Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Some Quick Thoughts on "Boardwalk Empire"

Thanks to my hometown's propensity for closing everything down when an inch of snow and a little bit of ice accumulates on the street, I don't have to work today. My school is closed for the day which gives me the opportunity to catch up on some episodes of my new favorite show "Boardwalk Empire." Once again, for great, insightful (and more detailed than what you'll find here) weekly recaps visit Ed and David (and of course Alan) at their sites. Spoilers abound if you aren't caught up with the most recent episode. Thoughts after the jump...

- One thing that is becoming clearer throughout the last few episodes is that Terrence Winter's series is definitely feeling more and more like "Deadwood" than "The Sopranos." Now it's been awhile since I've seen "The Sopranos," but with its weaving of historical characters and fiction (and the building of tension between these historical characters where a mere Google search can be a major spoiler alert) "Boardwalk Empire" is walking that fine line between historical drama, politics, and crime that "Deadwood" walked with ease. Necessary evil is an important theme running through these first ten episodes of the series (I love Nucky's line, which I will paraphrase, "Without dishonest men in office, we wouldn't have any leaders.") much as it was in "Deadwood." We may have hated Swearengen, but dammit if he wasn't necessary for making Deadwood, South Dakota the community that its inhabitants sought and wanted it to be.

- The introduction of deformed war hero Richard Harlow (Jack Huston) was a much needed boost to the innevitable soggy middle of the series. No series breezes through an entire season without some episodes that feel a bit off due to their need to set more things up for the end, but one of things Winter and co. have done so incredibly well is use a slow burn mentality when introducing characters. Just when the series was feeling a bit "average" in episodes five and six, they introduce Harlow in a beautifully poignant moment shared between he and Jimmy in a veterans hospital; they are two war heroes who have both physical and emotional scars. They're shared moment in the hospital is the catalyst for a friendship that pays off with the spilling of blood (in the name of revenge) and the blossoming of a friendship. It also introduces a reoccurring character, even though he only appears briefly, has become one of the most interesting things about the show. Oh, and that mask he wears is just plain creepy.

- Speaking of Harlow, one of the motifs he brings with him is the idea that he isn't who he used to be, and how he must cope with that on a daily basis. I loved the introduction of this motif (again, it seemed to surface naturally, even though to the most astute viewer, it was clear where they were going with the "scar" motif) as Harlow interacts with Jimmy (he can't be the father he never had), Mrs. Schroeder (she is definitely not the same girl as she was in the picture that Van Alden whips himself over; she is fully entrenched now as a "mobster's wife"), and Van Alden (more on him later). He is the catalyst for each of these characters taking a second look at what they've become and how they've coped with their acceptance of this new persona.

- On Van Alden: Michael Shannon owns this show. He is consistently the most intriguing aspect of the show for me, and his bizarre, zealot-like antics only make him more endearing as as an oddball character. The contrast between Van Alden's home life and relationship with his wife (pictured above), and his life on the road (a life that contains, among other things, whipping himself in a motel room with his own belt whenever he is tempted by Margaret). It's one of the many dichotomies running through "Boardwalk Empire" and it's the most interesting of them all (along with Nucky's past life which hasn't been alluded to in about a month's worth of episodes, but it still hangs over his relationship with Margaret).

