This review contains spoilers.
2.5 Gimcrack & Bunkum
Over recent episodes I have noted how Boardwalk Empire has matured into a serious drama, unfolding at a stately pace while keeping several plotlines spinning nicely. It’s a fact that has been lost on the editors of the show’s trailers, who have made a sterling effort to cram every frame of violence and high drama into their adverts. Anyone drawn into watching the show after seeing a trailer could be forgiven for thinking that it is little more than an opera of violence with a bigger body count than the Second World War.
That is not to say that Boardwalk Empire isn’t a violent show, or to mount a criticism that the violence isn’t justified. It is, and it is. We’re dealing with a world of vicious power struggles in which the law is something to which lip service must be paid. It was a time of great social upheaval and confusion. The violence is strictly necessary in the context of the show.
Tonight’s episode, Gimcrack And Bunkum, sees a return of the terrifying and occasionally inventive violence that marked much of the show’s first season.
It begins on Memorial Day, with Nucky playing the civic kingpin and making a speech to the assembled crowd. Behind him are the elderly veterans, whitehaired and dusty, medals glinting dully in the sunlight. In front, the younger veterans of a more recent, and bloody, war. They are a sorry bunch, broken and mutilated. That’s just on the outside.
When Nucky hands the platform to Jimmy, we are reminded that not all wartime damage is external. He speaks well, honouring the veterans for fighting for their families and America, but his hands shake as he does so. If the show lingers on violence, it is not without acknowledging the damage that it can do.
Talking of damaged, Richard’s storyline takes an odd, but not wholly unexpected, turn this week. After carefully packing some lunch and a rifle, he heads out to the woods, lies down and puts the gun to his mouth. He looks like he’d do it too, were it not for the intervention of a dog, which snatches up Richard’s mask and makes off with it.
The tin half-mask is a curious little prop. The camera lingers on it so often, and so pointedly that it has become something of a cipher for Richard himself. Last week he removed it to let Angela draw his uncovered face. This week, in seeking its return, he manages to regain his purpose in life.
There are two Richard Harrows, the shy sensitive one, who asks after Odette and longs for family life. Then there is the masked Richard, the killer whose absence of feeling is his greatest asset. Part of his crisis this season has been his inability to reconcile the two. By the end of this brutal episode, he may just have made his decision.
Eli Thompson doesn’t have the excuse of being damaged by the war. He is simply a weak man, embittered by his brother’s success and unable to match him for political guile. When George O’Neill tells him about the rumours circulating about the Commodore Eli beats him to death in a fit of rage.
It may not be the most stomach-churning piece of brutality this week, more on that later, but it is surely the most pointless. Were it Nucky facing trial by hearsay, he would have manipulated things to his advantage eventually. Indeed, we see him do just that this week, bribing his own prosecutor with whisky and women, Eli, however, is made of dumber stuff. He knows that the game is up with the Commodore but reconciliation with Nucky is out of the question. The pair of them argue, before tussling on the floor in the only instance of violence played for laughs.
Even Margaret, not the most traditionally aggressive of the characters, gets in on the action, brandishing an (unloaded) gun to break up the scrapping Thompson brothers. That’s the thing with violence – it is contagious by necessity. History may not record the 1920s as being as violent as the decades that surround them, but there was nevertheless an appetite for aggression in the air.
To succeed in this new world, it helps to master both. Step forward Jimmy Darmody. He can be charm itself when necessity calls, smoothly winning over the Memorial Day crowd and happily gliding through a meeting with the old boys. He even takes it in apparent good humour when one Mr Parkhurst strikes him with his cane.
He waits until later when he and Richard can get him alone. They scalp him, in the manner of the Sioux he fetishises. Parkhurst has been dealt with and Jimmy takes one more stride towards domination. A showdown with Nucky can surely not be far away, and on current evidence, the smart money is on the younger man. He’s learning the smart lessons on handling people, but he is unafraid to get his hands dirty.
In the violent world of Boardwalk Empire, it’s this latter attribute that will make all the difference.