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Boardwalk Empire: “The Age Of Reason”

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After two weeks of explosive action and bloodletting, Boardwalk Empire retreated to a more contemplative, conceptual place for this week’s “The Age Of Reason,” and I have to admit that while I admired what this episode had to offer in terms of drawing parallels between characters and examining their respective senses of guilt and self-justification, I did miss some of the swift kicks the show has been delivering of late. Or maybe I was just disappointed once I realized that a good chunk of “The Age Of Reason” was going to be about Lucy and Van Alden. The episode was in a hole from the start.

Not that the Lucy and Van Alden scenes were useless, by any means. This week, Lucy finally gave birth, alone in her apartment, with no help from Van Alden, who was otherwise occupied at the hospital with the mortally wounded Agent Clarkson. This is huge for Boardwalk Empire’s overall story, because among other things, Van Alden’s wife Rose learned about Lucy and the baby this week, which is bound to have repercussions (beyond the bite marks Rose leaves on her husband’s arm when he tries to restrain her). The Van Alden business is also essential to this episode’s study of shame and its relationship to faith. Van Alden claims to be at the hospital praying for his colleague, and even gets offended when he says that Clarkson “loves the lord” and his boss jokes that it’s “a pretty one-sided relationship.” But the truth is that Van Alden sticks around as long as he does because Clarkson rouses from unconsciousness long enough to look him in the eye and say, “I see you. I know. What you did.” And Van Alden wants to be in the room if Clarkson has a follow-up statement to make, so he can defend himself if need be.


The unexpected accusation—coupled with the ominously flickering light that Van Alden sees in the hospital corridor—drives our Nelson to call Rose and tell her that he’s sinned and isn’t fit to carry his badge, which pushes Rose to head up to Atlantic City, where she meets Lucy and her newborn. The irony here is that Clarkson has been saying “I know what you did” to everybody in the hospital, usually accompanied by, “You ate the pie. It’s not fair. I’ll tell Ma.” This is significant thematically, given what happens elsewhere in this episode. If Van Alden just keeps his mouth shut—if his guilty feelings don’t drive him to a kind of confession—then he likely escapes the marital trouble in which he now finds himself.

I acknowledge that this is a smart piece of writing from the credited Bathsheba Doran. But because Lucy, Van Alden, and even Rose are all fairly wooden characters—either by design or by performance—their symbolic purpose isn’t connected to any strong emotional response for me. They’re more important for how they fit into what “The Age Of Reason” has to say about how seriously some people take religion.

But I’ll get back to that later, because honestly, I was more impressed by a more subtle linkage made in “The Age Of Reason,” having to do with two stories of betrayal.

The first involves Jimmy Darmody. Jimmy has a few turns of good fortune this week. First, he has a sit-down with Leander Whitlock (played by Dominic Chiansese, finally becoming more of a presence this season), who cites Alexander The Great to the young wannabe, and then tells him the story of how Nucky wrested control of the city from the hot-headed, imprudent Commodore. Nucky refashioned an operation built on blind fealty and wrath into “a machine that makes everyone pay.” Whitlock’s no friend of Nucky’s, but he admires the man’s vision and skill.


Jimmy gets to see the difference between the old ways and the new ways firsthand after he has his second turn of good fortune: coincidentally walking by with Angela when a meeting between Nucky, Rothstein, Chalky, and Waxey Gordon breaks up and spills out onto the boardwalk. Jimmy tells Manny The Butcher in Philly that a deal has been struck behind his back, involving one of his closest associates, Herman. Manny calls Jimmy down to his shop, where he gives a little speech about how he never wanted to be a butcher—“people see the apron, they make assumptions”—but that his skill does come in handy, as when he hogties and hangs Herman upside-down in a meat-locker. The two men get Herman to reveal the details  of the liquor transport, and then Manny asks Jimmy to finish Herman off. Manny would do it himself, but killing injured game isn’t kosher. “We all gotta live by rules,” he says, echoing this episode’s theme of religious devotion.

Jimmy’s third piece of luck is, literally, Lucky. Jimmy and Richard and Manny set up to hijack Nucky’s liquor shipment and slaughter the men doing the transporting. But then Jimmy finds out that Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky are the muscle on the job, and of course Jimmy already has a deal in the works with those guys to traffic heroin through AC. Lansky proposes that they work out a deal so that they can all make money under the noses of the old bosses. Jimmy gets Manny to go along by recalling Whitlock’s counsel that “not every insult requires a response,” and telling Manny, “Can’t kill everyone. Not good business.”


This story of betrayal—Herman crossing a butcher and getting slashed—shows the brutal side of this business, and demonstrates how Jimmy is learning by degrees to elevate it from an “if you disrespect me, I’ll scalp you in your den” kind of system, while Nucky’s story in this episode shows that even when criminality goes semi-legitimate, it can still be some murky, nasty shit.

