Boardwalk Empire: The Devil You Know
When an ensemble piece wraps up, you can take some different approaches. You can try to wrap up each character’s story so you don’t leave frayed edges for your audience to tie up themselves. You can focus on an overall idea or theme, with the idea that is what is more important. But just because you’re doing one doesn’t mean you can’t do the other. Either way, you hope to do each character justice.
**If you haven’t seen this episode of Boardwalk Empire you will definitely want to wait on this article**
Boardwalk Empire has the extra difficulty of needing to stick to some semblance of historical accuracy with some of its ancillary characters. Luciano and Lansky survive 1931. Capone takes a fall for tax evasion that same year. We know these things. How do we satisfy our fictional character arcs while maintaining a story our savvy viewers will buy into?
Michael Shannon’s Nelson Van Alden has been one of the fantastically twisted elements of this series, a coiled pulsating nervous tic of a man, equal parts paltry pushover and dangerous rage. Despite our knowledge of how Al Capone meets his comeuppance, the moment Van Alden and Eli Thompson were sent into his headquarters to retrieve the famous ledger, we knew they could not be flatly successful. Not with so few episodes left in the series. Not with the bulletproof Capone as a barrier.
Van Alden himself knew as much, telling Eli that their plan was not well conceived, but going ahead with it nonetheless. What ensued was without doubt one of the best scenes we’ve been treated to yet. So many moving parts and conflicting motivations that could come into play. When the fed who sent them in appears and seems to be about to ferry them away from a spot where they can only die, Capone shows up early with famous actors Paul Muni and George Raft (who would go on to play in 1932’s “Scarface”) in tow. Despite this distraction, Al is more than ready to handle business. It is instructive to realize that while Van Alden tells the truth about himself and dies for it, Eli tells just enough of a lie to survive.
I came into the night worried that we would lose the great Michael Shannon and I was right. We can only offer him our most heartfelt thanks for what he’s given us for the last five seasons. You get a good rest, Mr Shannon. Good night.
And since Boardwalk Empire has so many stories to tie up before the season ends, we also got the end of another fan favorite. Michael K Williams as Chalky white has been another great creation, but one that, unfortunately, has been handled with far less satisfaction over the last two seasons. The excellent performances all around tonight, including from Jeffrey Wright and Margot Bingham, did nothing to sell me on the idea that the Chalky White we got to know over the first three seasons would offer himself up as a sacrifice to save somebody other than his daughter Maybelle…and she’s already dead. That his long game came to such a worthless end felt quite empty and poorly considered. Seven years later for that? Meh.
Nucky spends tonight living as a nobody schlub, Francis X Bushman he says, chatting up a couple of foul-mouthed gals in a dive bar while drinking away his woes. He couldn’t protect Sally Wheet, and he knows Margaret can handle herself now. Nucky is haunted by his culpability in Gillian’s downfall, and he sure doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who is ready to take on Luciano and Lansky, even if we didn’t know they will both survive well past the second World War. With this season’s voluminous flashbacks to his youth, the whole thing is playing like Nucky’s life flashing before his eyes. But it’s not time for that quite yet.
We still have two more episodes for that.