Find a better place to live…
— Margaret Schroeder
“Life can be that way.”
— Nucky Thompson
It is great to be back to BE. This week I’ll focus on two episodes in preparation for tonight’s episode; this seems to have worked out quite well because both of the episodes, as far as I can tell, deal with something like time and the consequences of its measurement. In the oldest episode (“Family Limitation”), we see the end result of “Nights in Ballygran,” which is that Margaret decides to be Nucky’s “mistress”? Perhaps, “concubine?” “Whore” to many others. What to call her, of course, remains a mystery as much to her as to Nucky as to anyone else (including Nucky’s brother, Eli). It’s obvious that there is some special connection between the two of them, but it is also obvious that Nucky–and in a very different way, Margaret–is incapable of expressing such a connection. Broadly speaking, Nucky is structurally too embedded in his politico-capitalistic world: it is questionable whether and how he could have a meaningful relationship. Similarly, there is simply no plausible category–at this time–for a woman like Margaret. As she pointed out in an earlier episode: she is a pragmatic woman. Pragmatism, however, implies agency and agency seems to be something that is continually withheld from the various women of Boardwalk Empire: whether by their own inability to claim such agency or by the systemic inability for others to recognize and grant such agency (or a combination of both). Margaret exists somewhere between these two poles, asserting her agency, but only through the recognition of Nucky. There is a neat little economy going on between the two of them that–opposed to almost everything else we’ve seen in BE–not of a capitalistic nature. (Another hint at a relationship of this sort is the lesbian affair between Jimmy’s wife, Angela and the wife of the photoshop owner.)
In “Home,” the most striking line was the one told to Jimmy by Richard Harrow (his veteran friend) as an explanation for why Harrow no longer reads fiction: “The basis of fiction is that people have some sort of connection…but they don’t.” Writing this line is just pure genius. Obviously, it is operating at so many levels both within the show and outside for us as viewers. On the one hand, what the show has illustrated week after week is actually how well connected–whether intentionally or not–everyone is. There are systemic structures in place–whether war, prohibition, the law, and so forth–that connect individuals. Of course, the connections forged here are often deformed, unhealthy, and mostly dangerous. What the show has revealed, however, is that the individuals we encounter are created by these structures. They are inescapable. But what we can’t but help notice–not only with the help of history as viewers, but also with the passage of the show’s internal time–is that these sort of connections and the “glue” that holds them together is entirely contingent and open to revision. Women will vote, prohibition will end, witnesses will come forward, elections will be won and lost, and so forth. In this sense, there is, I would argue, with this episode and indeed this line a strong thread of something like utopianism emerging here.
This thread, however, is incredibly fragile and I think that the end of “Home” is meant to highlight this. Although the prospect of a better future constantly flutters to the edges of this show, to the edges of, let’s say, our peripheral vision (of the future to which this show is beholden), what bears down upon that future is a terrible past, weighed down by the terrors of its passing. We get this message most explicitly with Jimmy’s speech about the German soldier, whose past already includes a certain, miserable death, but a past which nonetheless maintains some sort of utopian (even messianic) hope. In the same vein, Nucky’s explicit intention to erase his past–literally burn it to nothing–only reinforces the amount of pull that it still exerts over him. These two episodes, then, bring to the fore a nice dialectical economy between utopia and hopelessness, past and future, hope and death.
It will be interesting to see how the show handles this tension in the future.
Until next week,