As “The Age Of Reason” begins, it looks as though Nucky’s back in the groove. The Attorney General has sent the green-shoe-sporting youngster Charles Thorogood—the kind of man who says things like, “It was nifty I tell ya!”—to ask that Nucky’s vote-rigging case be declared a federal one, at which point it’ll be buried under a pile of paperwork and forgotten. In return, Nucky asks Charles what he can do for him. “Well, I’m a red blooded American boy,” Charles says suggestively. When Nucky asks if he’d like some apple pie, Charles answers, “Cherry’s more my style. A la mode if you catch my meaning.” (Nucky does not. But Eddie can take care of it.)


The problem is that there are people in Washington in D.C. who aren’t so willing to see Nucky skate. One of those politicians, Senator Walter Edge from Jersey, comes to Harry Daugherty and threatens to convene a subcommittee to investigate Daugherty’s graft-a-riffic new “Bureau Of Veterans Affairs” unless the Nucky prosecution becomes serious again. To protect the nationwide scam, Harry’s going to have to sacrifice the localized scam, which means Nucky’s on his own again. (And Charles Thorogood is out on his bare ass. Mid-thrust, even.)

What I’ve grown to like about Nucky is his profound annoyance with how everyone around him seems so eager to screw up a good deal. If this were Survivor, Nucky would be the castaway who sets up a strong, seemingly secure alliance on the first day and then watches in disbelief as it deteriorates into blindsides and personal attacks after the merge. Some Boardwalk Empire nay-sayers have seen Nucky—and in particular Steve Buscemi’s portrayal of Nucky—as one of the show’s biggest weaknesses, since he’s not an overpowering Tony Soprano/Vic Mackey/Al Swearengen type. Me, I’ve come to see this as the character’s strength. He looks beatable, and yet he prevails. It makes me think about how batters used to describe what it was like to play against the Atlanta Braves’ aces Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. These crafty, nebbishy dudes would work the corners and force batters (and umpires) to expand their strike zones, and in a flash, the game would be over, after two frustrating hours of ground-outs. In the early going, I wasn’t so sure that Nucky really knew what he was doing. Now I think he does. He’s not brilliant, but he knows how to work the corners.


Which brings us back around to the central theme of “The Age Of Reason.” The title comes from what Margaret’s priest Father Brennan says to her son Teddy as the boy prepares to make his first confession. After the age of seven, God judges us, the priest explains, because by then we should know right from wrong. So Teddy will need to give a thorough accounting of his sins—as will Margaret, to set a good example. This worries Margaret, who hasn’t been to confession in a while and who has made some questionable choices in the interim. For example, as everyone in town knows—including Father Brennan—she’s sharing a home and a bed with a man to whom she’s not married, and that man is a notorious sin-broker. The priest fully expects Margaret to own up to all this. Instead, she’s feeling guilty about something else: her growing lusty feelings toward Owen Sleater, who’s sussed out that attraction and has begun toying with it. So Margaret tells Father Brennan about that.

Nucky, on the other hand, has a different attitude toward religion. He’s Catholic in terms of cultural identity, but not so much in terms of actual belief. While Father Brennan is instructing Teddy, an impatient Nucky tries to bring the meeting to an end, saying, “I’m pretty confident that between the three of us, we can save his soul.” When Margaret mentions that she has to confess, Nucky scoffs that, “Every shoe salesman thinks you need a new pair of boots.” But then he realizes what Margaret might say to God—and Father Brennan—and he nervously asks, “How Catholic are you?”


Not to worry, Nucky. Margaret’s learned a few things during her time with you. When going up before the judge, one way to avoid serious prosecution is to plead to a lesser charge.

Stray observations:

  • When Angela Darmody notes the “wireless radio exhibition” and says there’s “music everywhere suddenly,” I wonder if that’s the Boardwalk Empire producers’ way of justifying the show’s soundtrack. It’s diegetic!
  • After watching Nucky grind away dutifully on top of Margaret, I think we now know why she doesn’t recognize what an orgasm sounds like.
  • I liked the little moment where Nucky slips a bigger bill into Teddy’s new Bible. It’s his way of proving he’s not as cheap as everyone says he is, and it’s his way of showing what he really values.
  • I watched this episode on my laptop—via screener—while my wife watched something else, and after I finished, Donna asked what made me laugh out loud. The answer? The George Remus scene. Two winners in there: First, Remus complaining again about Nucky’s nickel-and-diming, and insisting that he’d never charge any of his business partners if they came to Cincinnati, to which Nucky snaps, “Why the fuck would anyone ever go to Cincinnati?” Second, when Remus says, “Remus finds you petty and resentful,” and Nucky answers, “Well, Remus can go fuck himself.”

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