The Moth Chase

Elevating the Art of Procrastanalysis – Academics wasting time on pop culture

We all have to decide how much sin we can live with…

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“If you don’t believe in heaven, how can you believe in hell?”

— Van Alden

These last two episodes sure were something. I think we see many of the themes I’ve been discussing over the last several weeks coming to the fore again. I want to focus my concluding discussion on several related points: the idea of America, the limits of forgiveness in response to sin, and the relationship between these two topics. One thing that finally struck me was the extent to which something like the law was about to trump Rothstein’s massive empire. What’s interesting about it is it’s not the “rule of law” per se, but rather the enforcement of law in light of something like the public or the “American” valorization of baseball. The problem is not so much baseball, but rather the un-American idea of fixing this great American past-time.

I found this to be an interesting moment because somehow the gravity of the situation in which Rothstein found himself never struck me before. With that said, it is also interesting how “easily” such a situation is rectified. Once again, as we have seen time and time again on this show, market forces swallow all. As long as the deals and the money keeps flowing, all of the other pieces fall into line. Feuds can be squashed and sides easily shifted. As Nucky all-too-eloquently puts it, “Guilt? Duty? You’re a grown man–what’s the difference?” In this vein, Jimmy’s later description of Nucky as a machine is entirely apt. Again, the market flattens everything so that capitalism turns all agents into mere vehicles for market forces. This is a point I believe the show has stressed before.

What I want to focus on in light of this point is the notion of America. I take Nucky’s dead baby to be a metaphor for America. The show has shown us all of the various ways in which something like the project of America fails to be what it is meant to be (whether we are talking of racism, or sexism, democracy, or justice). Yet it continues onwards supported by our desires, whether for its success or failure or recognition of one or the other. We continue to cradle and coddle it in spite of its stillborn nature. All along, we blame ourselves, but we also continually find ways to live with this guilt. And all of this is made possible by the presence of the market, which makes this possible in the first place. Indeed, we see explicitly with Rothstein’s almost religious invocation “bad blood,” “transgression,” and “nullification” the claim that the market can even nullify all sins. All we have to do is decide how much sin we can live with…which always seems to be not only “quite a lot,” but also “more than we thought.”

This bring me to my last point–it’s interesting in these last episodes to see how and where the ‘human element’ intrudes on things. We see this most forcefully in Margaret’s return to Nucky, but also in Van Alden’s murder of Sebso, in the Commodore and Eli’s plot against Nucky, and so forth. What I take Boardwalk Empire to suggest here is that while this human element continually impinges on the immutable market structure, it does nothing to change it. Indeed, I take it to illustrate an entirely different order. On one hand, the market structure is fundamentally a “third person” perspective, while this ‘human element,’ is always “first personal” and individual. The latter can allow us to live with great sins because they appear–if they appear at all–in the periphery of our vision. And so the project of America trudges on…carried on through our human relations which ride on the rails of what is the market.

Until next season friends,


Written by Martin

December 7, 2010 at 10:26 pm

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