Saturday, November 1, 2014

HBO Boardwalk Empire Series Finale

Evil, why have you engulfed so many hearts...Evil
Evil, why have you destroyed so many minds...
Leaving room for darkness, where lost dreams can hide..
Stevie Wonder-"Evil"
It’s nice to imagine that everyone is or would be outraged at sexual abuse of children and would do anything within the law or beyond it to prevent an adult from harming a child. We often chortle self-righteously at the imagined hell that a convicted child abuser suffers in prison. We'll say he (and men are the ones for whom most of our justified rage is held) is getting what he deserves. But that's just not reality. Adults often turn a blind eye to child abuse. Whether it's international cinema stars claiming that Roman Polanski really isn't that bad of a guy despite his rape of a thirteen year old girl, Hollywood or music industry producers and agents with casting couches for teen actors/actresses/musicians, R&B musicians like R. Kelly who hang around junior high school girls, Orthodox Jews in New York City trying to prevent other Jews from reporting Jewish pedophiles to non-Jews, men in Afghanistan with teen or even younger male concubines, Baptist Church choir directors with scores of teen male "assistants", the various Catholic Church scandals or the fact that so many different people in authority pretended not to know what Jerry Sandusky was up to at Penn State, there are plenty of people in all walks of life and among both genders who will ignore evil committed against children. Some will even assist. One moral cretin at Rutgers has the nerve to counsel us to find sympathy for pedophiles. The world is full of people who make peace with such evil. They can justify their decisions by pointing to a greater good (usually for themselves), claim that they could not commit career or literal suicide by taking a stand, whine that they don't really know what happened, claim the child was no virgin or provide any number of other excuses designed to kill a conscience. 
Atlantic City Treasurer/Sheriff/Mob Boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) was such a man. As one character poignantly said of him "You want to be good but you don't know how". Much of this season and finale was shown in flashbacks. Brought up impoverished in an abusive family atmosphere, Thompson had big plans for himself and his wife. Working in a corrupt political system he decided to play by the rules that existed. And rule number one was to give the boss what he wanted. The boss during Thompson's youth and rise to power was the Commodore Kaestner (John Conlee). And the Commodore liked to have sex with young girls, children really. The Commodore read people well. He skillfully played on Nucky's ambition, fervent need to belong and to have a paternal figure. Nucky became aware of the run of the mill corruption that the Commodore directed, the store shakedowns, real estate payoffs and murders. He also slowly learned of the Commodore's interest in young girls. At the Commodore's direction, Nucky paid off a rape victim's family. And finally, in an act that would cause his death many decades later, Nucky turned over a barely pubescent teen girl to the Commodore. This twelve year old girl, Gillian Darmody, was someone who could and should have been Nucky's adoptive daughter. This ugly betrayal gave Nucky the Sheriff's job. It laid the foundation for his transformation into a corrupt political boss and later mob boss. It also gave him a permanently negative outlook on life, one that could only be temporarily alleviated by romantic love (which he rarely had), sex (which by this final season had lost some of its luster) or the love of his nieces and nephews (which was complicated by his difficult relation with their father), his brother Eli (Shea Wigham). Tormented by sibling rivalry and the knowledge that Nucky really was smarter, Eli was involved twice in serious plots to kill Nucky and at least on one occasion tried to do so all by himself.

