It’s long been a truism that Prohibition strengthened organized crime, or even gave birth to the modern iteration of it; more novel is an argument put forth by Boardwalk Empire that as vital an ingredient as the misguided moralism that led to the Volstead Act was, equally crucial was another thread in the social fabric of the country: a social Darwinism that functioned as the dark side of the American Dream, and not only sanctioned but encouraged the kind of monopolistic rapacity that found as pure an expression in the crime bosses that arose to fill the vacuum left by Prohibition and the corrupt police and politicians that protected them as in the robber barons of the Gilded Age. This view of life as a game with winning the object and untold riches and power the reward leads inevitably to the belief that there is no sin but weakness and no virtue but strength, and in an episode
obsessed with the case of Leopold and Loeb and the Doppelganger archetype, Boardwalk sets out to show us just how terrifying a world Nucky and the gang inhabit.
“Did You Ever Wake Up With A Vague Feeling of Unease?”
“William Wilson”, the first episode of the second half of the season, is a textbook in the kind of dramatic irony that Hitchcock specialized in, in which the audience knows more than the characters and has to watch in impotent terror as these unknown forces close in on the latter. The suspense is made all the more unbearable by the fact that the characters aren’t completely unaware of the machinations of their enemies: to paraphrase Bob Dylan, they know something is happening here, but they don’t know what it is; this vague feeling of existential dread, of being unsure whether they are king or pawn, agent or object, pervades the episode. Intellectual and emotional chess games have been one of the many signal strengths of the wave of post-Oz-and-The Sopranos serial dramas to which this show belongs, and while it’s not the first to use the game itself as a metaphor–there’s the famous scene from the first season of The Wire in which D’Angelo breaks chess down into terms his crew can understand, and Oz itself named its first season finale “A Game of Checkers”–it has made the concept into a kind of manifesto in a way unlike any other show. But what is the nature of the game, and what the stakes?
Leopold and Loeb, two college boys under the influence of Nietzsche who murdered an acquaintance to prove their superiority, show up a couple of times this episode: in the newspaper being read by the policeman before Al Capone exacts his revenge, and in a post-coital discussion between Willie and his college girlfriend. After discussing the case and the alleged influence of Nietzsche on it, she asks Willie “Do you believe in God?” It’s a literal question given what she describes as the author’s “God is dead malarkey,” but it’s also an admittance of vulnerability in a series of scenes portrayed as hustles in which the question of how high the game, how long the con hangs ever in the air, in which conscience is weakness and to be a human being with human needs renders one a mark waiting to be exploited. In the titular Poe story William Wilson kills his Doppelganger and with him his conscience, which Eli’s English professor explains as a kind of suicide: to become the superman Nietzsche prophesied one must first kill the man: destroy the conscience and move beyond good and evil, and you’ve taken your first step toward initiation as a king, one of the masters of the game for whom pawns are so much disposable cannon fodder.
But what is the cost of such a transformation, and is it possible in the end? Nucky, by his own admission, has systematically removed all happiness from his life through his efforts to remain on top, and furthermore is still hindered by the Achilles Heel that has always plagued him–his politician’s need to be needed, particularly by women. His rewarding of the people who were loyal to him last season is already being exploited: Eddie Kessler was targeted by Knox with brutal efficiency, and it looks as though Eli is next on his list; Chalky is in a very precarious position with regard to Narcisse and Purnsley and doesn’t seem to know it; and Bill McCoy in Tampa may yet prove another pawn in someone else’s game. Even his continuing need for approval from Margaret looks likely to be exploited by Rothstein, twice humbled by Nucky and unlikely to let that fact go.
If there is hope for our flawed heroes it is in this very precariousness of the Nietzschean ideal. Rothstein’s vanity and desire to be known as a master of the game has already been exposed as a flaw, albeit one Nucky shares to a certain degree despite his protestations to the contrary. Narcisse is a formidable opponent, and like a famous character from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man seems to be equal parts crime boss and cult leader. If there is anything more audaciously amoral than taking advantage of people’s need for human connection it is exploiting their deepest existential yearnings, and the virtuosic hypocrisy of Narcisse’s abbreviated sermon in the church is as vile in its way as the duplicitous Dunn Purnsley sticking a knife in the gut of Deacon Cuffee while sneeringly asking him how the Lord’s Prayer goes. Cuffee is no fool, as may at first be suspected: the very fact that he has (or had, before Chalky’s ambition got the best of him) regular dealings with Chalky White indicates that he knows what makes the world run, but he is also a man of genuine faith, and although he knows it is foolish to take Purnsley’s hand, in the context of that faith he has no choice, a fact Purnsley ruthlessly exploits. The last scene of the episode may indicate that Narcisse is as much a vessel of the weaknesses he exploits as is his prey, and I frankly hope so. As of now Chalky seems badly outmatched.
