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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Boardwalk Empire: “Erlkönig”

Illustration for article titled Boardwalk Empire: “Erlkönig”
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Oh, Eddie.

Despite the number of turning points in “Erlkönig,” this episode belonged to Eddie Kessler: it begins and ends in his empty room, the poem from which Agent Knox quotes, the moment Eddie cracks and betrays Nucky at last, gives the episode its title, and the awful internal struggle Eddie undergoes in the meantime echoes, hollow, against the decisions made by people who wield real power and think far less about it. There’s a reason Eddie’s room has birds in cages; it’s no surprise that he jumped.

Often on the edges of the high-stakes beats in this show, Eddie has spent four seasons as Nucky’s helpmeet and occasional Greek chorus; we knew he was doomed the moment he asked for a piece of the action, but his goodbye is as full of dread as he deserves. He spends his scenes this week in a derelict mockery of a sitting room (one of many instances this week of a semblance of manners smoothed over nasty secrets), with an air of rotting aristocracy to the furniture and beautiful windows papered over to hide what’s going on, and Agent Knox as monstrous host, determined to break Nucky’s weakest link. He’s well-armed for the job: When deprivation and threats get them nowhere, he moves seamlessly to loyalty. (“You pride yourself on that.” “I strive,” Eddie replies, unaware of the trap springing.)

But as it turns out, the reason Eddie is as painfully alone in the States as he is is because of a lapse in that loyalty: He left a department-store position with a pile of store money and a mistress from the makeup counter. Though it barely registers on the spectrum of ethically-questionable things we’ve seen, it’s the thin end of the wedge for him. Because of the shame this brought, Eddie’s younger son has changed his name, Knox reveals; the Kessler bloodline will die out. What’s the point of holding back? And while bloodlines are everywhere this episode, Eddie is uniquely helpless to do anything about his.

When Eddie asked for increased responsibility, it was from a mix of devotion to Nucky and a flash, after years, of personal pride. The only domestic relationship in Nucky’s life that never gave him any friction, Eddie demanded to be given his rightful place. The problem that Nucky should have anticipated and didn’t—awarding Eddie his new assignments with the particular half-indulgent peevishness he saves for his family circle—is that Eddie would face the same dangers that had felled every other right-hand man of Nucky’s. Having been so long and so quietly in Nucky’s periphery, he’s become invisible; Nucky never thinks to look for him, because it never occurs to him Eddie would be in danger. Even face-to-face with an ashen Eddie on his return, carnation half-beaten from his buttonhole, Nucky’s only response to his absence is, “I shouldn’t have to worry about that, you understand? It’s a responsibility that you asked for.”

And Eddie, invisible even to himself, doesn’t disagree. Alone and with nothing but his own exhausted internal resources, he recoils at the threats, real and imagined, behind the last lines of “Erlkönig,” a poem fittingly about family grief and the loss of a son, and gives the agents at last what they asked for (anything, it didn’t matter, the information meant nothing next to the giving in), sobbing that “it was what Nucky told me to do.” Knowing he’s broken, and too proud to explain to Nucky that he had, he instead plays the valet one last time and makes something troublesome vanish, having matched Nucky’s socks one last time, so Nucky needn’t worry.


But the most haunting aspect of Eddie’s final arc is how sharply it throws into relief how little any character this week struggled with loyalty to anyone who isn’t bound by blood. (“Would he do the same for you?” Knox asks Eddie about Nucky’s loyalty, and we see that, heartbreakingly, Eddie already knows he wouldn’t.) Everywhere we look, we see the placement of people into the only two categories that matter: Family and Expendable.

And this week, the one who got to call in that favor from Nucky was young William Thompson, who needs to sidestep a manslaughter charge for Henry’s death, and soon realizes he doesn’t care how it happens.


After four seasons, those who surround Nucky tend to know how he operates and to be aware that for all his power, he has foibles. Nucky's conversation with Willy in this episode, explaining how he's going to make Henry's death vanish from Willy's life, is the first time in a while that we've seen Nucky the way people who need him see him: He’s straight-up bathed in a shaft of light. But by now, the camera knows we know better. He takes up only the first third of the frame, leaving the other two empty, in the half-shadowed way of most of Nucky’s secrets. “I need to know what’s true,” he says, “so we can agree on the rest of your story,” and because this is an episode about bloodlines, William is a Thompson, and he knows how to answer.

This on-a-dime interrogation/apprenticeship is tightly and wonderfully done. Ben Rosenfield has been a supporting player so far even in his own storyline, but he emerges in fine form as, under Nucky’s steady hand, he shakes off any guilt about Henry’s death or any qualms about framing his roommate Clayton for the poisoning. On his way out, Nucky asks William to show what kind of man he’ll be, but it’s an afterthought: Willy underwent his real matriculation the moment he told Nucky in one fell swoop the reason Henry died, and the reason he refuses to take the fall: “He thought he was better than me. But he wasn’t.”