Over previous seasons we knew what Nucky had done but it wasn't emphasized. It was years in the past after all. The grown up Gillian (Gretchen Mol) was hardly a sympathetic figure. She committed incest with her son, made a living as both a high class and streetwalker prostitute, pimped out other women and girls just as she had been pimped out, became a junkie, murdered an innocent youth in order to get her son's inheritance, tried to murder Nucky and was often needlessly cruel to those she saw as damaged or rivals for her son's affections. Still, one could make a good argument that if she had been taught kindness at a young age rather than learning that her only value lay between her legs, then perhaps her life would have gone differently. Nucky could have made different choices when the young Gillian appeared in his life but he didn't. He never seemed to feel guilt either. He felt some annoyance, yes, occasionally a twinge of sympathy, but never guilt. He thinks that all anyone ever wants from him is money. It's about all he's willing to give, anyway. It's very difficult for someone like Nucky to love. He lacks children of his own. His wife is estranged. His girlfriends keep getting killed. Sympathy and love are not things which Nucky has in abundance.
So when visiting the desperate Gillian in an insane asylum, (out of options she had written Nucky for help) Nucky shows little care for or understanding of the fact that the sadistic and misogynistic doctor has performed a hysterectomy on Gillian, believing it will cure her "insanity". This was actually based on a real life Dr. Cotton who behaved pretty much as depicted. Gillian knew this was coming; she wrote to Nucky in a vain attempt to win freedom. But it was too late. Even it if hadn't been it's unclear as to whether Nucky would have helped. He couldn't even tell Gillian he was sorry for pimping her out or killing her son. So it wasn't too surprising when Nucky, after having been deposed as Atlantic City Boss by the burgeoning syndicate, found out the hard way that one of his previous employees, a child really, was Tommy Darmody, son of the man he had murdered and grandson of Gillian Darmody. The youngster murdered Nucky. From a karmic point of view this made sense but given that Gillian hadn't been around the orphaned Tommy very often while he was growing up it's not clear where or how he inherited his sense of grievance. So that ending was a bit sloppy as far as narrative goes. Was Tommy visiting Grandma Gillian in the loony bin?

 It is interesting also that while we thought this series was about 20s-30s gangsters and hoodlums what it was really about how one man sold his soul for power. He could never find peace until he found the absolution that everyone gets eventually, the peace of the grave. So it goes.

The criminal sellout with grand delusions of national and religious redemption, Dr. Valentin Narcisse ,(Jeffrey Wright) was murdered by syndicate hitters when he refused to come to terms with Luciano and Lansky. This was based on reality but it was actually Dutch Schultz and Owney Madden, who were the first syndicate bigshots to muscle in on Harlem rackets, not Luciano. This season felt a little rushed and the finale was somewhat anti-climatic. We know that Lanksy, Luciano and Siegel survived the wars of the thirties. We know that Luciano and Lansky had Siegel murdered in the forties. We know that Capone was convicted for income tax invasion and suffered the horrors of syphilis and Alcatraz before being released to die insane in Florida. We even know that a crusading special prosecutor, aided by the first black woman ADA in NYC convicted Luciano of pandering and extortion in the prostitution racket. Luciano got a 30-50 year sentence and was later deported to Italy. The finale didn't show any of this once again choosing to spend too much time on Nucky's estranged wife Margaret (Kelly MacDonald) and her forays into white collar crime with Joe Kennedy (Matt Letscher). I never liked Margaret so this storyline was wasted on me. The season's strongest goodbyes were delivered in the penultimate episode when both the Knight Templar Treasury agent turned mobster and cuckolded husband Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) and the fallen on hard times gangster Chalky White (Michael K. Williams) were suddenly murdered by their enemies. This finale just tied up some loose ends and made explicit a horror that had previously been subtext. I enjoyed the show but I don't think it ranks with HBO's greatest hits. I did appreciate the work that the actor Stephen Graham did as Capone. Michael K. Williams always impressed. And Gretchen Mol did a great job making a despicable character sympathetic.

Do you remember when we met? I'll never forget your smile. Jimmy sometimes, he has it. I look at him and I see you. That first night, how you plied me with wine... Why, I'd never felt such a sensation. We were downstairs. And I'd fallen asleep on the divan. You carried me to the bedroom, went to say good night to your guests. And I laid there in bed, dreaming of the waves. I'd been on the beach that day. Suddenly I felt a crushing feeling. I couldn't breathe. I opened my eyes to find you atop me. Your breath smelling of whiskey and tobacco. One hand covering my mouth and the other groping at me. Do you remember that? Still, sometimes when I sleep, it wakes me with a start. Do you remember that night?
-Gillian Darmody speaking to the Commodore
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