This review contains spoilers
These days, Al Capone is almost as famous for his eventual conviction for tax evasion as he is for running around Chicago like some sort of gangster prince. It’s a fact that is easily remembered for its apparent incongruity –all those murders, the protection rackets, the bootlegging and Uncle Sam could only get him on the sort of charge that would generally be used to bring a harassed and debt-laden accountant before the beak. As Cuanto shows us, it’s not as though Capone’s activities or lifestyle were kept as quiet facts known only to a select few members of the underground. He was an outlaw in plain sight, bearer of the appropriate nom de crime ‘Scarface’ and inspirer of Hollywood crime movies and the documentary films that he gloried in at noisy private screenings. It suggests a strange kind of impunity from the law that might leave him suspicious of undercover agents, but otherwise free to go about his business unmolested, whether that business is entertaining acquaintances from out of town or putting a gun in the mouth of a suspected underling. It gives him the freedom to indulge his temper by beating a hapless lackey to a bloody pulp without even concerning himself too much about the clean-up job that necessarily follows. It gives him, above all, the freedom to survive. Al Capone’s most essential impunity now is from the death stroke of the screenwriter’s pen.
Knowing the destinies of characters like Capone and his almost-associate Charlie Luciano might threaten to rob them of any dramatic tension, but as we see this week, there’s more than enough of that to go around. The near exposure of Van Alden’s fraudulent life not only provided us with the first hint that this exceptionally long character arc might yet have an appropriate conclusion (a suspicion bolstered by Mike D’Angelo’s trawl through the records office) but also gave us a Capone scene that was tense, terrifying and blackly hilarious. Van Alden’s pleas for his life were a masterpiece of deadpan theatre, as repressed and calculating as any other gambit in which he’s been involved. He was clever enough to mix a smart cocktail comprising two shots of lies with one shot of truth and, having seen Capone at close quarters for so long, he knew exactly where to pour. His master’s ego.
Van Alden’s smartness and D’Angelo’s soft intervention couldn’t defuse the threat entirely. Had he been minded to, Capone could have pulled that trigger simply to prove that he was prepared to kill his own men. Van Alden would have dropped heavily to the floor, a mook would have been given mop-and-bucket duty and the show would have carried on to its conclusion. Van Alden lacks the historical domain body armour that protects the man with the gun in his hand. Capone’s dramatic effectiveness comes not from what happens to him so much as it comes from the things that he might do to others. He will remain a source of constant menace to the bitter end.
Fictional characters, such as Van Alden, the dangerously committed D’Angelo and poor Sally Wheet can have no such confidence. Sally, fatally reduced to long distance loose end had no real escape, the victim of the tides of history as much as Capone is their beneficiary. It was an ignominious end and not just from a character perspective. Sally has been an excellent foil for Nucky, a step up from Lucy Danziger and Billie Kent, but never quite Margaret as this episode’s reunion scenes beautifully demonstrated. Boardwalk Empire has had something of a problem with its female characters, relegating them all too often to the status of prop or support for male plot dynamics or as sources of temptation or distraction. The show is doing an impressive job of maintaining several storylines at once, a feat achieved by having the confidence to let some characters sit out for an episode or two, as Chalky did this week, but its hard to shake off the suspicion that female characters are considered rather more disposable. Even those who display a little more potency, Gillian, Esther Randolph, Sally, are too easily packed off, forgotten or removed.
Whatever the manner of her exit, Sally was always going to suffer by comparison to Margaret, and especially a drunk, playful, flirty and murderously scheming Margaret. The exception that proves the rule about female characters, Margaret has travelled the furthest in character terms (with the possible exception of Capone), as Nucky’s reminiscences of her demonstrated. The timid Margaret who first walked into Nucky’s office (to be ‘saved’ by him, as he flatters himself) is very different from the confident but under-resourced ‘partner in crime’ who kisses him on the boardwalk. He looks on her with a mixture of propriety and pride, quietly defensive over Kennedy’s seduction attempt (oysters, really?) but darkly gloating that he has something that Kennedy does not and that he, unlike the amorous Joe, has the discipline to put her up at the Blenheim rather than consummate the reunion. It could perhaps be seen as Nucky taking Kennedy’s advice about not being seen to indulge, but it appears more likely the result of the melancholic temperament that he’s been carrying around these past few episodes. Taking Cuanto’s flashbacks for context, Nucky comes across as a man who is tired of grasping for things that are just out of reach. His dinner with Lindsay family bring him to tears in recognition of the family life that was beyond him as a boy and, with the deaths of Mabel and Enoch Junior and his estrangement from Margaret and her children, impermanent as an adult. Having Margaret standing before him warm, smiling and available is just too sharp a reminder. The business with Carolyn Rothstein needs to be attended to, as does the problem named Charlie but that’s just work. His brief conversation with Eli -cold, unfamiliar and distant- underlined his situation. He lacks even the proxy family with whom he once loved to surround himself. He’s now just an emptiness, parading his boardwalk through little other than long established habit.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, What Jesus Said, here
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