Odds and Sods
-Capone shooting a cop right in front of police headquarters? That’s balls.
-Nucky’s new factotum Sid is no Eddie. “You want me to look up the number?”
-I think Nucky hopes Sally is the answer to his prayers: a woman who will help him keep his eye on the ball rather than distract him from it.
-In addition to his loyal soldiers being targeted by his enemies, Nucky’s saviors from last season–Means, Esther Randolph, and possibly Mellon–have turned on him. He was in a very tight spot and used his resources in a dazzling manner, but as this development shows, it was also a dangerous move. I’m sure Randolph told Remus Nucky and Means were behind his fall, and now they’re giving him another shot at him.
-Nice bit of foreshadowing with Knox getting pulled out of the meeting for a phone call–I’m certain it was Means tipping him off that the Thompsons were on to him.
-Capone seems to be driven by a fascinating mixture of cocaine-fueled megalomania and guilt over his brother’s death.
-Margaret as a Wall Street hustler? She’s shown in the past she’s quite capable at conning people, and after all, she learned from one of the best.
-Games within games: is Lucky just a pawn in Joe the Boss and Frankie Yale’s game, and is he being set up to be sacrificed in Tampa?
-“I heard Clayton’s parents gave everything to the Salvation Army.” Poor kid, and his poor parents.
-Watching Torrio and O’Banion trying to hustle each other was a thing of beauty. Notice how each told the other to “relax,” but whereas the relatively peaceful Torrio was about as sincere as he’s capable of being, O’Banion’s paranoia is leading him to hustle a very dangerous mark.
-Even Means couldn’t polish the turd he was trying to sell Nucky: after Nucky explains his feeling of waking up with a vague sense of unease, all Means can tell him to do is “go back to sleep.” You know, so we can continue destroying you!
-I was intrigued by how secretive Terence Winter has been about Margaret’s arc this year, and now that we know what he had up his sleeve I think it was fully justified. Putting her in Rothstein’s pocket was a masterstroke.
-Rothstein was almost amused by how rattled Margaret was by his appearance, and actually tried to walk her through her hustle on him to avoid blowing his cover as a mark. Margaret’s loathsome boss obviously has no idea this sucker he’s reeled in is playing the game at a much higher level, and I hope we get to see him realize the hustler has been hustled.
-I’m very worried about Chalky. I hope his plot armor will save him, especially so soon after we’ve lost Eddie, but the last two seasons have taught me not to doubt this show’s balls.
-Roy is the big remaining mystery. Livingston seems to be channeling Jimmy Stewart in his performance, and given what show this is, I have to believe it’s in a Hitchcockian or Lynchian manner. I’m not sure how it’ll pan out, but I fully expect either he or Gillian will be shocked at how they’ve underestimated the other.
-Chalky is making many of the mistakes Nucky did last season: obsessing over a woman while his top lieutenant usurps much of his authority.
-Really saw the dark side of Eli’s family man persona this episode. Not good to see him drinking so much again either.
-There’s a powerful melancholy to this season so far, and it has me dreading what may happen.
-This episode reminded what amazing depth there is to this cast. Lots of great recurring characters we haven’t seen for a while.
-Games within games: poor Knox – I mean Jim Tolliver–was hustled by Hoover, who took credit for his work like the glory hound he was.
-Speaking of Knox, he may be in over his head. Means is not to be underestimated, and for that matter, neither is Nucky.
-No hustling needed on Capone’s part in his last scene: O’Banion has awoken the sleeping dragon, and Torrio is out for blood.
-With his resentment and ugly rhetoric, Eli has managed to drive his son and Nucky right into each other’s arms.
-Nucky is very much the “cool uncle” archetype, so I can see what worries him, but he’s handling this all wrong.
-Is Daughter falling for Chalky? She tells Narcisse that he is chafing under Nucky’s authority, and I didn’t get that vibe off him at all–he said Nucky was the kind of partner he likes. This development may be what saves him.
See you next week, when from the look of the preview (see attached trailer) all Hell breaks loose!
TV Review by Chad Nicholson, Contributing Writer
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