Boardwalk Empire season 4 episode 5 review: Erlkonig
German Romanticism in Atlantic City? Why not. This is after all, Boardwalk Empire...
This review contains spoilers.
"Be calm, dearest child, thy fancy deceives;
the wind is sighing through withering leaves."
This week’s episode opens with a series of carefully mounted images. We’re in Eddie’s room, his bed undisturbed. The camera picks up two caged birds before alighting on a photograph of his two sons as boys. It then turns its gaze to some sheet music of Schubert’s Lieder and a couple of Western novels, symbolic of Eddie’s German past and his American present. The window is open and the wind breathes through the room, its whistle audible amid the sound of Nucky’s urgent phone call from Willie.
With that, Erlkönig sets out the symbolism that will dominate an episode concerned with temptation and the decisions the people take when presented with two masters. The title is borrowed from Goethe, whose original poem (later set to music by Schubert) tells the story of a father and son riding home through a storm. The boy believes the Erlkönig, the ‘Elf’ or ‘Alder King’ is chasing them and trying to tempt him away from his father. The man, in the lines quoted above, dismisses these impressions as nothing more than the mist and the sound of ancient willows in the wind, but the boy is hurt by the Erlkönig and is dead by the time they reach home.
The Erlkönig is symbolic of temptation. His offers to the boy, of riches and women, are intended to prise him away from his father’s care and to sever their bond. The poem is quoted by Agent Knox and echoed by Eddie, but it supplies a motif that resonates through every storyline. The episode is constructed as a series of pairings, each featuring one party seeking to corrupt another. There’s the Capones leading Mueller away from O’Banion and deeper into Cicero business, Agent Knox seeking to make Eddie break his loyalty to his master and Nucky, whose material success is a source of constant temptation.
Last week, Eli told his son to try harder at college and to get good grades ‘for his mother’. It was solid, fatherly advice. The boy’s studying at Temple! He’ll make something worthwhile of himself. As we know, things aren’t going quite so swimmingly in Philadelphia and so this week, it’s Nucky, the Erlkönig of Atlantic City, who appears in loco parentis to magic away the nasty business in which he has been caught.
Willie is way out of his depth and spends most of the episode looking like a rabbit in headlights. The scenes in the cell frame him in the corner of the picture, as though he’s trying his best to escape. Of course he can’t do that, but, with Nucky’s help, he might just walk out. The only question is whether he walks out like ‘he’s on a capital charge or like a man who has just paid a parking ticket’. Nucky, that tempter of an easy life of riches and pleasure, teaches him not only to lie, but to live with the consequences of lying. Willie’s hapless roommate, Clayton will have to eat the charge, which may sting a bit, but trust Nucky on this; he’ll just become another face he can barely remember.
Mueller (he shall remain Mueller for the purposes of these reviews for as long as he remains Mueller for the purposes of drama) is being led further and further into the Capone operation. Al’s offering of the cocaine forms a kind of initiation, and as with Nucky, a form of temptation. ‘Don’t wanna be my friend?’ he demands, in his usual tone of aggressive mateyness. It isn’t really a question. Mueller is repulsed by Al, but curiously drawn to him as well. At one fatal moment during the factory melee, he is given a fleeting opportunity to strangle the association in its cradle, but for the intervention of fate. Frank sees him, which would mean that the game was up were it not for the arrival of the Chicago cops, who destroy Frank and seal Mueller’s link to Al. It doesn’t matter what happens, the poor bewildered Mueller cannot escape. He’s trapped in his own lie at home and he’s more in demand in work now too. Frank’s death leaves a vacancy in the Capone operation and, given Al’s thirst for vengeance, will increase the amount of work that the Capone Crew now has to do. Lucky for Al he’s already noticed Mueller’s ‘wild streak’.
Gillian, that acme of tragedy, has already been well corrupted. She has the Commodore, that sickening parody of a father figure, to thank for that. Now though, she is slipping further down the spiral. Her efforts, legal or otherwise, to spirit Tommy away from his adoptive mother all founder. The meeting with the judge showed her that her traditional methods won’t work and that alone of the episode’s tempters, her seduction failed. Her nervous negotiation with Dunn Pernsley came across like a bad job interview. Denied the ability to persuade, she must fall back on begging. Amazingly, it works.
The image of the two of them is startling. She, the subject, desperate at his feet. He, the imperious object, the shoeshinee rather than shoeshiner. It’s another instance of Boardwalk Empire making a subtle illustration of the changing racial politics of the era and a mark of the confident production that it is done wordlessly. The scene, however, remains Gillian’s and just another waypoint on her downward path. Maybe Roy Philips will catch her. Maybe he will, but there’ll be a price. The Erlkönig doesn’t run a charity, you know.
Knox’s interrogation of Eddie is also a type of corruption. Yes, Knox is purportedly on the side of law and order, but his task here is to break a solemnly held bond. He seeks to tempt Eddie away from his master by whatever means necessary, whether violent or gently persuasive. The punch to the stomach having failed, he falls back on the clever stuff, teasing his captive about his abandoned family and tempting his co-operation by quoting Goethe in the original. Eddie the Schubert fan is familiar with Der Erlkönig and recognises the import of the Agent’s meaning. As the wind blows through the window, Eddie succumbs to the temptation and rats his master out. It’s reasonably innocuous stuff, and the Agent is going to need more before his case grows legs, but for Eddie it’s enough. Like the boy in the story, he’s already dead.
Fastidious to the end, he prepares Nucky’s things, sets his room and his suit just so. His deportment satisfactory, he steps out through the still open window. Just like that, he’s gone and the room is empty once more, the curtains billowing gently in the night.
And that noise? Dearest child, it’s nothing but the sound of the wind.
Read Michael's review of the previous episode, All In, here.
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