Tonight’s Boardwalk Empire saw the death of a beloved fan favorite in an episode that highlighted the importance of family love. Blood is thicker than liquor, it seems.
Episode 5 of Season 4 of Boardwalk Empire might have been my favorite thus far this season. “Erlkönig” was fairly simple. Most of what made the episode a joy to watch was in the quiet conversations between the characters surrounding loyalty. With Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura) taken in for questioning by the ever-creepy Agent Knox (Brian Geraghty), the initial question seemed to be how he’d manage to weasel his way out, as opposed to whether or not he’d confess to any knowledge of Nucky’s (Steve Buscemi) work. Eddie has never been anything but absolutely unflappably loyal, of course, yet every man, we’d sadly come to learn, has his breaking point. Meanwhile, Gillian’s (Gretchen Mol) drug addiction reached a crippling level of a grip on her this week, and we were taken on the trip right along with her as she faded in and out of sanity. Willie (Ben Rosenfield) got his first taste of the gangster lifestyle, and things, needless to say, were not as glamorous or attractive as he’d previously presumed. Al’s (Stephen Graham) political agenda ended up costing him that which he cares about most. Here is the Recap and Review of Season 4 Episode 5 of Boardwalk Empire, “Erlkönig”!
The episode this week did little to further the general story arc of Season 4, yet it’s important for a show like Boardwalk Empire to take the time to remind us that these characters, often ruthless and violent gangsters, are people, and people have families. We’ve come across plenty of bloodshed and we’ve watched the bodies pile up over the years, yet the numbness exhibited through the brutal gang wars in the bootlegging business is all but entirely wiped away when a bullet strikes close to home. Episode 5 was very interestingly shot, as well. Conversations were oftentimes staged far off of center, giving a clearer view of the vast settings and emphasizing the slight sense of powerlessness that comes coupled with being human and getting burned by the fire you’ve played with. The law on this show is often a force to be manipulated, but trying situations often dwarf the people involved by pairing drama with an enemy in society. Remember, Nucky and his friends work in the world of anti-society, and sometimes society bites back.
Nucky spent a significant amount of time this week cleaning up his nephew Willie’s mess. Willie, if you recall, accidentally poisoned a boy in an attempt to humiliate him during a night of drunken debauchery. Without alerting his father Eli, Willie made a direct call to Nucky from jail, pleading with his uncle to pull the puppet strings he controlled in Philadelphia. What at first began as what seemed like a simple situation to clean up snowballed into something larger when it was revealed that Willie’s victim had parents with strong Republican political ties. Meaning, Nucky couldn’t merely call in a favor to Waxy Gordon and the District Attorney. These people weren’t for a moment buying that the boy drank himself to death, and sooner or later the booze would be connected back to Nucky.
In the end, Nucky would find a means of escape through some more quick thinking. Willie’s roommate was, of course, slightly involved with the process of the poisoning, even if the vendetta was not his own. Toxicology reports made note of foul play, so someone would need to take the fall for the manslaughter. Poor Clayton never saw Nucky coming. This plot line was more so important because it gave Willie a taste of the burdens of gangster life. Not only was a boy dead, but his only true friend would, in a sense, also sacrifice his life to pay for Willie’s terrible mistake. Nucky’s advice to Willie? If you don’t share blood, you carry on. There is no innocent or guilty when it comes to Nucky’s line of work, there’s only winning and losing. Willie learned the hard way that human beings are surprisingly resilient, burying intense amounts of guilt and moving forward in life with the intention of pure survival. Someday, the boys sideswiped by Willie’s deadly mistake will be nothing more than blank faces in the back of his mind, but family is forever.
Gillian, meanwhile, continued to spiral out of control on her season-long drug binge. The pain of losing little Tommy forever, of becoming nothing more than a shadow in his mind, has driven her to spend her last dime on heroin. For the first time in a long time, Gillian can no longer keep up the charade. Clearly, something was amiss, and all those who came in contact with her this week witnessed her troubles firsthand.
Gillian’s arc during Episode 5 kicked off with the clear absence of Roy Phillips (Ron Livingston), who seemed to have ditched Gillian following her odd behavior during their diner date a few episodes back. Going forward, Gillian would continue to alienate those around her. First, her lawyer in the case against Julia (Wrenn Schmidt) would be caught off guard by Gillian’s quite inappropriate offer to trade sexual favors for an edge in court, as though Gillian’s wild yet accidental shattering of a glass of water wasn’t enough of a scene to begin with. There was something even more insane than usual about Gillian this week. Gillian’s always been twisted, but she’s never truly looked it. She’s always skated by on her appearance. Now, even that’s falling apart. I enjoyed the scene that came later between Gillian and Dunn (Erik LaRay Harvey) in which Gillian nearly resorted to begging for more drugs in a barbershop. Again, refusing her sexual advances, Dunn ended up accepting her chump change in exchange for some of what she needed before examining the woman’s arms. If a drug dealer tells you to slow down, you know things are out of control.
