Boardwalk Empire season 4 episode 7 review: William Wilson

This week's Boardwalk Empire examines ideas of identity, reinvention and the threat of the future. Here's Michael's review...

This review contains spoilers.

4.7 William Wilson

Literary references are extremely difficult for television (and film) writers to get right. Too often, they appear as mere ornament; an unearned epigrammatic flourish that has, at best, a tangential relationship to the matter at hand and seems to have been included only to borrow some kind of profundity (Criminal Minds, I’m looking at you). Done right, it can add depth to the material and provide a handy channel along which additional thematic riches may be found.

The best of the crop do it well. Breaking Bad synthesised Whitman and Shelley, The Wire tapped Fitzgerald and Dickens while The Sopranos dined out on Tolstoy and Flaubert. Two weeks ago, Boardwalk Empire gave us Goethe. Tonight, we go Poe.

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William Wilson, his 1839 story from which this episode takes its title, is the dark tale of a selfish and dissolute young man who encounters a schoolfellow with the same name and a curiously similar appearance. Equally attracted and repulsed by this doppelgänger, the boy nevertheless finds himself pursued by the double who interferes with his duplicitous schemes. The story climaxes with a fight between the pair and the death-cum-suicide described by Willie Thompson’s professor at Temple. The shared name, William Wilson, isn’t even real. It’s a pseudonym assumed by the teller, lest he ‘sully the page’ with it. The story is simultaneously about hiding and about being found out.

Poe and Goethe have both been cited as influences by David Matthews, who co-wrote this episode with showrunner Terence Winter. Matthews, like Poe a Baltimorean, is the son of a black father and a Jewish mother. Growing up in a white district, he managed to successfully pass himself off as white in an effort to fit in. A sense of identity and reinvention permeates his life as much as it does his work and that is particularly true of Boardwalk Empire, and especially this episode.

The notion of hiding or changing your past by changing your name is almost the defining trope of Boardwalk Empire, and quite possibly of America itself. If, as Gaston Means insists, ‘the best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour’, then disguising or masking your past is merely a necessary component of survival in the playground of reinvention that is the United States. It’s for this reason that it’s especially prevalent among the first and second generation immigrants that make up Boardwalk’s cast of characters. Mickey Doyle is really Mieczysław Kuzik; Mayer Lansky’s original surname was Suchowljansky and George Mueller? We all know about him.

Margaret is, on a conservative estimate, onto her third reinvention. With the first, Rohan became Schroeder, with the second she became Thompson. Now she is Rohan again, but Mrs, rather than Miss, keeping a handy wedding ring (perhaps even one of her own) in her desk drawer. The subterfuge here is intentional, designed to add texture to a classic sales tactic, but it still startles her to silence when she is discovered, as these schemes often are, by another liar.

That was a fantastic brief moment when the two imposters saw themselves in each other. It’s a credulity-stretching coincidence, but it was necessary to show that reinvention or disguise is essential for so many people, irrespective of status. It’s always hard to detect fear in Rothstein’s mannered delivery, especially as we know he performs a tiny rehearsal before speaking, but there was a clear sense of doubt or worry that caused him to quieten Margaret with a hundred dollars and a phone call.

The detour into Wall Street and the depiction of fraudulent investment advice is a reminder of the wider historical environment. The detail of the Leopold and Loeb case dates the episode to May 1924, meaning that the Wall Street Crash is just 65 short months away. Indeed, there are so many harbingers of things to come that it’s tempting to regard the current run of events as dire warnings of the future.

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The hit on Dean O’Banion ordered by Johnny Torrio after some obvious manipulation by the surviving Capone brothers, is destined to ignite the gang war that would dominate the collective memory of 1920s Chicago and culminate in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The growing arrogant confidence of J. Edgar Hoover and his nascent Bureau of Investigation will set the template for the popular image of law enforcement while the burgeoning importance of narcotics, as a commodity (for Luciano), a social menace (the worried parishioners of Shiloh Baptist) and as a private curse (Gillian), shows that the mechanisms made necessary by the Volstead Act would prove detrimental long after its repeal. Joe Masseria’s suggestion that Luciano use the rum-running infrastructure to import heroin isn’t merely good business sense, it’s a powerful metaphor.

It’s impossible to shake the feeling that the future does not look too bright for Willie either. He’s hovering around the edge of his uncle’s world, without ever being drawn fully in. The continued fallout from the death of Henry not only troubles his happiness, it now threatens the current détente between the Thompson brothers and may yet provide Knox with a new weak link to exploit.

In Willie’s defence, he’s merely the catalyst and the real issue runs far deeper than him. At the current reckoning, it is Eli who has been bearing the highest cost for maintaining the family business and he’s beginning to resent it. He suffered the biggest emotional jolt after Eddie’s death (another piece of collateral damage) and was reminded, rather painfully, last week that he used to be the sheriff. The spell he took in prison rose to the surface this week and to add further insult, he’s losing his son to Nucky. ‘Nothing came from you’, he yells, simultaneously accusation and assault. He feels the most productive of the two brothers, and, wounded, strikes out with his fiercest weapon –Nucky’s dead wife and son. It’s a measure of Nucky’s resolve that, given his general sense of being emotionally adrift, he is magnanimous enough to ‘put it down to whiskey and timing’. However he attempts to smooth things over, it’s a fault line that will only widen, particularly as Willie, around whom doom is circling, is drawn deeper into his uncle’s maelstrom. 

Knox, who we now know as John Tolliver, is perhaps the closest William Wilson of the lot. He bears an assumed name and shadows not just Nucky but also Hoover, who he has known since law school. He is a curious fish, happy to subsume his identity in the pursuit of his quarry, but incandescent with rage (note his jerky spasms as he drinks) when Hoover seizes his credit. He is something of a replay of Agent Van Alden, being an almost obsessive hunter of Nucky and dogged almost to the point of insanity. It’s a stark criticism of Volstead that it is so evidently futile (even the Prohi agents drink) that it made fanatics of those employed to police it, whether successful (Hoover) or otherwise (Van Alden and Tolliver). Still, if Hoover is going to continue to perform services like forcing the undoubling of George Remus, I’m happy to enjoy seeing him go about his business.

Chalky has his own mysterious pursuer in the form of Narcisse, about whom we are learning very slowly. A hypnotic speaker and skilled manipulator of White, Pernsley and Maitland, he appears confident about playing them off against one another, and of using them to eliminate threats to his own growing grasp of power. The killing of the pastor and the visitation of violence upon those who do not deserve it is a curious thing for a man as scarred as Narcisse to contrive but we can perhaps reserve judgement on a man about whom we know so little. We don’t even know whether Dr Valentin Narcisse is his real name. But what’s a real name anyway?

Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, North Star, here.

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