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Boardwalk Empire: Season 4, Ep 09

Marriage and Hunting

Last week Nucky Thompson, in conversation with his nephew Willie, reacted with surprise that Willie remembered that Jack Dempsey had visited his suite at the Ritz, an incident that occurred way back in season 2. Willie responded with a statement that could be interpreted as something of a mission statement for the current fourth season: “I remember everything.” It’s similar in spirit to Meyer Lansky’s iconic mission statement from last season: ”Everything connects, Charlie, whether you know it or not.” Both serve as reminders to impatient viewers and critics that Boardwalk Empire plays a long game, sometimes very long indeed, but patience will be rewarded and in the end nothing is superfluous to the mosaic show-runner Terry Winter and company are creating scene by scene, episode by episode and season by season.

Birth of a Gangster

Take, for instance, Nelson Van Alden, alias George Mueller. Portrayed by the great Michael Shannon, he is a fan favorite and often very funny comic relief, but there are critics who thought prior to this week’s episode that Winter and company had written him into a corner at the end of season 2 or even season 1, but having a talent like Shannon under contract, couldn’t bring themselves to let him go and so essentially created a new character for Shannon to play. Others pointed out that everything Van Alden has been through would surely change him, and furthermore some version of the old, dangerous Van Alden was still there under the surface of Mueller, waiting to awaken and wreak havoc like Jason Voorhees at the bottom of Crystal Lake in a Friday the 13th film, and scenes like the darkly hilarious iron attack from last season gave weight to this defense.

Boardwalk Empire
Directed by Ed Bianchi
Cast Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Shea Whigham, Gretchen Mol, Michael K. Williams, Stephen Graham
Release Date 3 November 2013
Chad's Grade: A

This week’s episode finally brings the character full circle, as the meek George Mueller façade falls away to reveal a reborn and even more dangerous Nelson Van Alden, and the confident patience Winter displayed in getting to this point only makes the reveal that much more cathartic and satisfying. In addition to his hulking size, what made Van Alden so frightening in season 1 was his fanatical conviction, full of passionate intensity. With that conviction slowly chipped away at by a series of Job-like tribulations and sent into retreat by the government he once served, the terrifying Van Alden was forced into hibernation under the façade of George the schmuck, unlikeliest of salesmen in an arc that played like something out of a Coen Brothers film. The Darwinian universe of Boardwalk Empire has now given him a new purpose, and one that may render him more dangerous now than even his previous incarnation as Holy Warrior: brute animal self- assertion. Bad enough to be stuck in between two troglodyte gangsters like Dean O’Banion and Al Capone; throw in the banal, high school bully cruelty of the returning iron salesmen and a wife who constantly reminds him of his masculine failures under the Randian standards of the day and you have the perfect pressure cooker to force Van Alden to embrace the law of the jungle, red in tooth and claw, finally finding the replacement for the puritanical code he at last admits he has discarded and discovering in the process a new purpose, chillingly expressed in three lines in three separate scenes:

“I am calm.”

“I used to believe in God. Now I don’t believe in anything at all.”

“Who’s holding $1000 in his hand? Take off your nightgown.”

Elsewhere this week, we saw Nucky adhering to the law of the jungle and revealing the staggering hypocrisy necessary to fulfill it and still call oneself human. Halfheartedly searching for a reason to back Chalky in his play against Narcisse to soothe what’s left of his conscience, he finds his escape hatch in a series of excuses that deliberately (on the show’s part, not Nucky’s) echo Rothstein’s words to him last season when it was he who needed the help:

“I tried to warn him, couldn’t have been clearer.”

“When I mind my business I do just that, not some piece of ass with a sugary voice.”