Gillian, who has survived her life’s many atrocities by living by exactly that mantra, spends this episode focused on her grandson and on heroin, and she’s all out of heroin. “You reach a point in life, and you realize it’s what you leave behind that matters,” she explains to the judge in charge of her case, but though it’s right in keeping with the bone-breaking grip on family, her immediate offer of sexual favors doesn’t work in her favor, and trying to kidnap Tommy while high works even more poorly than that. Julia, who apparently lurks in the halls of the school waiting for Gillian to try something, appears with teachers in tow to prevent it. “This isn’t proper,” Gillian clips out, a chilling line from a woman who, having been stripped of everything else, is clinging with bloody fingernails to the adopted gentility that’s so far been both her social passport and her greatest weapon.

She wakes up gently under a coverlet like a princess in a fairy tale; Roy Phillips has appeared like the prince, strangely shadowed and too gentle to be trusted, to tend to her and suggest the sort of paternal benefactor self-election that must have sounded like the Commodore, once. “I’ve done the most awful things,” she begins, and he lays his hand on her forehead, either to absolve her or push her still lower. (The framing tells us even when the dialogue doesn’t. He’s not family; he doesn’t mean well.)


Which leaves us with Van Alden, who spends this episode as nobody’s family.

His home life is fractious (his children and his wife aren’t even looking at him, and his unfinished house gets unflinching daylight), and he’s been summoned from his half-a-home to campaign for a cause he doesn't believe in, alongside the family he likes least of all. Frank Capone, even-keeled patriarch, and Al Capone, cocaine hound and violent child, are out to get the votes on Election Day, and Van Alden gets to help! This supremely awkward dynamic has so far turned Van Alden’s life into a black comedy, with Stephen Graham fantastic as the volatile gangster and Michael Shannon shining in his sublime discomfort, giving rapid-fire sad-trombone answers to Al’s rapid-fire questions. But Al’s out for a win today. “You got a little wild streak,” he tells Van Alden, with the conviction of someone who reads minds. (I can’t remember Van Alden ever slipping under Capone’s eye—participating, but never reveling—which is an interesting beat to give a guy who’s going to have to step into Frank’s tactician shoes in a hurry.)


When he’s given control of the team of thugs at the factory, there’s an effortless glimpse of the Van Alden of old: In charge at last, he blossoms just for a moment into the leader he was. The problem is, he was a suspect leader the first time around, and the cocaine Al foisted on him doesn’t help his temper (he throws the first punch). His ability to anticipate the odds is undiminished, and when things descend into a melee, he’s the first to call things how they are. “We need those reinforcements or we need to leave,” he says, bravely interrupting two arguing Capones. But Al would rather beat dozens to death than ever admit defeat, and the fight is on.

Van Alden’s time in Chicago has been occasionally illuminating, but Van Alden has been a man without purpose in his time there, dragged every way and hating it all. His scowl is a work of art, but aside from unfastening a case of irons at the right moment, he’s been a man waiting for a cause, and his only real electricity has been his antipathy towards Al. He finds a purpose here; watching Al Capone crawling through the riot, he anticipates the odds, and slowly, thoughtfully, raises his gun.


When Frank sees him, we know Van Alden’s doomed; when the cops open fire and Frank goes down in a hail of bullets, we see Van Alden realize that in the vacuum, Capone will be looking to him (recognition settling on him like a shroud). Family is gone; blood must be answered. And when Capone turns to Van Alden, we see the heaviness of fate settling on him even before Al opens his mouth with a wrenching, chilling, “Every fucking thing that crawls is gonna pay.”

Stray observations:

  • The fallout from Eddie’s death is hard to extrapolate, which is interesting in itself given how other plots this week unfolded with the predetermined air of Greek tragedies. Will Nucky be distraught? Will he seek vengeance? Is this the moment Agent Knox makes his first real enemy? Or will Eddie, in a final slight, melt away from Nucky’s life next to things that Really Matter?
  • Light this week is a vicious thing: It blesses Nucky Thompson; Roy Phillips gets a mask of it across his eyes as he deems himself Gillian’s benefactor; Van Alden’s face is sliced in half by it as he accepts his mission from Capone; it intrudes on Eddie’s interrogation.
  • It’s hard not to mark the similarity between Nucky’s “none of that matters” scene with Willy and the rightfully famous “It will shock you how much it never happened” scene between Don and Peggy in season two of Mad Men; mentor to apprentice, in a time of terrible strife. The biggest difference between them is that, for once, Don is being less selfish than someone else. His advice to Peggy was to a large degree for Peggy’s benefit; when Nucky tells William, “The rage you feel, it’s a gift. Use it. But don’t let anyone see it,” he’s only describing himself.
  • Also interesting: In an episode rife with family ties, Nucky talks a little about his youth; he mentions his first wife, Mabel, and the Commodore, both bloodless family ties he made for himself.
  • Speaking of which: still no Margaret.
  • No Richard, either, in this episode or the last one; maybe he’s walking back from Wisconsin.
  • Michael Shannon’s comedy is as grim and dry as it comes. When asked, “What’s happening here,” he makes a monologue of, “A numerically disadvantaged situation.”
  • Most wrenching beat of the episode might be the ADA telling Nucky: “Someone’s got to answer for this. We just don’t have any choice.” Cut to Eddie.