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The Vanishing Act: Crimes and Misdemeanors on Boardwalk Empire

"You're so wicked." - Robert

The sins of the past were on everyone's mind this week as tensions came to a head in every corner of the Emerald City: the tenuous relationship between Nucky and Margaret seemed to shatter like her looking glass; the uneasy past between Gillian and the Commodore was dragged out into the light; and Angela made a difficult decision, only to have her choice explode in her face.

And then there was that baptism scene...

This week's penultimate episode of Boardwalk Empire ("Paris Green"), written by Howard Korder and directed by Allen Coulter, gave us several displays of sleight-of-hand, intricate magic tricks designed to distract, to incapacitate, or simply to kill outright, an extravagant and riveting installment that pulled back the curtains to reveal the true face of Oz himself.

Atlantic City exists because of the power structure that the Commodore built and Nucky Thomson finessed in his inimitable style. But the walls are closing in on Nucky from every direction. Even his mentor has seemingly turned against him, while Margaret reveals that she is not willing to stop asking probing questions about Nucky's work and Eli has become too much of a loose cannon. (Or is it the other way around?)

But it was the escape act of Houdini's brother Hardeen which gave this week's episode its driving motif, a magic trick of the highest order that set up a series of revelatory actions from the series' cast of characters, giving us a sequence of vanishing acts, soothsayers, and escape artists.

It seems that everyone in Atlantic City is running some kind of racket, from Margaret's unspoken validation of Nucky's actions by accepting his numerous acts of kindness and hospitality, to the Ponzi scheme that Annabelle's Harry has fallen prey to. Gillian is revealed to be poisoning the Commodore in a bid for his fortune, revealing that he is Jimmy's father and that she conceived him when she was just thirteen years old, a flower procured by Nucky for his mentor's pleasure.

But there's one act of trickery and deception that's all the more heartbreaking: after Angela decides to flee to Paris with Mary, she leaves Jimmy a note explaining all... only to discover that Mary and Robert have used her money to leave Atlantic City, playing her for a fool. Jimmy's coldness towards her and his haunting words towards their son--that it will soon be just the two boys, up all hours--add another layer of anguish to the proceedings.

Not only has Angela had her heart broken and her money stolen, but she's soon to lose her child as well. Her vanishing act, concocted in the heat of the moment, wasn't hers at all. It was a bit of legerdemain designed to distract, just as Hardeen steals Margaret's bracelet and places it on Annabelle's wrist. What's been lost is far more precious than any bracelet and the consequences of her actions will likely haunt poor Angela for the rest of her days.

Margaret, meanwhile, was far more successful in her own efforts to disappear (just as Harry successfully evaded Annabelle), effectively vanishing from the luxurious apartment that Nucky set her and the children up in. Distracting watchman Richard Harrow, Margaret flees, leaving only that same bracelet--a gift from Nucky--behind, a bitter reminder that she will not be enslaved to his whims.

Just as the mirror was smashed in an act of anger by Nucky (the same mirror, it must be noted, that she gazed in at the end of last week's episode), Margaret's efforts to leave reveal that she saw the bracelet as a gilded chain, her home as another prison to escape from. Nucky was not the man she thought he was, Lysol her only means of preventing another link in that chain.

Margaret has been willing thus far to keep her mouth shut when it came to Nucky's line of work. After all, she has the sense to look into the ledger when he places her in charge of guarding his office after Eli's shooting. She speaks out on behalf of his candidate for mayor, securing Bader the endorsement of the League of Women Voters after her fiery speech on his behalf. But she's no fool and the scene between Nucky and Annabelle put her in the position of patsy. She may have kept silent this whole time but she knows full well how Nucky made her a widow.

Duplicity, as Hardeen says, is most successful when people want to be deceived.

A bottle of Lysol becomes an escape route; stashed money an escape hatch; a smashed mirror a symbol of male anger, just as a cookie becomes not a pleasurable sweet but death incarnate in the hands of the vengeful Gillian. The Commodore's mystery illness has been lurking on the periphery of the action but here it was pulled into sharp focus, a plot designed to bring Jimmy and the Commodore together, just as it was to end the old man's life and land Gillian payback for her ill-use as a teenager.

Gillian might have gotten away with it too, if it hadn't been been for Jimmy tasting one of those cookies... and violently vomiting as a result after tasting the Paris Green contained within. (Of course, it's an intentional callback to how Angela's own dreams of Paris turned as bitter as arsenic as well.)

And then there was Van Alden and poor Sebso. In the episode's most brutal and shocking sequence, Van Alden forces Sebso to undergo a baptism in the river, despite the fact that Sebso is Jewish and does not want a baptism. But with Van Alden's suspicions at an all-time high (and comments about damnation and hellfire awaiting Sebso), he agrees to go through with it, it seems, just to placate his increasingly unstable partner.

Little does he know, however, that Van Alden uses the baptism to save his soul at the cost of his life, dunking him under the water repeatedly until he drowns, the congregation aghast at how Van Alden has inverted this ceremony into something violent and savage, a magic trick itself designed to entrap Sebso, a "righteous" vengeance raining down on the turncoat and traitor to Van Alden's own cause.

He's a believer, after all, a man who sees himself as carrying out the Lord's work on Earth, a good man, even in spite of his many, many sins. He can deceive himself because he wants to be deceived.

As does Nucky, in the end, it seems. Despite seeing the fortune teller as nothing more than another con artist, Nucky travels to her boardwalk shop and enters, curious about his future. It might be a lie, another trick, but it's the lie that he wants--or needs--to hear.

Next week on the season finale of Boardwalk Empire ("A Return to Normalcy"), Nucky and Atlantic City brace for change on Election Day; Torrio brokers a deal between two nemeses, with far-reaching consequences; Jimmy ponders his future, as do Margaret, Agent Van Alden, and Eli.


Anonymous said…
I am left really wondering about Margaret. I have a feeling she really isn't too different from Nucky. After all, she left Ireland and arrived in the US pregnant, then found herself a husband in the US? Has she traded a very hard past for a shot at a better future and is she more able to do whatever she has to to obtain that future than we have yet realized?

Her drunken, abusive husband was better than being a single mother in a new country.

She didn't seem squeamish at being used by Nucky to further his goals, but was clearly upset with not knowing what those goals were.

Hmm. I am really liking this show!

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