Boardwalk Empire is a horror program.
Now, granted, there are no obvious supernatural figures in the show. We don’t see any monsters crawling out of the sewers and no shape-shifting creatures sneak through people’s windows. Nevertheless, it remains, in many ways, a horror program. One of our main characters, Richard Harrow (who was sadly absent tonight), is practically a ghost himself. At the end of last season he admitted that in some respect he is still back in Europe, fighting in World War I. Not to mention that half of his face is literally gone. Then this week we have Eli Thompson, Nucky’s brother, fresh out of prison, and he looks like half the man he was: he’s gaunt, filmed in a way that makes him look shorter, and he’s not nearly as powerful since he’s been stripped of both his legal (sheriff) and illegal (Nucky’s enforcer) positions. Finally, there’s Nucky himself, who is haunted by another ghost- Jimmy Darmody, and is also a bit checked out, espcially when compared to how in control he appeared last week. No doubt the events of the past two years are weighing on him, but he also has a relationship with a new woman, Billie, and instead of the relationship bringing him out of his shell, it seems he has only gone deeper inside of it, as if sensing that this relationship will end up hurting him.
The atmosphere of the show leads to the horror vibe as well. As elaborate and beautiful as the costumes and sets are, there’s no scene that doesn’t have a hidden menace. When Margaret goes to the hospital, she steps into a brightly lit room with white walls, white sheets, and white robed nuns. Yet the scene is eerie nonetheless as it revolves around a woman who has recently miscarried thanks to inaction on the hospital’s behalf. Another perfect example is Nucky’s dinner with Billie Kent and her friend. While they are there to party, they are in a speakeasy- an illegal bar- and the room is darkly lit, almost as if the show is reminding us that this whole world could come crashing down at any moment.
And that’s rather appropriate, isn’t it? After all, the 1920s does end with a crash. The fun stops and it stops suddenly and shockingly in the last years of the 1920s. In one respect, it’d be dishonest to have a story take place in the roaring 20s and not have it overshadowed by a sense of dread, a sense that the end of times is near.
But there is a monster in this episode, isn’t there? A human monster. We have some immoral people, like Nucky, Owen Slater, and Arnold Rothstein (no episode can have too much of Rothstein) but we also have a beast: Gyp Rossetti. Actor Bobby Carravale is bringing a nasty, nasty presence to the show and his character walked through this episode like an unstable atomic bomb. Just like the other creepier aspects of this episode, he doesn’t end up exploding, turning everything into dust, but we get the impression that soon that will happen. And, damn, I can’t wait.
I can imagine that a number of viewers watched tonight’s episode and thought it was a little too slow. I agree in some respects- Chalky White’s story wasn’t integrated particularly well and, although played spectacularly by Michael Kenneth Williams, he’s never been a big player in the past so I wasn’t too invested in him or his family’s story. Still, I didn’t grow impatient because the eerie atmosphere kept me on edge and while I surmised that nothing big would go down, this being only the second episode of the season, I couldn’t help but feel like I might be wrong, that a greater terror was just around the corner. In that respect, Boardwalk Empire reminds me of another classic: The Sopranos (Boardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter comes from The Sopranos’ writing staff). The Sopranos, which I could write about for years without running out of things to say, could be slow and have few events occur in episodes yet there was a similar sense of terror lurking just beneath the surface. It’s much like life in that way. We go through our days in a bit of a trance, concentrating on what comes next but there are always these little worries in the back of ours mind, worries about our friends, our lovers, our rivals, ourselves, and our work. If one of these worries were to come into form then our lives might go into disarray in the blink of an eye so at no point are we not on our toes.
Because the moment we stop worrying is the moment Gyp Rosetti comes out to remind us, “Everybody’s got a gun!” Or so we fear.
Line of the night: “I’ve got a gun. He’s got a gun. Everybody’s got a gun!”
Donald McCarthy is a freelance writer, fiction writer, and SAT instructor. He lives outside New York City. Unlike most, he’s not fond of the beach.