TV: Boardwalk Empire and Power

I’ve just started watching Boardwalk Empire, and though I’ve got plenty left to watch – I’m six episodes in – I have a few thoughts on what I’ve watched…

(Spoilers for the first six episodes of Boardwalk Empire. In turn, I would request you don’t spoil me for anything after ep 1.6 in the comments. This is one show that, aside from one huge spoiler for the end of the second season, I’ve largely managed to stay unspoiled for.)

Boardwalk Empire is about power. That idea was clear from the premise, considering lead character Nucky’s position of power and the things he has to do to keep it, but what I find so masterful about the show is, six episodes in, it’s very clear that almost every scene is about power dynamics between the characters. Every character is trying to negotiate their place in this world, what their power is, and whether they’re happy with that. It very obviously plays into the gangster storylines in a visceral manner, with the men literally discussing who has more clout, but I also love how it’s demonstrated among the women of Boardwalk Empire so far.

Margaret Schroeder is as opaque a character as Peggy Olson seemed to be in the series’ first season. She’s very clearly someone who gave up on her life changing in any significant fashion long ago, only to find everything changing very rapidly. Her alcoholic, abusive husband dies, and she has a link to someone who has the access to the kind of power that can change her life: Nucky Thompson. My favourite plotline of the show has to be the relationship between Nucky, who is the most powerful man in Atlantic City, and Margaret, who has very little power but is quickly learning how to leverage it.

My clear favourite of the six episodes I’ve seen was 1.05, “Nights in Ballygran”. Margaret likes the taste of influence she sees at Nucky’s birthday party and tries to build her relationship with Nucky further with small steps, like getting up early to give him baked goods. When that only leans to pushback, she’s offended but not discouraged. Instead of retreating, she uses her knowledge to make him notice her, by getting his shipment of green beer seized by van Alden, and publicly humiliating him. Nucky could take this as an attack, and move to crush her. But, as the previous episode makes clear, she’s smart and worthy of his respect; he sees her move for exactly what it is. A reminder that she’s not just a simple-minded widow. And they consummate the dance they’ve been having for five episodes, entering a relationship that briefly gives Margaret what she’s looking for… until she realises, she may have more power now than before, but it’s subject to Nucky’s whims. She is not, and may never be, his equal.

This dynamic is beautifully explored in her scene with Lucy Danziger, Nucky’s current paramour. Lucy’s gotten Nucky’s attention because she’s sexy, but also because she’s sexual; despite his obvious distaste for her wild sexuality, he keeps their relationship going despite having plenty of women available. Emboldened by her new relationship, Margaret confronts Lucy about their respective relationships with Nucky, and their arguments are a reminder that neither wins this battle: Margaret’s worthiness may lose Nucky’s interest, just as Lucy’s body will inevitably do so as she ages. In this era, just as in Mad Men set decades later, the power women can wield relies on the whims of the men who allow them to have it.

The fight for power underlies everything, from the head of the Temperance movement whose power derives from the wealth of her dead husband, to the shaky ‘friendship’ between Jimmy Darmody and Al Capone, to the relationship between Gillian Darmody and Lucky. Power ranges from political, to financial, to sexual, and even the brute force that Agent Van Alden often wields like a club.

I don’t know where this train is going, but I think I’m ready to say I’ll be staying on it until the end.

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