[Note: This post talks about plot points in a television show you might be meaning to watch!!!]
Boardwalk Empire may turn out to be the last child of the classical era of the “high-quality cable drama.” Like Mad Men, it is a descendant of The Sopranos with an eye for period authenticity. Unlike Mad Men, however, Boardwalk Empire is just coming into its own — the ending of the last season announced a new ambition and daring, and the current season seems on pace to fulfill that promise.
Nevertheless, there are limits to the creative possibilities in a “high-quality cable drama,” particularly one saddled with the genre conventions of a mafia story. For one, it seems that one cannot have a sympathetic anti-hero character without having either a real sicko or a real fuck-up to counterpose to him. In The Sopranos, one might think of characters like Ralphie in the former character or Uncle Junior in the latter — in Boardwalk Empire, the Commodore unites both into one potent combination. A sickly pederast, a pathetic braggart, he was clearly never worthy to attain Nucky’s throne. Similarly, Jimmy was just never ready for prime time and, in any case, the dude had sex with his own mother. Say what you will of Nucky… at least he’s not guilty of any major sex crimes.
The current season is giving us a less interesting variation on the theme, forcing Nucky to face down an impulsively violent opponent who resorts to vicious murder for what often appear to be totally hallucinated reasons. Perhaps the writers felt they couldn’t risk a more subtle “lesser evil” in an election year — Nucky’s humanitarian award solidifying the parallel with Obama, even as his blustering enemy with slicked-back black hair and ever-shifting moods and positions invites comparison with Romney.
What’s more interesting is the variation on the typical theme of the woman torn between her conscience and her complicity. This surely dramatizes the struggle of the principled leftist to go to bed with the “realistic” centrist Democrats, and it’s telling that at the end of last season, Mrs. Thompson refused the easy route of complicity. Instead, signalling that we would witness an Antigone-style drama in season 3 to match the replay of Oedipus in season 2, she opted to take her purely formal power seriously, signing over Nucky’s vast land holdings, about to be purchased at a huge premium to build a highway, over to the church. Her deviousness in the service of good continues as she attempts to create a women’s health clinic at the Catholic hospital she has forced Nucky to endow.
Who knows? Perhaps Mrs. Thompson will turn out to be the first truly redemptive sociopath in the history of the genre, the one who uses her power to produce social change. (This seems even more promising given that she has moved beyond her rather tedious “Catholic guilt” and begun to fight against the Church’s patriarchal biases, which lead the head of the hospital to prefer to omit pre-natal care altogether lest someone accidentally mention birth control.) There are probably limits to how far they can go in this direction, however — surely eventually Nucky’s control will be reasserted, her high ideals put in their place as everyone happily submits to the authority of the stone-cold killer who really deserves to rule.