10. The Emerald City
A few weeks ago, my housemates and I decided to have a big housewarming party to celebrate moving into our new place. Facebook invites were sent out, music was selected, cheese and pineapple on sticks figuratively assembled. On the night of the party, however, my friend suddenly changed the plan.
“We’re going to the pub first,” he told me. “I’ve told everybody and they’re going to meet us there – then we can bring them all back here en masse for the house party.” “Why are we doing that?” I asked, irritated.
“Well, we want to avoid that weird early period of a party where everyone’s sat around sober in their own little groups making awkward chit chat. This way, we skip over all that and everyone arrives here lubricated and ready to party.”
Now, I may be a TV watching, comic reading, drawn-curtains-on-a-sunny-day nerd, but I’ve been to enough house parties to know that this sounded like a stupid idea.
And so it proved, as virtually nobody turned up to the pub. However, once we’d got back to the house, people began to trickle in, and sure enough, the awkward chit chat began, only this time a few hours later than normal. A few minutes later, it exploded into a hedonistic orgy of biblical proportions.
The moral of the story? You can’t rush a good time. You have to earn it.
A parable, there, one of Boardwalk Empire’s favourite storytelling devices, and one that I’m now employing myself to make a point, albeit laboriously, about the first season of this show.
Boardwalk Empire has had an extended period of ‘getting to know you’ over the previous episodes, and it’s proved to be a difficult pill for many viewers to swallow, who have demanded a lot more ‘party’ and a little less ‘mingle’.
Now that I’ve tortured this metaphor to breaking point, let’s get to the crux of the matter: The Emerald City is a fantastic episode of television. It’s riveting for its whole running time, filled with payoffs, great scenes, quotable lines and – gasp! – plot development. It is, often literally, a bloody good time. If you’re still complaining about the slow pace after this episode, maybe this show isn’t for you.
Last week I talked about how Boardwalk Empire’s premise may have been what has been hampering it in the dramatic stakes: it’s a show about people becoming gangsters, not a show about gangsters.As a result, the level of ‘gangster shit’, i.e. the stuff that people would complain that even The Sopranos would lack in its later seasons, has been at a premium thus far.
Some people would argue that seeing the genesis of characters such as Al Capone isn’t as interesting to the viewer as it is to the writer: we want to see him in his element, lording over Chicago and toting a Tommy gun.
I’m reminded of Patton Oswalt’s classic polemic against the Star Wars prequels here. “’So, you like ice cream? Here’s a big bag of rock salt! You like Angelina Jolie, you think she’s sexy? Well, here’s Jon Voight’s ballsack.’ I don’t care about where it comes from – I just love the stuff I love!”
This is true if it’s done badly (looking at you George Lucas), but if done carefully, like it is in Boardwalk Empire, it can provide some great pay offs. Such as this week, when Al finally swaps his cap for the trademark fedora, after being lectured by Torrio and a Jewish elder for his immaturity.
It’s only a couple of scenes, and in terms of layered storytelling it’s hardly The Wire, but when taken in conjunction with the rest of his story as played out through the season to this point, it’s still a satisfying moment seeing him take one step closer towards the legend we all know.
Another fan favourite character, Richard, gets some good moments in The Emerald City, including a tragic dream sequence where we see him, unscarred, frolicking with his pre-war sweetheart on a beach, before awakening to see Margaret’s daughter screaming in horror at the sight of his unmasked, disfigured face.
There is such a tangible sense of tragedy about him that he has become one of the most fascinating characters in the show on the basis of only a few minutes of screentime.
Jimmy is now a fully-fledged badass, unleashing a horrific beating on the man he believes his wife had an affair with whilst he was in Chicago, and shooting a man in cold blood because he “kinda talked him into it.” We’ve seen Nucky’s immense political clout before many times, but the final scene in Chalky’s distillery is the first time we got to get a glimpse at Nucky’s ‘gangster’ clout, as we saw his soldiers go to work on their criminal rivals.
(Incidentally, if I had to suggest a plotline for my fantasy episode of Boardwalk Empire, it would probably be something like this: Chalky duel-wields pistols and strangles a racist with his bare hands. In fact, this should probably be something that happens every week. Watch those viewing figures shoot up.)
It all sets up an almighty conflict next week between the AC mafia, the smarting Luciano/Rothstein faction, and Agent Val Alden, who has completely gone off the rails after losing his key witness against Jimmy and Nucky, and is now indulging in hard liquor and graphic, disctinctly non-Hollywoodised extra-marital sex with Lucy, Nucky’s ex. All bets are off for the final two episodes.
If you’ve been holding off Boardwalk Empire after a few episodes, I urge you to get back into it at the earliest opportunity. With all of the hoopla surrounding The Walking Dead, it’s in danger of being overshadowed at the moment.
It maybe has been guilty of being a little too luxuriant in its early episodes. Most series, including The Sopranos, plot out their first seasons on the basis that they’re going to to be cancelled, so they attempt to cram as many ideas as they can into their opening run, often to the detriment of later series.
The creators of Boardwalk Empire know they can take their time. It was renewed after the pilot episode, so the show’s pace has occasionally dropped to the level of ‘meandering’.
But to dismiss it and desert it due to it being slow, would be to miss out on some truly fantastic episodes of television, with The Emerald City being the most shining example thus far.
It’s never too late to join the party. Wait, does that metaphor still work? Just watch it, alright? Chalky strangles a racist with his bare hands…
Read our review of episode 9, Belle Femme, here.
Follow Paul Martinovic on Twitter @paulmartinovic.
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