Column: Film and TV

How much sin can viewers take?: HBO’s Boardwalk Empire

by Eloise Ross , December 19, 20131 Comment

Boardwalk Empire

Boardwalk Empire has achieved a similar status to the gangster films of the 1950s, bringing the state of television’s serial narrative — to borrow a phrase from Roland Barthes — to a more than adequate gestuary of ‘cool’. The pilot episode of the HBO series, the fifth season of which will go into production in 2014, introduces the implementation of the Volstead Act in the USA in January 1920, and the altogether joyous determination of its citizens to keep drinking that very necessary article that is alcohol. (Incidentally, the repeal of Prohibition celebrated its 80th anniversary on December 5, 2013.) It’s not just this content that’s appealing, but the style, the pacing, the innovative integration of sound and rag-a-jazz music within the editing, and the lightly-drawn balance between historical authenticity and embroidered flair. A lot of what drives Boardwalk Empire is the engineering of its dirty, dazzling aesthetic. It captures the nostalgia zeitgeist that dominates so much popular culture with a blend of realism and the spectacular absent from something like Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby.

It’s odd, therefore, that Terence Winter’s big-budget, star-filled show, bankrolled by Martin Scorsese and HBO, has not garnered the same media or publicity storm that surrounds recent hits like AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Even the comparatively low-profile episode recaps, such as those by Seth Colter Walls for Vulture and Willa Paskin for Slate, aren’t as engaging or insightful as fans might hope.

While a 1920s atmosphere of organised crime and institutionalised corruption is often typified by neat moments of sangfroid, Boardwalk Empire doesn’t pander to this perception. Certain moments might be cool, but life proves tough in the long run. In its nature as a serial television show with a consistent ensemble of characters, it reveals the often unspoken terrors that haunt the big guns with much to lose. Legendary characters like Al Capone, Arnold Rothstein, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky have their moments of weakness, and it’s in these constant battles of opportunism that the show blooms. This toying with historical conjecture is one of the show’s most fascinating aspects.

Boardwalk Empire has one of the highest turnover rates of an ensemble cast seen on television. This is partly because of the high mortality rate of organised crime, and partly because of the interwoven stories set between Atlantic City, Chicago, New York, and in season four, Tampa. As a result, those characters we grow to know and love best can be the ones who are taken from us. Joss Whedon was the first to toy with fan’s emotions in this way, when he finally included long-standing Buffy the Vampire Slayer cast member Amber Benson in the opening credits only to kill her off in the same episode. Many Game of Thrones fans felt similarly betrayed by the slaughter in its recent ‘Red Wedding’ episode, which seemed to some like ‘the death of hope’.

Episodes of seasons two, three and four have each seen regular, popular cast members taken as victims of gangster wars, each leaving the Boardwalk Empire verse slightly more impoverished of its own hope. (Warning: this paragraph contains spoilers.) Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) was killed by his own surrogate father, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), for an act of betrayal. Nucky’s subsequent right-hand man Owen Slater (Charlie Cox) was murdered by his enemies, threatening Nucky’s proverbial throne. Only a few episodes prior to this, Owen’s role was strengthened as he began an illicit affair with Nucky’s wife Margaret (Kelly McDonald). Owen and Margaret were planning to run away together, and the delivery of his body to their house in a wooden box is one of the series’ most visceral and devastating scenes. Most recently, wounded marksman Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) was killed by wandering gunfire, and along with him departed one of the show’s warmest consciences. His death was a poignant reminder of Jimmy’s final bitterness: ‘I died in the trench. Years back. I thought you knew that.’ Matt Zoller Seitz at Salon derides much of Boardwalk Empire’s extreme violence as being ‘wild and nasty for the sake of being wild and nasty’, but it has been demonstrated time and again that the violence is not random; the manner of execution always gives insight into characters. The show rarely lingers on a body or an injury, but stands with the survivor’s wound.

Killing off characters that audiences care about is a direct challenge to the way they engage with serial television. This disruption to its narrative and settings also acts as a challenge to its viewers, and might explain why critics and commentators have found it so difficult to latch onto Boardwalk Empire the way they do with others. In the LA Review of Books, George Potts suggests that, while Nucky is the protagonist with whom the show’s allegiance lies, he cannot always succeed in commanding our respect. But this is Winter’s genius: just as he uses Boardwalk Empire and its historical reimagining to show that the American dream doesn’t and can’t exist, his character arcs challenge the concept of satisfaction in the television serial. Like Nucky, who is ‘not seeking forgiveness’ for his actions, Boardwalk Empire refuses to beg, nor will it make concessions. Winter refuses to follow any rules.

In season one, Nucky muses that, ‘We all have to decide for ourselves how much sin we can live with.’ Boardwalk Empire lives with so much of it that ‘goodness’ isn’t even part of the game anymore. In season four, nightclub singer Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham) performs her own version of the decade’s iconoclastic song of sin, ‘Saint Louis Blues’. This is a show that does its own thing. It’s not afraid to ‘sin’ against its audience by killing off beloved characters and showing little remorse. As a fan this might be hard to take, but it’s also one of the most interesting things any show can do. If we can believe in it, and stick with it, the intelligence of the serial narrative will be our reward.

Eloise Ross is a Killings columnist and PhD candidate at La Trobe University. Her research interests include cinematic affect, phenomenologies of sound, and the senses. She infrequently writes at cinemelo.wordpress.com, and tweets more often at @EloiseLoRoss.  

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  • Katie

    Great piece Eloise :) This season dealt out more than its fair share of heartache, but it does so beautifully. I can deal with the pain of losing beloved characters, even those who are severely flawed, when the writing, acting and camera-work is as good as it is in this show.

    I think the amount of narrative threads going on in different parts of the country is something that makes it hard for people to feel that connection with some of the characters, and it does at times feel very sprawling. This allows for more change in characters with great actors leaving and joining the cast each season (Bobby Cannavale was magnificent last season, and this season Jeffrey Wright was delectably evil). Shows like Breaking Bad with a formidable but much smaller ensemble cast have fewer characters that are expendable, I guess. I think that the scope of the shows is vastly different and this plays a role in our response to them.

    I also think there’s a gradual build to climax with Boardwalk Empire and fewer heart-grabbing moments each episode before we get to the real meat of each season. There’s a lot of build-up and for me the pay-off is there but I can see how some critics might feel like they get diminishing returns for the time invested…

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