Boardwalk Empire: A Place Jesus Wouldn’t Visit

BOARDWALK EMPIRE: 2.1 “21”

So this year, I’ll be coming at this Boardwalk Empire thing from the perspective of a newbie, having only watched the pilot from last season. I will eventually catch up on the first season, but not until later, because I think this approach could be an interesting way to measure how easily a new viewer can adapt to a highly serialized, interconnected TV drama.

It doesn’t hurt that I’ve always been fascinated by Prohibition-era America, so Boardwalk is really right in my wheelhouse from the start. I really enjoyed the first episode of the second season, but since I’m so new, I’m not entirely clear on all the characters, their relationships, and the plotlines running through the show; for that reason, I’ll avoid an ordinary recap summary and just hit on a few observations.

  • Nucky is obviously the main character here and we’re supposed to be drawn to him despite his criminal background. He’s particularly sympathetic character in his home life; when dealing with his girlfriend’s son, he’s firm and not averse to using a little bribery to influence behavior, but he seems shocked and disgusted that little Teddy was expecting a beating. We can’t forget, though, that Nucky’s a master politician (as shown in the beautifully shot scene when he rails against white abuses in the black church, and then promptly condemns black folks in the white church) and is willing to lie and manipulate however necessary to maintain the peace (or get his way).
  • The opening scene explodes into some stunning violence as the Klan members raid Chalky’s warehouse. Based on the catch-up clips from last season, this is probably retaliation because of some prior action against the Klan. Anyway, it’s stunning to me that the white community in Atlantic City can claim to be outraged that a bunch of white sheeted terrorist thugs got themselves shot up in the midst of a vigilante rampage. Yes, manufacturing, transporting, and owning liquor is illegal, but so is vigilantism. I suppose it’s a telling example of the screwed up racial politics of the era. Chalky’s a proud guy, and the double standard clearly drives him crazy, and he lets Nucky and Eli know it by dismissing them abruptly from his well-appointed home, which is the only place in the city that he really has any power over both of them.
  • Agent Nelson Van Alden is the same sort of authoritarian religious fanatic who, had he been born in different times and circumstances, would have fit right in during the bloodiest days of the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition. His brittle, bloodless Victorian self-righteousness conceals what seems to be his secret life with a knocked-up prostitute mistress. In the end, Van Alden is like every other religious zealot; deep down, he is what he hates the most, and that deep, gnawing realization forces him to ruthlessly hunt down other people’s sins to distract him from his own. He is a wonderfully evil villain, and an interesting inversion of the heroic “Elliot Ness” G-Man cliche. I’ve only seen one episode with him in it, and I’m not sure if I can think of another TV character I’ve hated more; even Cersei from Game of Thrones or Brother Justin from Carnivale will get a modicum of sympathy from me. Not this guy, though.
  • I loved the wonderful irony of Mrs. Van Alden, whom after looking in the “Places Jesus would Visit in Atlantic City” pamphlet (or whatever it exact title was), reacts with shock and disgust, and states that Jesus would never be found associating with drunks and whores. She might want to go back and read that Bible again after Mr. Van Alden sends her packing.

More to come next week. I hope I get to see more on the Great War vet with the half-face mask. I’d seen still photos of that and thought it was creepy, but it’s way creepier to see it in motion.

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