The critically acclaimed Boardwalk Empire returned for its second season this week with ‘21,’ which informed viewers that all was not well in Atlantic City, and set the stage for what looks like another smashing season of the hit HBO series. It was visually lush, laden with subtext, and deliciously scored; Boardwalk Empire is clearly determined to continue living up to the hype, which is considerable. Part of the season two promotions involved running, yes, a vintage subway on New York’s 2/3 line. Clearly, they’re breaking budget records if nothing else.
The strains of ‘After You Get What You Want (You Don’t Want It)’ floated across the screen as we watched Nucky’s empire, and home, start to collapse around him. One of the recurring themes of this episode was fracture lines, particularly between fathers and sons, or father-like figures and their sons. Nucky tried to reestablish himself with Jimmy through presents while bribing Teddy into complacence, the Commodore asserted his presence in Jimmy’s life, and Chalky casually paraded his own son’s skills at the piano in a show of power, and a reminder. Meanwhile, Agent Van Alden is experiencing some fracture lines, and daddy trouble, of his own.
One thing Boardwalk Empire explores in intriguing ways is themes of masculinity, and the performance of masculinity in a culturally and racially charged environment. That was particularly evident in this episode, as Van Alden exerted a show of power at his anniversary dinner to thrills of delight from his wife, while Nucky spent his time out at all hours with a woman who was most decidedly not Margaret, and Klan members casually and openly expressed themselves from under the safety of their white hoods.
Meanwhile, Chalky asserted his masculinity as well after the Klan shooting at his warehouse, in a very subtly and elegantly played scene in his house where he reminded Nucky and Eli that ‘his people’ were ready for action. Other than the church scene, viewers, of course, were treated to very few glimpses of his people beyond the corners of the screen as they bussed tables, carried baggage, and collected garbage.
Boardwalk Empire cuts to the heart of the idealised and romanticised era of gangsters, cronyism, and smuggling, and it is intriguing to see the show playing with masculinity rather than reiterating more traditional depictions from works set in this era. Whether it’s Richard Harrow depicted as wistful, carefully cutting pictures out of magazines to construct the family life he thinks he can never have, or Van Alden struggling with warring parts of himself, or George Remus asserting himself in a very classic model tinged with bravado and attempt to fill shoes too big for him, Boardwalk Empire’s male characters are deep, dark, and intriguing.
It’s intrigue that spilled all over this episode, as characters aligned themselves to take advantage of Nucky’s vulnerabilities, which were brought home in a marked way in the ender. The producers may as well have fired a gun to announce the start of the races, because we will be seeing everyone jockeying for position over the coming season. Power abhors a vacuum, and it’s clear that Nucky’s tight hold on his empire is starting to loosen. It was chipped away throughout the episode, in scenes both subtle and profane, and it will continue to erode unless he can pick a side and start shoring up some serious support.
For all the show’s explorations of masculinity, it sadly falls short on similar delvings into femininity, and I hope that changes this season, because it has some female characters with the possibility of being truly stellar, if they were allowed to breathe a bit. The women of the show are continually thrust to the background, and framed primarily in terms of their relationships with men. Margaret’s position is fragile, for example, while many of the sex workers on the show are rarely given names or personalities, since their primary role is as objects, not people. That tense, complex, interesting relationship between Angela and Gillian revolves around Jimmy. Mrs. Van Alden, too, inhabits troped stereotypes about femininity, with her buttoned-up temperance-loving exterior that feeds a deep need inside for masculine assertions of power and violence.
Not for nothing has this show been praised for its visual look; Boardwalk Empire is quite possibly one of the most stunningly staged, shot, and edited shows on television right now. The deft and tricky cut between Nucky’s speeches—more fracture lines, as he attempted to leg the spread between Black and white communities—may have been the most obvious trick in ‘21,’ but it was far from the only one. Visually, the show continually reminded viewers of fault lines and secrets with recurring mirrors, clever focus tricks, and the ever-present, ever-nagging musical undertones.
Dirty laundry was another theme, from Remus’ comments at the Chicago meeting to a crisp bon mot on the porch of the funeral home. Judging from the secrets threatening to explode at the seams, considerably more laundry will be aired over the course of this season. Too many people know too many things in too many places for them to remain hidden much longer. Wives, mistresses, and conspiracies are going to rise to the fore, and not just in the presumed trial that Nucky will be facing for election fraud, with an army of slick attorneys at his back.
Having it all may just be about crass materialism, as Nucky thinking he could buy his way out of any problem and the Commodore’s crew swooping in on the remainders of Chalky’s operation reminded us—you don’t need to be worried about the blood on the cases, unless it’s your own, as one of the more heavy-handed lines of dialogue in the episode put it. But it’s also about more than that, as we saw when Margaret sat in the movie theatre with her children, craning her head for a glimpse of Nucky, and when Mrs. Van Alden shot her husband a long parting glance in the train station, and when Richard sat alone in his room with the glue pot. This is about conflicts between naked greed and deeper emotional hunger, and what happens when the two collide.
Boardwalk Empire is still sleek, meticulously crafted, and every bit as tasty as it was last season. We’re going in different directions as our characters fall under new shadows, including their own household demons. This is going to be a season about power, control, and retrenching, and I am looking forward to it immensely.