This review contains spoilers.
11. Paris Green
There seems to be an unspoken rule that prevails throughout the crop of serious-minded, serial dramas that have come out of America in the past decade, which is this: it all kicks off in the penultimate episode.
We’ve seen it in The Sopranos, we’ve seen it in Breaking Bad, and we’ve seen it in The Wire. The theory seems to be that, by saving the action for the second-to-last instalment, the final episode can be a place for rumination and introspection, as well as a tantalising ellipsis to persuade the commissioning suits that this is a story worth seeing more of.
So does Boardwalk Empire adhere to this tried and tested template? No, it doesn’t. It’s clearly saving up some of its big moments for next week’s finale. But does it still provide an exhilarating, satisfying hour of television? The answer is, unfortunately, no.
Let me just clarify that I wasn’t expecting action of the explosions and carnage variety in this episode. For one thing, from watching for the previous 11 weeks, I know that Boardwalk Empire just isn’t that type of show. As I’ve mentioned in previous recaps, the gangsta shit is at a premium, but I’ve stuck with the show because I felt like it was leading towards something worthwhile.
Also the big ‘wham’ moments in dramas such as these aren’t always the big action set pieces. In fact, more often than not, they’re played out verbally, or as a minor act that is afforded huge significance due to the groundwork laid by (hopefully) skilful writing. Tensions that have been building to a head all season should either resolve or explode by this point.
Which is why this is probably the most disappointing episode of Boardwalk Empire so far.oO course, there is still one more episode to go, and the storylines of the main characters may yet resolve themselves in an exciting and unpredictable way, but after Paris Green I somehow doubt it.
I still maintain that Boardwalk Empire is a show you should definitely check out, as there is still some great stuff in there (even in this episode), but overall it was as muddled and frustrating an hour of television as I’ve seen in a while.
One of Boardwalk Empire‘s biggest problems this season has been its fear of subtext and inability to convey anything subtlety. Any kind of point the showrunners try to make about the characters, the period or the politics is sledge hammered home until it loses any insight or meaning.
Case in point, there were obvious parallels between Houdini’s crap brother Hardeen and Nucky’s ineffectual brother Eli, but that neat bit of storytelling was capsized by Nucky screaming ‘You should check out Houdini’s crap brother because he’s crap just like you’re a crap version of me.’ (Paraphrasing here.)
Similarly, Nucky and Margaret’s big confrontation consisted of them shouting a rough synopsis of their storyline over the last ten episodes at each other, in case some of it may have passed you by. (Even if you’ve seen only one episode, it won’t have, unless you’ve had the sound off and the contrast set to ‘white screen’. Even then you could probably make an educated guess.)
And don’t get me started on when Jimmy’s awful kid hands his distraught and heartbroken mother a blurred picture of her recently eloped lover embracing her husband, before cheerfully adding “Look mommy – ghosts!” in a moment hoary enough to make M Night Shyamalan wince.
The other big problem is that the pacing and structure of the series has been completely off. The switch in focus between characters is so quick and jarring that it’s next to impossible to build up any empathy for the characters.
A key example is Angela Darmody’s story. She played a minor role in the first couple of episodes, then was almost totally absent for the next six or seven, then her doomed lesbian relationship became a key focus of this final run of episodes. Why? Her breakdown when returning to Jimmy should have been a big emotional climax, but the feeling I had was one of complete apathy. The series just hasn’t offered me enough over the past ten weeks to make me give two figs about her fate.
Come to think of it, that’s a criticism that can be applied to nearly every character in the show. We’re one episode from the end, and still the only characters I’m invested in are Al, Chalky, and Richard, bizarrely, considering their screen time has been relatively short. I’m also beginning to wonder whether I look forward to seeing them on screen because they’re well-drawn and interesting, or because I’m a fan of the actor’s previous work.
Al and Chalky are certainly no Combo and Omar, but the lure of those characters is so strong that it can’t help but inform Stephen Graham and Michael K Williams’ performances. You keep waiting to see if a flash of Combo’s unbridled fury, or bit of Omar’s laconic bad-assery will appear and liven up proceedings. Anyway, it’s a moot point as, once again, neither of them appear at all in the episode.
Margaret was on her way to becoming an interesting character, with her inner conflict over her relationship with Nucky providing a potentially interesting angle for storylines, but her turmoil has been played out so excruciatingly slowly (every other episode seems to end with her staring pointedly into the middle distance) that any and all dramatic tension has been lost.
The big set piece in this episode features Agent Val Alden ‘baptising’ his partner, who has turned out to be in cahoots with Nucky. This scene, like everything else in Boardwalk Empire, is well acted and exquisitely filmed. However, also like a great deal of Boardwalk Empire, it is hugely derivative (There Will Be Blood says hello, wants its hat back) and it just doesn’t quite work.
It’s supposed to be a big shock moment when he drowns his partner, but because the groundwork hasn’t been adequately laid (the partner is completely two-dimensional and Van Alden has turned into a totally unrelatable monster nutbag) your reaction isn’t “OMG. WTF. I can’t believe he just killed his partner in broad daylight!”, it’s, “He’s not going to kill his partner in broad daylight in front of fifty witnesses, because that would be ridiculous. Oh. He has. Now I have to spend the next five minutes figuring out whether that would be even the tiniest bit credible.”
I gave last week’s episode basically a rave review, praising the show for taking its time to build up to what I assumed would be a big payoff. I realize now I probably jumped the gun there. I’ve really, really wanted to love Boardwalk Empire, but there’s simply been too much sloppy writing in this first series to ignore any more, regardless of what happens next week. You can’t wait eleven episodes to pull a rabbit out of the hat.
A lot of Boardwalk Empire Season 1 has been so clunky it would appear to have been written by the Terence Winter who wrote Get Rich Or Die Tryin, rather than the Terence Winter who wrote Long Term Parking, Pine Barrens, and The Second Coming, some of the best episodes of a candidate for the best television series ever made, The Sopranos. Boardwalk Empire isn’t as bad as that film, obviously, but it is riddled with basic storytelling errors that are inarguably hampering it from achieving its still massive potential.
I’ve become accustomed to the lethargic pace of Boardwalk Empire by now, but this episode was ponderous to the point of lifelessness. At one point during the episode, I left the room to get a cup of tea, completely forgot that I was watching/reviewing the episode, and became distracted and fascinated by my radiator for the best part of 20 minutes. This is either a reflection of the uninspiring storylines served up by the writers, the opening salvo of a premature onset of Alzheimers, or a deadly combination of both.
Television can be many things, fast-paced or slow-paced, violent or gentle, funny or serious. But one thing it never should do is make you think you might have Alzheimers. Only one more episode to go.
Read our review of episode 10, The Emerald City, here.
Follow Paul Martinovic on Twitter @paulmartinovic.
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