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Boardwalk Empire - "Sunday Best," or Let's Yell At God! by Donald McCarthy

There’ve been a number of shows that deal with soldiers coming back from war but Boardwalk Empire is the only one that I can think of that addresses how veterans feel years afterwards and it does it in a way that’s not melodramatic. We see Richard Harrow is an extremely scarred man, both literally and figuratively, but he’s not throwing screaming fits all the time so the show can throw in our face that it’s addressing PTSD (choose any network drama that attempts this plotline and you’ll see a bunch of overly dramatic bullshit). I think it works a lot better this way because it shows us how war affects the everyday life of veterans, how war still colors their actions even when they don’t fully realize it. In last season’s finale Richard Harrow said to fellow veteran Jimmy Darmody, “We’re still there, aren’t we?” which was one of the most heartbreaking moments of the show.

In this episode, probably the best episode the show has done, Richard Harrow’s past is on full display but what’s interesting is that, after showing how, well, fucked up he is, the writers are giving him a chance to have some success in life. Even better is that Richard sees this, too. His life is by no means heading for the stars but there’s a chance at contentment now, something I did not think he’d find at the start of the season. Perhaps it’s seeing an older veteran, Paul Sagorksy, who is bitter and drunk that makes Richard take a shot and ask Sargosky’s daughter to join him for a walk (along with Jimmy’s adorable six year old son).

A while back I read an interesting article, I wish I could find it now, that said a fair number of people with Richard Harrow’s injuries actually existed. There were men who came back from World War I with parts of their face missing who had to wear a mask out in public. I’m glad Boardwalk Empire is exploring this historical tragedy and doing it in a respectable way. It could easily make Richard into a pathetic character in an attempt to say WAR IS BAD but it has instead made him a fully fleshed out character which drives home the WAR IS BAD theme in a way that has emotional resonance. I feel for Richard and hate what he was forced to go through because he’s such a well realized character who is brilliantly written and brilliantly acted (by Jack Huston- Angelica Huston’s son).

The post-World War I atmosphere is part of what makes the 1920s such a rich era to explore. We have the aftereffects of what was so far the worst war in history and just in the distance is the Great Depression although hints of it are already cropping up. The roaring twenties were not nearly as joyous as is often represented and I’m glad that Boardwalk Empire shows the decade as the flawed, and often dangerous, time that it was.

There’s so much more that goes on in this episode that I’m be remiss to neglect any of it but I want to hit on two instances especially. The aftereffects of last season’s civil war in Atlantic City are felt when Nucky and Eli, the latter of whom is consistently one of the show’s best characters and much of the credit goes to actor Shea Whigham. The love/hate relationship between Nucky and Eli has long been one of the series’ strengths and this episode is no different. We’ve seen Eli be a thug, or even a murderer, in the past but in Sunday’s Best we see him as a family man, a family man that is much more loyal to his wife than Nucky is to his. I genuinely felt for Eli and wanted Nucky to forgive him even though Eli has no right to expect that forgiveness after he took sides against Nucky last year. While the stakes between the two brothers are higher than most families’, there’s no mistaking the familiar tension and anger that’s beneath the surface, always threatening to crop up. These guys might be involved in one of the biggest bootlegging operations in the United States but there family dynamics are not all that different from our own. There’s a sense that no matter who you are and where you come from you’re always going to have a tumultuous time dealing with certain parts of your family as you try to figure out if the love outweighs the hate.

Of course, there’s also another family member you may well feel a fair bit of love and hate for- your spouse. Nucky and Margaret see very different sides of each other and the show hints at a reconciliation between the two. Then we get the devastating last scene. Late at night, Nucky offers to teach Margaret how to juggle. Margaret replies with, “It’s too late. It’s too late.”

Line of the Week: I usually go for a funny line, and there were quite a few, but I think Margaret’s “It’s too late” steals the show.

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