This review contains spoilers
5.3 What Jesus Said
This episode opens with one of Boardwalk Empire’s preferred visual motifs, the slow zoom through a collection of empty rooms and the filming of space through an open door. It’s a simple device that suggests voyeurism (deployed in a more straightforward manner later in the episode in young Nucky’s stolen glimpses into the hotel room) but also reminds us that this is a show that deals in extremes. When Boardwalk Empire shows us violence it is unafraid to do so in a gruesome, visceral manner. Its characters are loud enough to leave echoes that last for decades. And yet at times it can be the quietest show around.
As if to prove the point, the opening wasn’t even the most hushed moment. The later scene on the beach in 1884 was so quiet and mannered as to be dreamlike. The beautiful emptiness of the white sands, spoiled prettily by a handful of people and objects was so eerily quiet that it looked like limbo, an impression made all the stronger by Mabel’s preternatural quoting of scripture, specifically Genesis 5:24, ‘Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him’, a passage that she takes to mean that although the Lord took Enoch, he didn’t actually die. It’s a combination of the cryptic and the bluntly straightforward (how handy that this is Nucky’s namesake), that adds further clues to the direction that this final season is taking. Despite the violent rise of the Luciano generation, the story’s central spine, both biographically and narratively, is concerned less with the explosive denouement than with the slow decline, which is a very smart way of dealing with the 1930s.
Biographically, the sense of slowly unfolding tragedy is revealing itself through several lives. For Chalky, never one of life’s great jokers, the 1930s are shaping up to be a procession of particular acute miseries. Having escaped from the frying pan of the chain gang, he finds himself in the fire of a partnership with the violently capricious Milton. Their home invasion scheme, presumably intended as a crime of utility, swiftly turns into one of sadism as the unhinged Milton seeks to vent his frustrations on the rather more worldly (and telephone-savvy) Chalky and the captive Marie and Fern. Appearing almost as a metaphor, the storyline plays out slowly, each new item of detail -the presence of Marie, the location of the safe, Milton’s attempt on Fern, being teased out at intervals rather than as an explosion of purposeful violence. It gives us time to reflect on Chalky’s mournful countenance and gives him space to reflect on who he is and how he came to be. In keeping with the theme of the season, Chalky’s ruminations take in both the past and the present; commenting that the late Maybelle ‘knew who he was,’ his past tense mirroring their brutally changed circumstances, while he corrects Fern, whose attempt to reason with him hint that he’s not like Milton. His reply is more admission than declaration. ‘Yes I am ma’am. I absolutely am’.
The sense of personal decline is present in Narcisse’s demeanour too. Looking the most physically aged of the returning leads, the doctor is clearly living in less favourable personal times. His responses to Luciano and Siegel are a poor echo of those he gave to Nucky and Rothstein last season. No longer pressing his credentials, his title has lost importance to him. On being told that ‘uptown, downtown, it’s all New York’, he replies ‘my experience is otherwise’. Four words. A constellation of meanings. All negative.
Margaret is also shuffling towards a reckoning of sorts. Her two long scenes this week show her putting up the front of innocence (her favoured tactic since her first appearance in Nucky’s office all those years ago) only to have it immediately pierced by her interlocutor. Although we’ve been forced to step in at an advanced date, this has been playing out in Margaret’s life for some time now. It’s been seven years since the pseudonymous Mr Redstone turned up at her workplace, three since he met his violent end and two since the crash that helped start the process of unravelling. Her involvement reaches much further into her past and to her intimate connection to Nucky. Having collided back in the 1920s she finds that she cannot now escape his pull. Her orbit of him is spiral shaped. Their reunion at the end of this episode, another quiet moment, is a moment of slow progression. Whatever their end, they will face it together, whether or not they choose to.
That reunion breaks Nucky’s reverie, his plaintive cry of ‘Mabel’ reminding us that these flashbacks are not an external narrative device, they exist as Nucky’s directly experienced reminiscences. The fact that we accompany him doesn’t diminish the fact that it is Nucky who is the primary tourist of his own past.
It’s a past he is doomed to repeat. His relationship with Joe Kennedy parallels that which he had with the Commodore. Imitative and asymmetrical, Nucky seeks to make a model of both men and chafes at their remonstrations. He eschews liquor in Kennedy’s presence, but visibly aches for a drop, a fact not lost on the Bostonian, who toys with Nucky like a cruel cat. Their conversations, a torrent of historical in-jokes that play with Kennedy’s penchant for insider trading, his hypocritical family life and the destiny that his brood will follow. ‘It takes one generation’ says the Senator, only partly realising what such sentiments would mean for young John and Bobby and for Teddy, the ‘number nine’ baby on his way. The family act is a further twist of the knife, as is Kennedy’s smart comment that Nucky hasn’t anything to show of his family in the workplace. It stings for personal reasons, but also for matters of business. Nucky’s problem is that he’s failed to have a clean enough public image. He may be able to see repeal coming down the tracks but he’s only just realising that he’s on the wrong tracks. He’s a man out of time, neither ‘respectable’ politician like Kennedy nor full-blooded gangster like the New York and Chicago boys. His central dilemma, of whether to be a politician or a gangster, remains unanswered and, perhaps for the first time in his life, Nucky finds himself on the wrong side of history, a man whose time is already gone.
But still he hangs on, fading away rather than burning out. The decline is also present in the club, which continues to operate as a striking visual metaphor of the changing times. Once Babette’s Supper Club, then the Onyx, it is now a sleazy strip joint, playing host to leering businessmen out of town. The kind of place where undrunk booze is decantered back into the bottle and where the one concession to propriety is ejecting jerk-offs for, well, jerking off. ‘This is the crow’s nest of the HMS Thompson’ says Kennedy, making it sound like a compliment, but only on the first listen. The import is clear, the ship that Nucky is piloting is in dangerous waters but the danger comes not from the sharks that gather around the bow but from the calm. The terrifying calm.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, The Good Listener, here
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