Towards the end of “Erlkönig,” Nucky tells his nephew Willie that he needs to disregard his other thoughts about life, and in their place remember that “The only thing you can count on is blood. The blood that’s in your veins, and the blood that’s in mine.” Blood, however, is the least accountable thing in the world of Boardwalk Empire. In contrast with The Godfather or The Sopranos, mob stories in which family always comes first, Boardwalk Empire is a graveyard of wrecked families and abandoned children. One of the central, guiding themes of the show has been the way ambition corrupts familial relationships, and while Nucky offers this advice, he must be aware of the time Willie’s father tried to kill him. Nucky’s inability to keep a living child, or even family, has been emblematic of this problem in a world where all children are traumatized and all families torn apart. Blood matters in Boardwalk Empire, but not in the way that Nucky means it. Even with this sentence there’s irony, as Nucky is promising Willie that his dad won’t find out about any of this, yet one more blood betrayal in a show rife with them.
It’s no coincidence that this episode is titled “Erlkönig,” as the poem by Goethe resonates not just through this episode but throughout the entire show. Admittedly, the exposition about the poem was heavy-handed, but it has meaning for Eddie, who we learn abandoned his own children and wife in order to pursue a lingerie-store clerk, stealing money and then fleeing Germany when knowledge of this became public. His interrogation by Agent Knox was one of the most riveting parts of the episode, as it turned inside out a character who’s always been an unknown quotient. It comes as no surprise that his is another tale of blood betrayal, but more harrowing is what occurs when he returns post-kidnapping to Nucky only to find himself scolded and put back in his place as a servant. Eddie has long been loyal to Nucky, and his betrayal weighs heavy on his head, but the defining moment is learning that no matter what Eddie does, he will always be a servant to Nucky. Despite their familial relationship, he’s not, ultimately, blood. Eddie can’t live with what he’s done or the situation or the confrontation with the past, and as the episode ends he steps out a window.
Back in Chicago, the Capones have until now been one of the few examples in Boardwalk Empire of a family that sticks together. Al loves his brothers, and they’re loyal to him. Despite his growing insanity, even Al is aware that his brother Frank is smart and charismatic, and he’s been Al’s right-hand man. Frank’s fondness for Van Alden is a bit more confusing, but it seems like Frank understands how capable and ruthless Van Alden can be, so he enlists him at the polls. They fight mobs of union workers, who of course will want to vote Democrat, but don’t anticipate police retaliation given that they’ve bought off the local force. Van Alden knows that so long as he’s under Al’s control, he and his family are at risk, so he nearly takes a shot at Al, but stops when he sees that Frank’s watching him. While Frank is aware of Al’s faults, he’d almost certainly kill Van Alden for this, but instead he’s gunned down by the police. The next we see of Van Alden, he’s commiserating with the Capones about their brother’s death, and seems if anything more locked into their gang.
What gives all of Van Alden’s storylines tension at this point isn’t the fights, but rather that the Capones know where he lives and make a point of picking him up and dropping him off there. The risk to his family is palpable, and Boardwalk Empire is one of the shows in which that risk feels real. Al is crazy, perfectly willing to kill families, and at this point Van Alden is swimming upstream toward his second family’s survival against the river of death that surrounds Chicago’s organized crime.
The other two stories in “Erlkönig” weren’t nearly as interesting. Nucky saves Willie from prison by having him sell out of his roommate, who’s also his sole college friend. What keeps the story less than compelling is mostly one of why Willie, a new character to this season who’s not particularly empathetic, is so important. The stakes feel low, and though he almost certainly has a role to play in the season’s overarching storyline, what that may be remains a mystery.
Willie’s storyline still had its moments, though, and it was carried by strong performances. Gillian’s, on the other hand, was unsurprisingly a mess. Boardwalk Empire still doesn’t seem to have any idea what to do with her—or any woman, for that matter. She wanders around looking for heroin, and once high she tries to entice her grandson back to her with a candy bar. It doesn’t work. She’s saved from herself by Roy Phillips, who says he can help her and is willing to accept her for the drug-addled mess she is, but all of this is so tedious that it’s difficult to care.
Like so many episodes of Boardwalk Empire, “Erlkönig” is four distinct storylines with practically no overlap. As such, it functions kind of like an anthology film, with good parts and bad parts, but this combination is always a bit disappointing because when the suspense is ratcheting up with Van Alden, the show will cut away and show us more of Gillian wandering around, shooting up heroin. “Erlkönig” had its moments, but the episode still felt padded. Worse, it still feels kind of directionless, as there’s still no real tension for Nucky this season and it’s difficult to care about many of the stories when the stakes feel so low. Yes, J. Edgar Hoover is after him, but there’s always some part of the government that’s after him, and we’ve been there and done that before. There were some great scenes in this episode, but as usual it didn’t really cohere.