Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Munchausen Weekend

Boardwalk Empire

I was late to the party for Boardwalk Empire, and yet I find myself appreciating the the show more with each passing episode. One of the reasons I like the show, if I'm honest, is its status as a kind of underdog in the perpetual "Golden Age of TV" sweepstakes: despite would should be a peerless pedigree, it is consistently overlooked and under-appreciated. It's overshadowed at every turn - who wanted to talk about the Season 4 premiere while Breaking Bad was gearing up for its blockbuster conclusion? It doesn't seem to have ever outgrown its reputation as "Sopranos-lite," prestige mob fare for HBO viewers, which now translates to "the drama that comes between True Blood and Game of Thrones" on the calendar.

All of which is completely unfair. And, in the spirit of that fairness, the show does have a strong and devoted fanbase. But even at its best it never seems to catch fire with audiences in quite the way all the other prestige dramas of the past decade have done. (It probably doesn't help that the cast is littered with veterans from The Sopranos and The Wire, which is surely the best way to win over skeptical audiences already inclined to see the show as off-brand.) But I've come around to the show. I'm not a big one for mob stories, but this manages to overcome my natural reticence with regards to gangsters through a combination of superb execution and deft inversion of expectations.
Which is, let's be honest, problematic. Inverting audience expectations is dangerous, especially in regards to such hallowed ground as mob ensemble dramas. One of the first complains I read about the show soon after it premiered was that Steve Buscemi was completely miscast as Nucky Thompson. (Let's set aside the fact that he looks about as Irish as a bottle of Soy Sauce, even though he does actually have some Irish in his background.) He's only miscast if you thought the show necessarily needed a domineering, dangerous, physically threatening figure at its center. You know, like every other mob movie and TV show ever. I really like the fact that Nucky is literally the least imposing figure in his world. He's not particularly physical. More often than not he manages to dominate a room standing stock still - in fact, Buscemi performance as Nucky is simply a marvel of economy. He only moves when absolutely necessary, and when he does so, he does with exquisite deliberation. He keeps his head straight his eyes alert, even when he looks exhausted.

That's the overarching theme of Boardwalk Empire, four seasons in: control. Not simply exterior control, control over the world around you, but interior control as well - control of your passions and your emotions. The gangsters on this show are mostly thugs: there aren't a lot (or any) of the standard avuncular goodfellas we're used to seeing, no tragicomedic Paulie Walnuts indulging in post-Tarantino banter with SIlvio down at the Bada Bing. The killers on this show are either silent and scarred to the point of near-catatonia (Richard and Van Alden/ Mueller), or - mostly - brutal, ignorant, and thuggish. That's pretty much precisely what Al Capone was, after all: dumb as rocks but dangerous like a snake. This is the guy, after all, who died painfully of complications from syphilis because he was afraid to get an antibiotics shot. There's nothing at all glamorous about that. The Sopranos, as supposedly committed as it was to undermining certain generic expectations of the mob show, was still intent on having its cake and eating it too, in terms of its portrayal of wise guys as generally swell guys whose jobs just happened to involve shooting people in the head. We never get those moments of empathic connection in Boardwalk Empire: we sympathize with Nucky not because he's a charming rogue, but because he seems to still have a scrap of human decency left, as opposed to everyone else he meets. We certainly sympathize with characters like Chalky White who experience the worst aspects of the nightmare racism of the 1920s on a daily basis, but his experiences have (understandably) rendered him so violent and reflexively hostile that it's hard to empathize with him in the same way, certainly, that we did Omar on The Wire.

