A weird paradox about Boardwalk Empire that I can’t recall seeing in any other American television show is that even when a lot is going on it still tends to feel pretty slow. And a whole lot did happen in “Emerald City,” as the show’s pace has picked up in anticipation of its finale just two weeks away. A shooting, a beating, sex, betrayal—it had everything, with not a bad plotline to mar the show. Every one of the different threads it weaved, though, is still building, and there were no conclusions so as to leave us feeling that a truly big event has occurred. Meanwhile, each individual scene is allowed to play out for as long as it needs to (and in one case significantly longer than it should have). Every section is building for what will happen next, but I wouldn’t be surprised if viewers were occasionally bored despite the sheer amount of drama and action littered throughout the episode.
Another reason for why the show can feel so still is because of how frequently it will dip into a story and then not show how it continues for another half an hour. The suspense between an event and its fallout is stretched past its breaking point and leads to a unique rhythm—part of the reason why I’ve compared Boardwalk Empire to Deadwood in the past is because its editing rhythms are much closer to it than those of, for instance, The Sopranos. There’s just so many characters, all of them significant, and bouncing between all of them before returning back to one specific plot can work against contemporary attention spans.
Then again, it can also lead to some truly great sequences that are reliant upon this sort of thing. Al Capone’s part of “Emerald” was far and away its most peripheral, to the point where after we didn’t see him last week I assumed he was no longer part of the show. He begins by playing a prank on his boss during a meeting, which frustrates everyone involved enough so that they cut things short. Next we see him in a synagogue attending a bar mitzvah, where after speaking with a Jewish man he begins thinking about his own childishness. We see him once more at the end of the episode and he’s forsaken his childish hat and promises to act like an adult to his boss, effectively going through his own bar mitzvah and showing a real change from the Capone we’ve seen so far. Much of the sense of change in him comes from how far apart these scenes are and the time between them seems like one of reflection for Capone. He’s only on-screen for five or so minutes, but he seems to go through an entire journey, and it’s a result of the way his scenes fit into the whole episode—side by side they would be completely ridiculous.
Capone’s plot wasn’t subtle but it was effective, while Margaret’s journey is just as lacking in subtlety but ends up annoying. At Nucky’s bequest she speaks on behalf of his candidate for mayor to the newly voting women of Atlantic City. Afterwards she feels that she’s betrayed herself with this sort of compromise, which we see first with a heavy-handed bit at the end of this scene and later with a completely over-the-top moment in which she broods in front of a mirror. This sort of storytelling, in which the show’s creators seem to think viewers are too stupid to figure out on their own what’s going on, is irksome enough, but combined with Margaret doing this same pose of self-disappointment again and again it’s just ridiculous. It undermines her character as a strong woman while also feeling completely unrealistic, as she’s been fully conscious of every choice she’s made. Margaret may be the smartest character on the show, but at the end of every episode she’s reduced to being dumb, fragile and uncertain, all things we know Margaret not to be in the slightest. It’s not something that adds complexity to her character, it’s simply too afraid to let her be the self-empowered person she truly is.
I don’t mean to say that these negative moments ruined the entire show, as they didn’t, it’s more of a disappointment how much these little missteps screwed up an otherwise extremely good episode. Meanwhile, Jimmy gets his revenge on the photographer for the affair he never actually had, which ruins the small bit of real connection he was started to rebuild his wife. He also spends much of the episode working with Nucky and Chalky on a plot to take down the men who shot at Nucky and hung one of Chalky’s men, and though it goes slightly awry they still take down a few of them and send Rothstein a message that this is war.
The most shocking part of the episode comes from Van Alden’s sudden turn from his old Rex Banner ways. Frustrated that his colleague murdering their chief witness went unpunished while he’s severely chastised, he confronts Margaret in the creepiest way known to man about her turn towards a sinful life. When rebuked, he goes to a bar and drinks before hooking up with Nucky’s ex-girlfriend in what’s by far the most graphic sex scene the show’s had by far. Van Alden’s now even more unpredictable than before.
I can’t round this off without mentioning a few other wonderful moments, particularly those between Richard and Margaret’s family and Rothstein dealing with his henchmen. Richard is almost as much of a question as Van Alden is, but he’s a lot less off-putting to watch and his sense of mystery adds something to every scene he’s in. The episode’s beginning with him dreaming of having a whole face was a deft touch indeed. Parts of the episode like these outweigh ones like Margaret staring at the mirror ten-to-one. The rest of this episode was one of the best in the whole show, and while the bad is so bad it can be hard to forget, as usual with Empire, it’s worth having a selective memory.
-A mention of the black sox scandal on the newspaper Nucky reads, which is of course an event engineered by Rothstein.
-…That’s kind of annoyingly pointed out a minute later. Way to be subtle, guys.
-Jimmy and Van Alden dress similarly in the episode. Their mutual propensity for wife beaters and beating their wives is probably unintentional, but hey, it’s there.
-On the women’s vote: “Caught up with Ireland at last.”
-On Margaret’s comment that the mayoral candidate isn’t qualified, what exactly qualifies a person to whole office? I don’t think the show wants to bring this up philosophically, but as far as I’m concerned political offices are untrained labor.
-There’s a nice contrast from the “this isn’t a fantasy, this is real” to a crane shot above Atlantic City, pointing out how much the city was just a fantasy at that time.
-Having the photographer look through an upside-down image through the camera lens is a very nice touch.
-Presumably Van Alden knows she used to be with Nucky, given his obsession with the man. But I’m left a little uncertain about this.
-“You gonna shoot me for mouthin’ off?” “I wasn’t going to but you kinda talked me into it.”