When Boardwalk Empire is doing badly, it’s usually because the show is too controlled. Its writers always know the direction each scene is taking and they play out so perfectly that it’s like watching a Merchant-Ivory film, and despite the gangsters, booze and whoring, the entire show begins to feel so prescribed that it pushes you out of the drama. That being said, when Boardwalk Empire maintains its control but has a bit more subtlety to it, there’s real power in how much direction its writing has. There’s no excess words or imagery, it’s all a unified whole layering one element atop another with a sort of pristine beauty. It’s always at least slightly contrived, but in the same manner of a tightly-plotted novel rather than just a machine.
That was the case with “Paris Green,” which was almost entirely focused on the difference between what people say and what they do. The episode was one of communication breakdown and language games, and so fittingly, even the title itself is a pun. Paris Green is the type of poison that’s slowly killing the commodore, but it’s also the image that Angela has for her future, a new life in Paris that takes her away from her brutish husband. The Darmondy family has come to a complete crisis in the episode and she is planning on leaving with her lover, running away to Paris leaving only a letter for Jimmy to find on the bed. But while the photographer’s wife only speaks of love, she doesn’t wish her word to turn into reality, so when confronted with this, she skips town to Paris right ahead of Angela, leaving her stuck without an exit in Atlantic City. What she’s left with is Jimmy who may be a violent gangster but is at least trying to be a man of his word.
Jimmy’s relationship with the Commodore is a mirror image of this. Given the way Jimmy’s never been acknowledged by his father (he notes how he’s certainly not in the will) and was more protected by Nucky than at any point by the Commodore, it’s natural that he hates the man, who conceived Jimmy with a thirteen-year-old girl. But Jimmy can say all he wants to, he still stays with the man throughout the evening and with this loyalty of action (if not word), he ends up finding the root of the Commodore’s illness and saves his father’s life. There’s no real love here, but there is loyalty, only it’s not to the Commodore. The scenes between Jimmy and his father are darkly meaningful and act as a fitting answer to Jimmy’s parentage. It seems unlikely that the mystery of who was poisoning the Commodore will come out in the final episode of the season, but this week things moved very swiftly (for this show, anyway), so it seems possible. As of now, the only real suspect is Nucky.
Speaking of Nucky, his relationship with Margaret comes to a close with a fight over words-verses-meanings as well. Margaret has been speaking, on Nucky’s behest, at different women’s gatherings despite her reservations, but when she acts unhappy about it, Nucky brings up the fact that whatever she feels, that hasn’t stopped her from acting. Margaret has been saying one thing and doing another for half a season now and Nucky’s feelings are that it’s time for her to grow up. The line that condemns her is powerful and understandably brings an immediate break to their relationship, as Nucky states, “I don’t recall you saying no to anything. You make a little noise every now and then to remind me what a good person you are.” Pointing out the cognitive dissonance of her actions pisses off Margaret, and by the end of the episode she’s moved out of the apartment and we’re unsure about her location.
Nucky’s feelings for her haven’t left, though, as he fires his brother from the position of sheriff largely for speaking against her. Likewise, though, Nucky himself has been playing at being only a politician for too long and Eli speaks the truth when explaining that Nucky is, in fact, a gangster. He has ordered people killed and there is blood on his hands, despite how eloquently he’s able to explain himself. The break between his own actions and words is just as large as Margaret’s, and his are certainly a lot more damning.
There’s not a weak link in the episode and every one of these plots is thrilling to watch. That being said, one stands as maybe the strongest sequence in the entire show. Van Alden has been badgering Sebso about the death of their chief witness and the fact that his story doesn’t seem to match up with what happened. Actions and words are just as divorced here, and Van Alden plans on rectifying the situation in his own crazy fashion. Looking to take the heat off a bit, Sebso asks Nucky for help and gets a tip of where a bootlegging operation is taking place, but when the agents head out there they run into a baptism instead. Van Alden is clearly moved by what he sees, and when Sebso later mentions he’s applying for a transfer because he can’t regain Van Alden’s trust he’s told that there’s one way. Sebso’s Jewish, but if he lets himself be baptized and accepts Jesus, he’s back in full confidence. Van Alden takes it upon himself to baptize the agent and when Sebso won’t reject his own faith, Van Alden keeps dunking him until finally drowning him. He then walks away with his badge in one hand and his gun in the opposite, making himself into a crucifix and walking out from the water while a stunned crowd watches aghast.
It’s a whole big, powerful bag of crazy and is impossible to forget. It feels in a lot of ways like an opposite reframing of what we saw in There Will Be Blood, at least in terms of the passionate religious fervor and violence that’s displayed. Van Alden has, in a sense, baptized himself, as he’s regained the faith he lost when drinking and whoring last week. He’s back in full-on vindictive Angel of Death mode and what he’s become is both insane and almost moving with a surreal sense of beauty. I don’t think the season finale can top this.
But that’s not how the episode ends, as Boardwalk Empire gives us a subtle yet meaningful denouement to show how Nucky feels about his decisions: He consults a fortune teller. By consulting with the ultimate purveyor of words that have no place in reality, he seeks solace in being told what he wants to hear without having to face his actual life, while the camera pulls out to show us that he’s just one more individual looking for this sort of escape on the boardwalk. This is the show we’ve been hoping for since the wonderful first episode, and it’s 55 of the finest minutes of television made in a good long while.
-Hardeen is wonderfully disappointing. Happy to finally see him show up.
-“The thought of what ingredients might constitute this filth repuleses me” – Van Alden on Chinese food
-“Deception requires complicity, however unconscious.” Hardeen may be a bit on the nose with nearly every line of dialogue, but he performs them so well it’s not grating.
-“Five feet or fifty. The principal is the same.” “Until the rope breaks.”
-Who would’ve thought that Charles Ponzi would be in on a Ponzi scheme?
-It’s brief but there’s a nice crack in Rothstein’s façade here. His phone conversation is the first time we’ve seen him sweat.
-“Mr. Thompson’s gift is to never forget who owes him what.” “It’s generally a good principal.”
-“Your people don’t believe in heaven.” “My people?” “Don’t be glib. The Jews.” – Van Alden’s hatred is so palpable it’s amazing. It may be Buscemi’s show, but Michael Shannon has had the best performances.
-“It’s an entertaining act, but if he wasn’t Houdini’s brother, nobody’d give a fuck.”