The Sopranos was dedicated to exploring the interiority of its protagonists, so much so that the show's central motivating gimmick was the eight-year-long running dialogue between Tony and his psychiatrist. Boardwalk Empire doesn't do that. What I think I like the most about the show is probably one of the things that makes it opaque to some viewers: it's quiet. There's not a lot in the way of exhausting, performative speechifying. One of these reasons is pretty easy to discern: most of these characters aren't particularly bright, nor do they show any interest in improving themselves. Al Capone and his brothers and cronies are pretty much reptiles in terms of their thought processes: fight, kill, eat, usually exactly in that order. Rothstein is smart but his intelligence makes him overconfident; Chalky is perpetually angry because he has discovered that this is the only way to project the strength necessary to keep his grip on everything he's fought tooth-and-nail to acquire; Gyp Rosetti was an angry thug who came to a bad end because he was stupid enough to try to kill Nucky. I point out these characters shallowness not to spotlight a weakness on the part of the show but to highlight what I believe is the show's great strength: it's not a character piece, not really. It's a show about dangerous men whose egos are so completely invested in projecting the hardest and most merciless vision of their selves that they turn into caricatures of petty evil. Which is, you know, precisely how a lot of real-life organized crime works. It's a plot-driven show, even if it doesn't at times completely feel like one - we're given a lot in the way of mood and atmosphere, but underneath the hood all the characters are moving with a precision borne from their limited, unblinkingly vertical attitudes towards the world around them.

And then there's Nucky. Nucky has gotten where he is at this point in the show's history by being the smartest man in the room (which isn't saying much when you're in the room with Capone, but still). He knows how to play all the angles that need to be played, and how to walk away from unnecessary battles. He doesn't relish the worse parts of the job in the same way that some of the sociopaths on his payroll might: violence is a sign that the situation has moved beyond his ability to control through management. Early in this season there was a great, character-defining scene where Nucky essentially solved any lingering problems caused by last season's violent climax by paying off the injured parties. For any other gangster, such a payoff would represent a significant loss of pride and esteem, and possibly serve as a source of lingering resentment. Not Nucky: paying off his enemies to avoid a pointless showdown isn't just expedient, it represents a principled understanding that his ability to control the situation is far more important than any fleeting loss of face he might experience as a result of essentially buying his way out of his troubles. He is consistently underrated because he refuses to play the macho posturing games. He understands that it's all about the long game, and the person who wins the game in the long stretch is the person who can keep his head while surrounded by half-domesticated animals straining at their leashes to rip one and another limb from limb.

Which is why this season's latest development, the possibility of a serious capital investment in southern Florida, carries such significance for Nucky. Although he initially hated the fact that he was essentially being guilt-tripped by an old acquaintance to invest in a dodgy real estate scheme, after some consideration he comes to realize that a move to Florida might be the smartest thing he could do. Last season he lost control of the situation in New Jersey: it was messy and it was expensive, and even though he was able to regain control it came at a significant loss, perhaps not in terms of face but in terms of his demolished domestic situation. He doesn't like being reminded of that loss, anymore than he likes the idea of being beholden to Chicago for his salvation. Florida represents a chance to build something new, so far from significant competing interests that he doesn't have to feel bound to any man save for himself. The question remains, which will presumably be a central concern for the remainder of the season, how much potential there truly is in the idea. He spent most of the third episode painstakingly outlining every possible obstacle to building a distribution hub in the middle of a sinking Florida swamp (soon to be developed, no less) - the fact that he changed his mind, and is suddenly willing to (literally) gamble his reputation on the idea, points to an earnest and sincere desire to be free of the encumbrances represented to him by New Jersey.

The show is at its best at its most cynical: this isn't a program to offer an optimistic view of humanity. The mobsters are terrible people, and watching them battle amongst themselves has an appeal similar to watching a gang of scorpions trapped in a bottle. We root for some of them because they seem less disgusting than the others. And we root for Nucky because he seems more interesting than any of his rivals. Although he is obsessed with control, it's not pathological. He's smart enough to know that no sane person would be in his business. He has a realistic understanding of what exactly is at stake with every choice he makes. And that perspective makes him not merely a unique figure in the history of mafia stories, but one of a handful of truly extraordinary characters in the history of television.

1 comment :

Dantharr said...

Wow, truly spot on take of that show. I'm a big fan too, but very few of my friends watch it.