This review contains spoilers
5.6 Devil You Know
The scent of death has lingered around this season of Boardwalk Empire like the odour of stale booze in a speakeasy. For obvious reasons, it has lingered most keenly around the fictional characters that now seem to be being cleared from the board before we enter the endgame.
Losing Sally Wheet was painful for Nucky, as his self-flagellating and nostalgic drinking mission attests, but for the viewer, losing Van Alden and Chalky, in the same episode no less, may well be the sharper experience. We’ve accompanied them since the very first season all the way to the near-end, through some very strange days indeed. The pair of them inhabited tragedy in their own way (though I suspect that George Raft’s comment about Shakespearean rise and fall is a lesson that should be reserved for another figure) and found death in a similar fashion. Although neither was fully welcome, each was necessary and performed in a manner that was consistent with the characters we have known since the beginning.
For Van Alden, trapped for so long in the assumed guise of George Mueller, Capone’s interrogation finally provided him with the release he must have been silently craving. The sudden burst, from zero to homicidal-maniacal in 0.63 seconds was a reminder of the Van Alden of old, while the yelled declaration that he is Treasury Agent Nelson Kaspar Van Alden, God’s own instrument of justice, confirmed it.
Van Alden has enjoyed a curious character trajectory over the past five seasons. Originally introduced as the implacable man from the Agency, an incorruptible proto-Eliot Ness representing the force of law as a counterpoint to the bootleggers in the main cast, he since took on a life of his own, escaping the constraints of lawman-antagonist to follow his own path of inward corruption. As such, he became less of a merely functional character and more of an organic one, combating his own demons for his own reasons rather than simply serving the thematic demands of the central plot.
A lengthy submersion in an alter ego would be a difficult trick for an ordinary man to pull off, for one so temperamentally inclined to introspection, self-doubt and suppression, there was only one possible outcome. After a decade as a walking time bomb, it took Al Capone to trigger the mechanism, while D’Angelo’s bullet provided the necessary ventilating of that granite head, leaving a bloody, smoking crater. Effectively a suicide trooper, and one who sacrificed himself in the pursuit of the law’s goal, Van Alden finally came full circle and found an end that satisfied the man he once was and the man he came to be.
Chalky also escaped his beginnings and, like Van Alden, ultimately found himself with nowhere left to escape to. In a way that is curiously similar to Michael Shannon, Michael K Williams invested his character with such depths of humanity that it became possible for him to express an ocean of feelings with a minimum of expression and the limited vocabulary of a man suffering from a combination of a poor formal education and a self-denying natural reticence. His face, those life-worn eyes, that aching scowl, were almost too painful for the viewer to bear this week as he took in a few last moments of life before facing his execution with the hint of redemption still ringing in his ears. Daughter Maitland’s rendition of Dream a Little Dream of Me swirled around the mortal atmosphere and gave him, and the viewer, a moment of lightness before the dark curtain fell. Death is usually violent in Boardwalk Empire, it is often sudden but it is on occasion beautiful. There was little justice in Chalky’s death but, like Eddie Kessler and Richard Harrow before him, there was beauty, a strange and terrible beauty that echoed through the run-out groove of Daughter’s record.
As Mickey Doyle’s hastily assembled army suggests, there will be plenty of time for less pretty deaths as we enter the final two episodes and their partially inevitable climax. Charlie Luciano’s rise is assured and, thanks to Van Alden and Eli, the tracks of Capone’s destiny have been laid but there is still an awful lot of give in this story, particularly given Nucky’s odd combination of resignation and resolve.
His misadventures in the seedy speakeasy were the child of his guilt-infected grief for Sally and his nostalgia-forged unhappiness at a life misspent. The 1897 introduction of Gillian as a teenage tomboy survivalist shows us where Nucky’s melancholy is coming from and demonstrates how well Boardwalk Empire can handle storylines in which the outcome is already known to the viewer.
The seed event of Gillian’s sorry tragedy of a life was her capture by the Commodore, an intervention in which Nucky’s involvement was clear. What these flashback scenes show us is how far that this was also the parent of Nucky’s own tragedy; the moment at which his movement towards the dark side became irrevocable. It also shows how his own misfortune contributed to that journey. ‘Mabel’s pregnant’, he tells the juvenile Eli, an event that would be considered happy were it not for the fact that the viewer knows that the baby, its mother and its father’s innocence can all count their remaining lifespan in months.
It reminds us that for all the hints of an imminent showdown with Luciano’s men, the remaining two hours have more work to do in illustrating Nucky’s battle with his own regrets. Gillian’s introduction as ‘Nellie Bly’ was a deliberate recall to her letter from the asylum and a suggestion that Nucky may yet find salvation of sorts. The arrival of ‘Joe Harper’ in his life at the moment he recalls his first meeting with Gillian is surely no coincidence. After a lifetime of recognising opportunities for enrichment he may yet recognise one for redemption. Even if it still smells like death.
Read Michael’s review of the previous episode, King of Norway, here.
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