than (in Sleater’s words) “dosh.” Though to be fair, Nucky makes his own point: “Whenever men like you need to win, you’ll turn to men like me.”

Back stateside, in the kitchen of the Ritz, another fight is brewing that may be righteously justified and historically determined–the black staff standing up for their pay and dignity–but the immediate force behind it is Nucky’s, and thus Chalky’s, business interests. In the service of which, we find, Chalky has enlisted his old cellmate Purnsley, who proves to be perfect for the job. Because when men like Chalky need to win…

Jimmy, finally, is–or thinks he is–in the process of consolidating his empire, and yet may already have overreached by fighting and fomenting a battle that he really does not need to fight. As bottom-line-minded Meyer Lansky points out, Jimmy could easily pay Manny the debt that he does, after all, owe him. But Manny’s been an “asshole” to him, so instead there needs to be a battle. He allies with waxy Gordon, gives the go-ahead for Manny’s un-kosher butchering and, surprise, surprise, not only does it go wrong–the second such hit to fail for Jimmy in a short time–the Butcher of Philly finds an Atlantic City matchbox on his assailant.

And OK, here’s I’m going to make a complaint. Has Boardwalk Empire suddenly made Jimmy an idiot? It already seemed a bit out of character last episode for him not to realize that Nucky’s surrender came too easily, and unusually rash for him to make a show of tossing Mickey over the railing at his victory party. It’s not just that Jimmy seems hotheaded–it’s that he’s suddenly a hothead shortly after an episode that seemed to exist to show us that he learned the opposite lesson: namely–as he said to Manny, of all people, “Not every insult requires a response.”

In any case, Jimmy does not reap the consequences of his rash action: not yet, anyway. He and Richard enjoy the company of two flappers while listening to a broadcast of, naturally, two men fighting each other for a purse of money. Because that’s what happens. Men fight by choice for gain, because there’s money to be had, and more pain is added to a world that–as the agonizing scene of Margaret holding Emily in bed shows–the world is ready enough to dispense it for free.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* The spinal tap was the more horrible scene to watch, but the doll burning on the fire? Killed me.

* “A lady lawyer. That’s a heck of a thing.” “What’s next, horseless carriages?” “They already got those.”

* Speaking of which: with three episodes left in the season, the Federal case against Nucky seems like quite an anvil hanging along with his war with Jimmy and the Commodore. Guesses as to how or if the two might be resolved, and if their resolutions somehow become connected?

* Very nice exchange between Owen and the British customs agent upon their welcome to “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.” I sometimes feel like Boardwalk Empire is trying to fit in every single thing, political, social or cultural, that was happening around the world in 1921–how did the Sacco and Vanzetti trial not end up in here, or did I miss it?–but the linkage of the story to the Irish rebellion has been fascinating.

* “And Herman? What became of him?” “I’d be careful of where I ordered my cutlets.”