However, last night's episode showed that he too has to reevaluate who he's become (again, in light of coming in contact with Harlow). As he revels in the arrest of a key witness and the apprehension of Jimmy, Van Alden remarks to his partner (who we find out in his cahoots with Nucky) that once they bring down Jimmy they bring down Nucky, which in turn brings down that "Sodom" of a city. But as we find with Van Alden, he too has a past that he must cope with. When Van Alden walks into the speakeasy I half expected a burst of violence stemming the frustration of his latest meeting with Margaret. But to my surprise he orders a whiskey; he drinks it and then asks for another. This either sheds light on his staunch religious beliefs (he once led a life that caused him to make a harsh 180), or it's an acquiescence to the fact that a guy like Nucky -- who walks in shades of gray at best -- can get the girl he can never have, despite his attempts to do right by her, which in his mind is "saving" her from the Sodom she's dwelling in. Van Alden's final confrontation with Margaret in which he shows her the picture that was taken when she first arrived at Ellis Island is his attempt to rescue the lost girl from the hell she's living; it is the tipping point for Van Alden and one hell of a scary look into the character (not to mention some great acting by Shannon).  After his swig of whiskey we see Van Alden eying Nucky's old girlfriend (more of a concubine) Lucy. What follows is Van Alden's further descent in Sodom as he gives himself over the temptations of the flesh as he doesn't just have sex with Lucy, but when he rolls her over to continue the act it is implied that he is either having sex with her in an "evil" position (taboo at the time, for sure, but especially for someone as religious as Van Alden), or that he is, perhaps, sodomizing her. Either way, it is clear that Van Alden has succumbed to his demons. I'm really interested to see if this makes him a better agent in that it gets him thinking like the people he's chasing, or whether this act causes him to devolve into a different kind of monster. Either way, Shannon is making this the performance of his short, distinguished career.

- The show continues to look amazing. I sure hope "Boardwalk Empire" doesn't go the way of "Rome" or "Deadwood" -- other expensive historical epics HBO has financed -- and the fact that they are already working on a second season is a good sign, but "Rome" found out they were getting axed during their second season, and the show suffered greatly from it by trying to throw everything into that season. Here's to hoping they stick with "Boardwalk Empire" for at least three seasons. It's the best thing on television.

- There's so much more to comment on, but as you can see by the title of this post this was meant to be "quick," and this post has been anything but short. So what do you guys think? Leave your comments and observations (and favorite elements) about the show below.


  1. "Now it's been awhile since I've seen "The Sopranos," but with its weaving of historical characters and fiction (and the building of tension between these historical characters where a mere Google search can be a major spoiler alert) "Boardwalk Empire" is walking that fine line between historical drama, politics, and crime that "Deadwood" walked with ease."

    Well Kevin, that's well-framed there! I have not yet seen a single episode, though through David, John Greco and yourself I have been made to believe I am really missing something. I'm relying on a DVD release in the near future to play catch up as I did with DEADWOOD (which I do like) and THE SOPRANOS (which I like less)As of late I am being advised that another show - THE WALKING DEAD - is worth some serious imersion as well. I agree with you on the expectation for at least a three year run, and the generally efusive praise seems to suggest at least this. I've read some of the synopsis, but in the end I'll have to sort things out when I tackle it.

    The only problem with the snow day is that you will have to make it up in June, no?

    Passionate and pointed work here Kevin!

  2. Thanks, Sam! No, I do not have to make that day up. The school I work for is an alternative program that is housed at a local community college. The public schools here are on their Thanksgiving holiday, but we still had three days of school this week. The program is an accelerated program (we cram a semester's worth of units into 14 days) for at-risk teens. It's a great learning environment for them; however, when things like this happens it really stunts the momentum they've built up in the past week learning all of the material. It's too bad because if they cancel tomorrow, then that pretty much means they get the week off, and when they come back on Monday it will be A LOT of review...which in an accelerated program is not ideal since we're trying to get through so much material in such a small window.

  3. Oh, and I have "The Walking Dead" on my desktop...I'll be taking a look at it over the winter break.

  4. I wonder if ala both The Sopranos and Deadwood, one of the major players "gets it" in the season finale. I'd put money on Lucy (especially if she turns over in another way for Van Alden and Nucky gets wind of it) - but that would be rather obvious.

    Van Alden is an absolutely terrible federal agent - he would be more interesting if he was creepy, zealous, and really good at his job. You make some good observations about his character arc. I wonder how he will continue to evolve or devolve.

    All the performances are routinely good and the production values second to none. I really wish they would release a soundtrack of all those great period jazz songs.

  5. Boardwalk Empire totally blows The Walking Dead out of the water. It's far more entertaining and well crafted. I really like this show, and it gets better with each episode.