This review contains spoilers.
4.3 Acres Of Diamonds
The recent death of James Gandolfini and the current hyper-popularity of Breaking Bad has generated an awful lot of chatter about the so-called ‘age of the anti-hero’. Examples abound of the compelling villain, but there’s a correlated minor tradition of the softly-spoken assassin. You know the type, excessively polite, well mannered, nice. The kind of guy you’d have over for Sunday dinner. Think Gus Fring or The Greek from The Wire. Consider Game of Thrones’ Lord Varys and ponder Hannibal Lecter, the ne plus ultra of affable psycho. Boardwalk Empire, a show of ambitious scope, now has two of the blighters and it was a real treat to bring them together so soon.
The Meeting of the Milds between Arnold Rothstein and Valentin Narcisse was a masterclass in understated antipathy. The deal to supply heroin to Harlem has clear season-arc implications not least because of the manipulated involvement of Dunn Pernsley, but for now it was enjoyable simply to see this pair of crocodiles face one another in a spirit of polite aggression. One of the themes of the show, and of the mild psychopath archetype in general, is of the constant hypocrisy or the gap between reality and artifice. Rothstein, never less than immaculate in dress and manner is, by his own admission, the sort of person who will watch a man choke to death for his own amusement. Narcisse, about whom we are still learning, has a mile-wide gap between his outwardly racially conscious persona and his inner pragmatic ruthlessness.
His speech on ‘Libyan betterment’ is another instance of what has become a Boardwalk Empire trope – the highly public hypocrisy. Nucky’s first ever appearance was lying through his teeth to the Temperance movement. His attempt to smooth community relations in the second season featured rapid cuts between his speeches to the KKK and the black community, showing him using the same words to lie to both parties. He’s rather good at this, is old Nucky.
This episode, Acres of Diamonds, presents a suite of characters that exist behind masks. It’s a fairly obvious code for living in a dangerous time, but given the raft of lies, a little obviousness can’t hurt. The title comes from a speech given by Russell Conwell, the founder of Temple University, at which Willie Thompson is struggling to fit in. The gist of the speech is that anyone can make money; indeed, it is his duty to do so, by using the resources in the immediate community. According to Conwell, “the men who get rich may be the most honest men you find in the community”.
Nucky is both rich and dishonest. He got that way by dealing with men who were equally rich and dishonest. He’s so practiced and confident at it that it’s actually become a little boring for him. With the Commodore, Jimmy Darmody and Gyp Rosetti all gone, he’s entered a new semi-imperial phase, the kind of man who can travel from one end of the country to the other and find a man who is excited to meet him. ‘They usually are’ he says, laconically, ‘until they actually do’. There’s weariness to his words, a feeling that he is bored of success. He’s mildly curious about the land deals going on in Tampa, but not excited enough that he won’t call a shit deal exactly what it is. His conversation with Sally Wheat revealed just how hollow he has become. I got the impression that his decision to go ahead with McCoy’s deal was motivated by the challenge of it more than anything else. Perhaps a little danger to lighten the ennui.
Gillian is, and always has been, almost entirely front. Even at this late stage, it can be difficult to see the real her (the only certainly is that she is utterly damaged to the point of unpleasantness). The ease with which she slips into Roy Phillips’ necessary lie should have set off some kind of alarm in his head, were it not for the fact that he is an even more accomplished liar. It was all accepted by the pair of them as fun, but there must come a time when it will turn nasty. Gillian’s inability to truly escape from her past, either in the form of the poor sap she drugged-drowned last season or her own deleterious and hidden addiction to heroin, means that she is now trapped in a world of lies. She is, as things stand, the show’s most tragic figure.
In permanent second place for that position is Richard Harrow, the show’s most obvious mask. I confess that I still don’t quite know what’s going on with the Harrow siblings who appear to be building up to some kind of ‘embattled homestead’ denouement, especially if Emma continues to wield that rifle as her brother’s backup. There is certainly a sense of siege about them, and I don’t believe for a minute that the two dead men will go unanswered. For now, I’m enjoying the mystery and the looks. The Harrow scenes are among the most desolately beautiful in the show’s history, helped of course by the superb use of silence.
At this stage in the season, several of the storylines continue to operate independently of one another. Narrative formality demands that they must be made clearer before they inevitably intersect but in all honesty, I’d be just as happy if they didn’t. As I said at the beginning of the season, Boardwalk Empire has established a maturity that allows it to dip in and out of each character’s life and situation with no more linking than a shared theme and sense of place. Violence is a regular occurrence, often gruesomely so, but even so, there is a real sense of restraint about this season, a welcome reticence in which cruelty and tragic fate are masked by exquisite period detail and some of the richest direction and cinematography on the small screen today (it is on a par with Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones in that regard). Like so many of its characters, Boardwalk Empire is wearing a mask. It will slip in time, but for now, I’ll gladly admire the beautiful façade.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, Resignation, here.
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