Michael Shannon is a terrifying looking man. I’ve read interviews with him and he’s clearly a nice guy but, boy, is he one scary looking dude. His character has been crazy in the past but this episode’s freak out was one for the books. After putting up with the idiots at his office for a little too long, Van Alden (or should we call him George Mueller now?) smashes a hot iron into one of his fellow employee’s faces and trashes the room, throwing typewriters to the floor and paper into the wind. It was a satisfying moment because the humiliation his peers enjoyed putting him through was depressing to see and it also sees the return of Michael Shannon’s crazy face. What, pray tell, does his crazy face involve? Well, how about a pair of eyes that look like they’re about to pop out? Seriously, how those eyes didn’t end up falling onto the floor I’ll never know.
Van Alden is an interesting man, always excellently played by Shannon. He has a very strict sense of honor but he also has a healthy ego and he doesn’t like to be toyed with or made to look like a fool. After having to put up with idiocy for so long it’s not surprising that he’d lash out. He’s attempting to reassert his dominance in a way that’s absolutely destructive, although enjoyable to watch. The loss of his job drives his wife to start selling some of the liquor they’ve been making for the mob (if you’ll recall the mob helped Van Alden get rid of the body of the prohibition agent- this show is pretty complicated, I know). That can’t possibly end well as I don’t think the Chicago mob wants competition when it comes to selling illegal liquor and I predict Van Alden will be regretting this outburst even if it felt good in the moment.
Nucky has a similar outburst, attacking a friend of Billie Kent’s. His punishment doesn’t come in a linear fashion, though. In a way that reminded me a little of Breaking Bad, Nucky’s punishment comes from above, almost as an after thought, when Billie Kent is killed (presumably) by a massive explosion set by Gyp Rosetti, another man who is continuously trying to be the dominant figure in the room (or, perhaps, the only figure in the room by the time all is said and done).
Dominance has been a recurring theme throughout the show but it certainly plays a large role in this episode. We’ve never seen Nucky look so small, hesitant, and almost pathetic as he is when goes to see the Treasurery Secretary played by the always intimidating James Cromwell. If Nucky doesn’t work the Secretary right then he will be in quite a bit of trouble as the Attorney General is set to prosecute him. He’s able to get the Secretary’s interest, but not before the man dismisses him like Nucky is a joke and condescends to him during conversation. It’s not a role Nucky is used to being in and it’s this that drives him to attack Billie’s friend when he thinks the friend is acting in a similar manner to the Secretary. To be honest, even I was a little taken aback by Nucky’s reaction, thinking it out of character for him to snap over such a small thing but in hindsight it makes sense. Nucky is not a Tony Soprano gangster but he’s just as interested in being a dominant figure nonetheless. Nucky’s dominance is more about intellectual power than physical power but it’s a drive for power all the same. Whether you’re the imposing figure in the room thanks to physical strength or intellectual strength, you’re still the person everyone will be looking towards and Nucky wants to be that man.
No one tries to be more of a dominant figure than Gyp Rosetti and ever since the assassination attempt on him he’s been waiting to strike back and prove he’s the top dog. He finally does so at the end of this episode, blowing up Nucky’s favorite restaurant on the boardwalk and killing (again, presumably) Billie Kent in the explosion. It’s a huge development and the battle between Nucky and Gyp just got a hell of a lot more personal. Both want to be the Man but now both also want the other dead. It’s going to be a bloody end to the season, isn’t it? I think we’re going to see that the quest for dominance is even more destructive then we already thought.
In terms of quality this tells us that the best is yet to come. If you haven’t already, it’s time to hop onboard. Boardwalk Empire is about to get real.
Line of the Night: “No, ma’am. It’s an iron.” Michael Shannon is the master of oblivious humor. I understand he’s a popular theater actor, too, and I can only imagine he’s even more magnetic when you’re in a room with him.
Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.