A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
As I begin to write, it’s been several days since the finale of Boardwalk Empire and I am still preoccupied by it. Not just the last episode, but the program as a whole. You wouldn’t think a show about bootleggers during 1920’s Prohibition in America would appeal to me, but it did. (There was violence, yes, but except for 2 instances, my well-honed wimp antennae was warned with enough time to look away.)
The producers knew how to create an atmosphere of the times, not only with lavish parties at Babette’s and the Onyx Club worthy of the Fitzgeralds, but also in the everyday settings. The architecture, lighting and décor of the interiors made the viewer feel like they were in the room. The music added to that, songs from the era done by modern musicians, so different from today’s music, often emphasized a theme and definitely cast a mood.
Into the masterful sets were the characters, and what an array of them. Unlike the movies of my youth, good and bad characters were not sharply defined, but occupied that grey area. Yes, most of them operated outside of the law, but that didn’t necessarily make them bad people, or at least, not completely bad. And no one proved this more than the central character, Nucky Thompson, the corrupt politician and businessman, who still seemed to have a good heart, at least most of the time. Meeting Margaret when she’s an abused and pregnant wife, brings out the softer side of him and after having her violent husband killed, he woos her. And when their relationship finally catches fire, Loudon Wainwright’s “Carrickfergus” in the background, Steve Buscemi makes the surprising leap to romantic leading man.
Much was made of the phrase “You can’t be half a gangster.” uttered in the second season, which became a tagline for the show. But that was just a lot of macho posturing, since anyone paying attention knew that Nucky was a reluctant gangster. The line was said by Jimmy Darmody, a young war veteran whose handsomeness masked restrained violence and a remoteness even from his wife and son. He always reminded me of a sleek guard dog, which is part of what he served as for Nucky, along with being a surrogate son. That’s why Nucky’s killing of Jimmy at the end of season 2 was illogical and out of character. Jimmy’s relationship with his real parents was positively Oedipal, it’s amazing that Jimmy was as normal as he was, considering.
Richard Harrow, another veteran and Jimmy’s friend, used his sharpshooter skills in all sorts of capacities. He was not a cold-blooded killer, he viewed his skill the same way a woodworker or bricklayer would, just something he was handy at. He was my favorite character on the show, his loneliness and longing vivid and painful and his loyalty admirable. I cried when he died, though it was inevitable and poignant, his final refuge under the boardwalk as dawn was breaking.
Fellow gangster Chalky, who ruled the black part of Atlantic City was a complex person; illiterate, yet intelligent, devoted to his family, yet unfaithful to his wife. There was a hopeless strength about him and his death reminded me of Sydney Carlton’s in A Tale of Two Cities.
At first I didn’t like Nelson van Alden, the Prohibition agent who saw himself as a righteous crusader with rigid ethics. But Life mocked his morals and led him completely off the straight and narrow, his flaws making him more interesting. Gillian was another person whose layers made her more sympathetic. At first I thought she was twisted and manipulative, which she was, but a full understanding of her backstory made her quite pitiful. I retain mixed feelings for Eli, Nucky’s younger brother, the former sheriff who became one of Al Capone’s bag men on his way down to the gutter. I felt that Eli just let events carry him along without him doing much to set things right and he basically squandered the good family life that should’ve stabilized him.
Though the five seasons were uneven, I positively hated Season 3. That’s the one where Gyp Rosetti took over the show, a bombastic, twisted villain who was more cartoon than nuanced human. That season was mostly written by Steve Kornacki, who I believe is the same annoying host of the weekend msnbc political show. He wrote an episode during the final season which went into that same strange, creepy area better suited to American Horror Story than Boardwalk Empire. Gyp Rosetti was a crazy, clumsy character who could only orgasm with a belt tied around his neck, which led me to hope each time that the woman would pull it just a little bit tighter & kill him off. Of course, it wasn’t till the last episode of that third season that they got rid of him, making fans like me heave a big sigh of relief.
But that season also contained Owen Sleater, the dashing Irish body guard who was certainly keeping his eye on Margaret, and in essence, became Lancelot. Margaret’s character arc was one of the most evolved, from the battered wife to the confident stock analyst bantering with the likes of Joseph Kennedy(yes, that Kennedy). Like Sally Wheet and to a lesser extent, Billie Kent, Nucky was attracted to feisty, independent women, even if he didn’t really know how to hold onto them.
Contradiction was evident in so many elements of “Boardwalk”. Most often it was that the more damaged the outer was, the better the person. Look at how the smooth, articulate Narcisse was really doing much more harm to people than Chalky. And how the war wounds of Richard Harrow masked a gentle, loving person, but the muscular attractiveness of Jimmy hid a man who was emotionally dead.
Betrayal was another theme, as I suppose it always is in a story about people making their own laws. In a narrower sense, Nucky betrayed everyone he cared for and who depended on him. Realizing that makes me like him less and makes his life and others sadder. Because overall, Boardwalk Empire was a show about lost souls and that was part of the draw, at least for me, that they would find salvation and love. In the end, so many of them lost what love they found and ultimately their lives, too. Following their journeys made for some riveting TV and I shall miss that empire by the sea.
HBO 2010-2014 56 episodes