Thinking…!@#$ing Aristotle over here.
“What’s a motherfucker?”
– Nucky Thompson
“…as a baby’s ass.”
– Chalky White
I thought that this past week’s episode really solidified the series and drew a lot of items together and showed us what this show is not only all about, but going to be all about. Let me draw out a few themes. It is obvious that the mud that Nucky drags into his domicile is symbolic. The symbolism just drives home the point the series has been asking all along: can Nucky have his feet in two worlds at once? And this week, the answer seems plainly to be: no. We see this playing out in a variety of ways.
We have a variety of overlapping networks or systems of dominance. We can see this in a few choice scenes and pieces of dialogue. Foremost is Nucky’s elaboration of Jimmy’s history: he “used to do everything right.” When Jimmy asked Nucky how one becomes president, Nucky’s reply was: see the world, get in a lot of hard work, and study. Jimmy’s response: “Gee, that’s all?” Then, we see that Jimmy–the pinnacle of potential accomplishment–decides to serve his country and is irrevocably altered (a point he himself recognizes). Similarly, we see that Nelson van Alden, for all of his puritanical goodness is willing to circumvent the law whenever it helps him achieve his greater purpose. Throughout, we see that everyone–even Nucky–is just part of elaborate networks of dominance. In Nucky’s case it is a criss-crossing path of something like hedonism (“Whatever makes you happy”), power (“Not in an election year”), and the past. This last point requires some qualification. It’s obvious that Nucky’s principles–if we can call them such–are hardly, well, principled–they seem, rather, to rely on some sort of sense of the past. He feels a duty to Jimmy’s mom, he feels a duty to the memory of his dead wife, and so forth. We see, however, that when it comes to principles, Nucky is essentially willing to bend all in service of these three networks. Van Alden on the other hand is committed to some sort of strange fundamentalism, which is as oppressive as anything else (his conversation, or lack thereof, with his wife–as well as his “letter” to her last week is just another illustration of this theme). Jimmy is the most palpable example of this as he gets sucked in between a variety of these networks: the US military machine, his family (neither his relationship to his mother nor his relationship to his wife feel genuine as illustrated by his lack of anything beyond some basic material care for them), the criminal underground, the law, and so forth. In the same way, when the French Madam states to Ms. Schroeder that she is to be “seen, but not heard,” we should take this as a reference to the way in which individuals appear in Nucky’s world. (This, in turn, is neatly illustrated by his ultimate interaction with Chalky White…it’s almost as if both men relinquish who they are to…what? Money? Something like the system. Neither one of them is really happy with the situation, nor is either one of them that committed to what’s going since neither one of them seems happy in general.)
Everything seems to be–as Jimmy points out–done in the name of progress. These networks make up the America of Boardwalk Empire, and one reason the show is thus far so effective is because these are the same networks that we feel defining us and impinging on ourselves. The key is they are all interlaced–creeping even into the future. This is what I take to be the import of Nucky’s contribution to the “baby incubators” project: the very future itself will be as defined (and as tainted) by the deeds (and misdeeds) of the present.
In conclusion, I want to pose a question about Jimmy’s reading material. He is reading Sinclair Lewis’s Free Air on the train. This is striking for several reasons. First, there is the irony of reading this book–the arguably the first “car road trip” book–on the train. Second, however, is that it may be suggesting that Jimmy is turning his back on his prior dream (of wanting all of the lavishness that we’ve seen thus far)…that is certainly a theme of the book (a disregard for “elitism”). In this sense, thirdly, it will be interesting to see how this plays out: will Jimmy reinterpret his move to Chicago as a willful action? If so, this will give us an interesting read on the various networks I’ve layed out and will show us a potential way of navigating through them with something like an “authentic” (or at least “chosen”) decision.
I am very excited to see what happens this week…