On the other hand, he admits he has a bond with Chalky, and Narcisse did himself no favors when he sat next to Nucky in the club, drawing menacing stares from patrons and reminding once again of what a messy moral universe this show inhabits: this episode in particular reminded viewers of just how loathsome the Doctor is (I don’t know if I’ve ever seen more a more horrifically bruised face than the one he leaves Daughter with) yet when he insists on sitting down by saying

“There are no niggers where I come from, and I refuse to be treated as one”

it’s difficult for this reviewer not to sympathize with him.

Odds and Sods

-“He had a wife and kids!...maybe he didn’t have a kid, but still.”

-It seems nearly every week a different actor gives an Emmy caliber performance: Erik LaRay Harvey, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Stuhlbarg, Anthony Laciura, Stephen Graham, Michael K. Williams, and now Michael Shannon. They ought to create a new category—Best Supporting Actor on Boardwalk Empire. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this may be the best ensemble ever.

-We finally get a couple of foreboding moments that indicate Roy Phillips is in fact too good to be true: his ominous shadow on Gillian’s sunbathed face and suddenly changing the nature of his telephone conversation when Gillian enters the room. Interested to see his true nature revealed.

-Lots of origin stories this week: Gillian almost coming clean to Roy; Narcisse reminding Daughter of the nature of their relationship; and Van Alden revealing himself to O’Banion.

-“The Jew, like the Libyan, must remain pliable if he is to survive.”

-Difficult to watch the daily fictions under which the White family operates fall apart. I’ve thought for a while that Chalky’s arc this season is a mirror image of Nucky’s last season, and I won’t be surprised if Chalky ends up losing his family as well.

-As befits an episode entitled “Marriage and Hunting,” lots of marriages, common law marriages, and possible future marriages this week: Richard and Julia, Van Alden and Sigrid, The Rothsteins, Chalky and Lenore, Maybelle and Samuel, Nucky and Sally, and Narcisse kneeling down to Daughter like he’s going to propose before he brutally attacks her.

-Nucky still doesn’t completely trust Eli, and it’s a good thing: when the latter fishes for information, the former’s guard comes up visibly and he changes the subject to Willie.

-“This is truth?” “This is sarcasm.”

-“When he wakes up from nightmares—and he does wake up, your honor—“ Poor Tommy. I really hope the kid gets a happy ending.

-Notice how the previous judge recused himself after Gillian’s offer?

-“So plot your revenge.” “That takes cash.”

-Is this the end of Mickey Doyle? Winter has turned his continued survival into a running joke, so I expect he’ll find a way out of this spot, but I’m not sure how.

-Speaking of which, Mickey’s life insurance policy from way back in season 1 is another example of how this show “remembers everything.”

-Yet another example of this show playing the long game: Maybelle’s curiousness about Chalky’s life outside the home, which was first explored in one episode last season.

-I don’t know if I’ve ever wanted an onscreen couple to be together and happy more than Richard and Julia. “It’d be better if I was married.” “To who?” “You’d do in a pinch.”

-Another running theme this episode (and really throughout the show): the distinction between what sociologists call Onstage and Backstage behavior, literalized and brought into focus with a racial angle at the Onyx Club/

-Notice how everyone waits for the train before engaging in violence at O’Banion’s flower shop? One of the perks of the location.

-Richard:”I got married…I need a job.” A brief scene, but filled with import: as an example of the show playing the long game (fans have been waiting for this scene for two seasons), another illustration of the title of the episode and reflection of Van Alden’s arc (like Nelson, Richard is driven back to the gangster life by the need to provide for a wife) and, with Richard fading into the darkness at the end of the first scene of the season and reemerging from the darkness here.

-Richard also has a new suit, with a proper hat rather than what the man in Guzik’s synagogue told Al Capone was “the cap of a boy” back in season 1.

-“Make a promise to you, break another to myself.”

-I wonder if Maybelle thinks Chalky and Daughter gave each other those bruises?

-Patricia Arquette has enormous breasts.

-“It’s foggy here.” “Don’t get lost in the fog now.”

See you next week as Chalky makes his move on Narcisse!

TV Review by Chad Nicholson, Contributing Writer

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