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The Tin Woodsman: Storming The Emerald City on Boardwalk Empire

I find it depressing that some viewers are less than enchanted with HBO's soaring period drama Boardwalk Empire, which once again turned out a remarkable installment ("The Emerald City"), written by Lawrence Konner and directed by Simon Cellan Jones, this time about truth, consequences, and the lies we all tell ourselves.

Every fairy tale, after all, has to come to an end, even for Margaret Schroeder.

The parallels between Dorothy's visit to Oz within L. Frank Baum's novel, Margaret's discovery of her own artifice, and Richard Harrow's dream brought the lesson right out into the light. We can all dream and our dreams can be filled with beauty but eventually we all come crashing back down to reality, whether that be Richard's realization that he is once again disfigured (poor Emily screaming bloody murder) or Margaret catching sight of herself in a mirror. What we see looking back at us isn't what we expected.

Whether she chooses to admit it or not, Margaret seems deeply haunted by Van Alden's visit to her, particularly given his use of his totemic photograph of a young Margaret arriving at Ellis Island and his insistence that he's trying to save her from the eternal fires of hell.

What Nelson claims to want is Margaret's repentance, but he claims to be able to see into her soul, something even Margaret can't do these days. The woman staring back at her in the mirror is not the woman she once was. She may have finally won the right to vote (America catching up, finally, with Ireland) but her newfound liberty is jeopardized by the fact that she allows herself to be bought by the system, pronouncing Bader the next mayor of Atlantic City and urging the League of Women Voters to support him in the election amid a glittering speech that makes full use of Bader's construction experience as a metaphor for being The Great Builder.

Margaret turns out to be a consummate public speaker, the rare individual who manages to sound both logical and as though they are speaking from the heart, but it's Margaret's doom that she knows what she is doing is wrong... and still does it in order to keep her family secure by keeping Nucky Thompson in power.

Has she sold her soul for a fancy apartment and luxurious clothes? What happened to that girl from County Kerry who arrived in America with a dream of a better life? In asking her own personal Wizard for what she desired most, did she lose a part of herself in the bargain?

I thought that all of the scenes between Kelly Macdonald's Margaret and Jack Huston's Richard Harrow were fantastically well played this week, with Margaret's terror at the sight of Richard's mask transforming itself into something more tender, seeing her children's fear as an opportunity to overcome her own. Seeing Margaret in her own green-tinted living room as she read to her children of Baum's Emerald City, she transforms Richard into something heroic rather than tragic, rendering the war hero as something akin to the Tin Woodsman, a noble soul cursed with an affliction whose heart still beats beneath the armor.

Richard's interest in Margaret's story and his upset at frightening the children were beautifully enacted as he wins over the children with his usurping of the Tin Man's mythology, his mask nothing more than a piece of tin, this visitor in the household a gift from Oz. In those moments, Richard is far more than just the scarred man he forgets himself to be; he's a genuine fairytale artifact. His dream of Odette, shattered by her ear-piercing screams, show us the Richard Harrow that he himself sees: a whole man, his smile stretching from ear to ear, rather than the Bogeyman that little Emily sees on her sofa.

But what does Margaret see when she looks in the mirror? It's not the well-heeled lady that she's become or even the concubine that she knows herself to be. She sees a patsy, a dupe, a woman pressed into Nucky Thompson's service. It was one thing when he persuaded her to speak on Bader's behalf, telling her of the good she would be doing for the city, for him, and for her family, but it's another when Nucky laughs with his cronies during Bader's speech... or when he blatantly lies to her upon returning home late. By allowing Nucky to tell his lie--that he was working late on campaign strategy--she perpetuates the cycle of cronyism, contributing to the graft that keeps Nucky and his ilk in power.

What she sees in her reflection is an inversion of everything she once believed it.

Al Capone, meanwhile, learns what it means to be a man: to put away childish things and to accept responsibility for one's actions. Al has stood with one foot in adolescence and the other in adulthood for far too long; he doesn't wear a yarmulke or even a hat in the temple, but rather "the cap of a boy," a sign of his immaturity. He reverses his later, turning up at the Four Deuces with a man's hat as well as an apology for Torrio. But are we seeing a man aware of consequences now? Or just a more motivated Capone? After all, we all know how this story--certainly no fairy tale--ends.

For Angela and her "kissing friend" Mary, they buy into their own fairy tale, seeing Paris as nothing less than their own Emerald City, a place of opulence and freedom where they can escape to. But is the story that Mary spins a possible future or is it nothing more than a fragile dream that will never be? Jimmy's attack of Robert--he threw the photographer through a window and assaulted him viciously right on the boardwalk--might be a sign from above that Angela needs to run before he turns his anger on her. (And he was just winning her over again.) But he fails to see the truth: that Angela's friend isn't Robert, but Mary. He's blinded by his own expectations, even as he lies to the group surrounding them that Angela is his "wife."

As for Chalky, he can't let the D'Alessios get away with lynching his employee. While Nucky's plan goes off with nary a hitch, Matteo D'Alessio lets slip that he knows that Chalky drives a Packard, which in turn leads Chalky to spin around with a gun in each hand. (Kudos once again to Michael Kenneth Williams for being just eternally bad-ass, even in a well-cut dandy's suit. No one messes with Chalky.)

Which debt then is more important? That of money or of blood? Chalky leans towards the latter and they execute two of the D'Alessio brothers, sending Lansky back to Arnold Rothstein with a message about what he saw that night at Chalky's. While Chalky's vengeance may have been sated, it's likely just the start of Rothstein's campaign against Nucky.

Finally, there was Nelson Van Alden, who succumbed to his vices amid mounting frustration with the case against Nucky Thompson and his own attraction to Margaret, by wandering into a speakeasy and drinking two whiskeys... and then, upon seeing Lucy, ends up having his way with her before sobbing, his raw and scarred back a testament to his own brand of self-torture. What is it that Nelson sees when he looks in the mirror? A man of god and government? Or a sinner condemned to hell?

Only time will tell.

Next week on Boardwalk Empire ("Paris Green"), Nucky shakes up the status quo; Jimmy deals with some tricky family issues; Van Alden addresses Agent Sebso’s “temptations.”


Lisa said…
I've cooled a bit on the series, but have decided to catch up after Thanksgiving and do a marathon viewing. Not sure if it's the gangster life that isn't working for me, but the show is beautiful and I love the time period setting, and it's definitely smart. So why don't I love it? I haven't given up, and thanks for this great write-up which has reinforced my decision to keep watching!
Hadley said…
The character of Richard Harrow is fascinating. I'm so happy that they kept him on as a character (rather than just as a sad tale for a single episode). Those scenes with Margaret and the children were heartbreaking.
Antproof said…
While I find it dispiriting that this series hasn't caught on in a larger fashion I must say that I'm not surprised. Although I love the large cast of badasses and losers I think that for many people the absence of any virtuous and upright character is too one-sided. According to the ethos of the show everyone is corrupt, from the President on down. I know we're supposed to sympathize with Margaret and the choices she's been forced to make but all of this still portrays a bleak and violent world. Watching it is like watching a train wreck over and over again.

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