Nous devons aller à Paris…
“I can’t recall who I was before…”
Interested in contemporary America? You need not watch more than this past week’s episode of Boardwalk Empire. (Right down to our contemporary fascination with and/or ambivalence towards Europe as exemplified in my choice of title, following Angela.) This episode brings together almost all of the themes I have been haphazardly exploring throughout the weeks. The episode has more layers than a mutant onion…let’s see what we can uncover.
First, the theme of things not being exactly what they seem, while at the same time being exactly what they seem. In short, the idea is self deception. In this sense, the omnipresence of the Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz is not accidental. The novel’s chief feature is a series of characters defined by contradiction. This is what I take Boardwalk Empire to be proposing about ourselves as modern agents. At the heart of this contradiction and at the heart of this episode is the market (“Nothing says I’m sorry like money…”) The market’s omnipresence forces and determines a particular sort of interaction. Allegedly, something like the political domain is supposed to be more primordial, more basic than the market, but we quickly see this is not the case. Women can vote, but they can do so only because it is expedient for them to do so. Similarly, once they can, they are (as Margaret is) cajoled into voting in a particular way. “Cajoled” is a peculiar word here, however, since Margaret is uncertain of what she wants: she wants a particular life, but she doesn’t exactly want what goes with it, but doesn’t not (screw the double negative!) want what does. In short, she’s torn–the remorse she feels at doing Nucky’s bidding is only compounded by the confusion she feels in seeing herself in the mirror: uncertain, unknown, unrecognizable–all words that can aptly describe her inner life. The scene with her drinking champagne is the perfect illustration of the point: women can vote, but to do so they must conform, become part of the existing structure…in doing so they give up a part of themselves, compromise.
Always, however, the market is primary. We see how the market drives everything and permeates everything. Literally, nothing is exclusive of it. In this sense, I found the religious imagery extremely fascinating this past week. Not only in Nelson’s linking of “salvation” with “the promise of America,” but also in Capone’s revelation at a Bar Mitzvah. We see how the religious sphere is a dimension of the market sphere, permeated by it, but we also see–importantly, I think–how the religious sphere (and other spheres, as in the cultural, in Chalky’s change of plans and in the romantic, as in the plans for Paris) can impinge on the market sphere. It is always bounded by it, but in unpredictable ways. The market presents the limits of any potential action, it permeates it, determines it–in a very deep sense–swallows it, but nonetheless it doesn’t originate the activity…it occurs through a mishmosh of other factors. In this sense, the discussion of the Wizard of Oz again proves double instructive. Nucky’s tells Margaret that “this is not some fantasy world.” The implication, of course, being that it’s no Baum story…but we know that–at least potentially–the Baum story may have been (or at least more importantly, can be read) as an allegory of Baum’s time. Again, the market and something like presence of human spontaneity overlap and mutually influence each other.
Excited to see what unfolds this week…of course with Rothstein, but also with Margaret and Chalky–the scene with him choking the Pole was epic.