Gillian’s final bout of craziness came when she infiltrated Tommy’s school in a desperate attempt to steal back her grandson. Tommy, barely recognizing the disheveled wreck of a woman in front of him didn’t utter a sound. Eventually, Julia interjected with the help of two male teachers who were forced to forcefully eject Gillian from the premises while Julia quietly swept Tommy away from somewhat scary sight in front of them. Gillian’s arc this week closed with a final visit from Phillips, who’d manage to discover Gillian’s drug paraphernalia while she sat exhausted in bed. It seems Gillian has been taken past her breaking point, terrified by the grip heroin has taken on her life. The scene closed with her finally taking ownership over the downright horrible deeds she’s done, and for even just a moment, we felt for her.
Election day was upon us this week, and Van Alden (Michael Shannon) continued his work with the Capones during Episode 5. Frank (Morgan Spector) and Al wrangled the former government worker in for more muscle in their political scheme to scare voters into sticking with the Republican ticket. Again, the theme of family seemed to pop up. Van Alden’s own brood, of course, benefits from the money made doing this dangerous illegal work, yet his wife runs a tight ship in his household. Al’s particular brand of in-your-face humor began to take a toll on Van Alden, who’s clearly tired of constantly having orders barked at him. Al is the face of this gripe, for the time being, and Van Alden’s animosity nearly reached a boiling point by the end of “Erlkönig.” The task seemed simple enough. Capone’s men, led by Van Alden, would rough up a few voters before the ballots were cast. Van Alden, attempting to do things his way, found some trouble in both handling Al’s men while maintaining respect and in actually carrying out the order. In the end, voters ended up rebelling in droves, attacking the attackers in one final brawl that ended with everyone bruised and battered. With no fear of the local police, Capone’s men, including Al himself, never saw the privately contacted outside government police force coming. Van Alden, from within the chaos, nearly took out Al himself, yet the realization that Frank, Al’s brother, had caught a glimpse of him aiming his gun nearly caused his plan to backfire. In the end, it was Frank who ended up riddled with police fire, presumably for reaching for his own gun outside of the crowd.
This arc was important because, again, it stressed the value of true blood-bound brotherhood within this life of crime. The money is fast and the work is exhilarating, but it comes at a price. I liked the comment by Al’s other brother, Ralph (Domenick Lombardozzi), to Van Alden regarding why they’d ever left Brooklyn when they were perfectly happy living quietly there. All things considered, the Capones have always seemed like an amazing family. We love Al as viewers because of his passion and, in turn, his compassion. Watching him grieve over his brother’s dead body reminded us that the nature of the game is trivial, yet the game must be played. The lifestyle put an end to his brother, yet Al now needs to use the lifestyle to his advantage to avenge his brother’s death. Oddly enough, it seems that Van Alden will be by his side.
Perhaps the most devastating arc during Episode 5 regarded the interrogation of Eddie Kessler, who refused to take any initial bait by Knox. Knox, promising to break Eddie by the time the process was over, literally went to the ends of the earth to find something to use against Nucky’s most loyal companion. I didn’t think there was any question that Eddie would remain loyal, I just wasn’t sure how he’d escape the clutches of the government. Knox was indeed brutal, though, and he inevitably uncovered some dirty secrets from Eddie’s past. The man had fled his homeland with his family’s saving following an affair. His sons had gone on to start families of their own but not with Eddie’s family name. Realizing that his secret shame had been dragged to overseas to America, and that deportation meant facing the children who remain disgusted by his actions, Eddie bit. “Ralph Capone.” That was all it took. That evening, Eddie had one final quiet moment of apology with Nucky, who admitted to feeling worried for his newly promoted employee. Eddie, in truth, had asked for the responsibility, and he failed. The episode closed with Eddie’s final moments. He penned a suicide note, suited up one last time, and jumped from his bedroom window.
You can read the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe poem “Erlkönig,” the story of the Elf King, HERE.
What did you think of Boardwalk Empire Season 4 Episode 5, “Erlkönig”? Did you appreciate a more nuanced episode as opposed to the normal drama and politics that we’re accustomed to with this show?
Thanks for reading my Recap and Review of Boardwalk Empire Season 4 Episode 5, “Erlkönig”!