“Erlkönig” – Boardwalk Empire

kessler-death-650x364Goodbye, Eddie. The phrase “we hardly knew ye” is too appropriate. Last week, I noted that Eddie explained how he figured he could make a fresh start for himself in America following his wife’s death, leaving behind two grown and stable sons. The actual reason isn’t nearly that pleasant, though. He worked at a German department store and fled with the company’s funds, along with a woman from another section, leaving behind his wife and sons. The woman abandoned him soon after, and his sons have changed their names to help them forget their father.

Warren Knox uses this information to break Eddie, weakening him so Knox can get to Nucky. He deprives Eddie of the outside world, giving the Feds enough time to uncover the weak link’s background. Eddie’s loyalty has always been his greatest trait, which Knox realizes. He has Eddie point this out himself – “I strive”, Eddie tells his interrogator. An old German poem (Der Erlkönig, after which the episode is named) is used to remind Eddie of the devotion a father owes his sons and, by extension, his whole family. Finally, the knife is twisted when Knox puts a simple question to Eddie: would Nucky show his devoted assistant the same loyalty Eddie proffers? Eddie knows the answer, as do we.

Eddie gives up Ralph Capone’s name and is released, with the promise that Knox will be speaking with him again soon. When he finally returns to Nucky’s, he sees that his master’s only struggle during the period of interrogation was with socks. Eek. In his room, Eddie writes a letter and dresses himself well. At this stage, he’s a husk of himself. We hear something rustling in his room and, on repeat viewings, it becomes obvious that the noise comes from his birds, locked in their cages. It’s not a coincidence that they’re featured in the scene. Eddie Kessler breaks free of his suddenly-erected cage the only way he knows how – he opens his window and falls out, to his death.

These were an incredible few scenes, witnessing this character reduced to nothing but a guilty shell and then seek an escape, all unfolding so quickly. Anthony Laciura reached a level I don’t think any of us thought he was capable of. The despair he imbued his character with during that moment when Eddie realizes that Nucky would surrender him in an instant was especially effective.

Family dominates throughout “Erlkönig”, in fact. Nucky heads to Philadelphia to help out Willie before Eli finds out that his son has poisoned a classmate. Just as we saw Eddie, at first, all alone in the interrogation room, we meet Willie without anyone around him. However, Willie’s uncle saves him*, something that that uncle never would have done for Eddie. Over the course of a lengthy conversation, he works out how best to help Willie. “I need to know what’s true so we can agree on the rest of your story”, Nucky tells him. As a result of this conversation, Willie’s roommate, Clayton, is blamed for poisoning Henry, and Willie is classed as a “pal” of Henry. And what’s the reason Willie gives for poisoning his enemy? “He thought he was better than me. But he wasn’t.”

Besides helping his nephew, Nucky also wanted to make it clear to him that blood matters more than anything else. This is crucial to Nucky’s worldview. If you’re not family, or don’t hold enough sway, you’re expendable. Hence, Eddie was doomed as soon as he admitted he wanted more from Nucky’s operation. He was no more than a secretary before he asked for the promotion, and he clearly isn’t family. In fact, Eddie betrayed his own family. In devoting himself to the Thompson cause, he did the very thing that ensured Nucky would never respect him.

Gillian, meanwhile, is trying to grasp at the last remnants of her family, even though she’s not supposed to. She even offers to sexually debase herself with her lawyer if it means a more favorable outcome in the custody battle, and hints at a willingness to do similar with Dunn Purnsley during the quest for her own sugar daddy. Neither man takes her up on the offer, but Dunn does give her a batch of heroin.

Unfortunately, the heroin inspires her to try to collect Tommy from school. The make-up people deserve their plaudits here, as Gillian looks shattered and in no way responsible enough to care for a child. She’s escorted off the premises, and returns to her home, alone. Roy Philips arrives after some time, though, and he looks quite the savior – bathed in light beaming into the room, he comforts her. Roy’s own story is still in shadow, but he says he knows about weakness and sin, so we’re likely to learn all soon.

Away from Atlantic City, we turn to the Chicago boys. This strand usually feels almost like a different show from the rest although, this time, it seems to be that way by design. Nelson Van Alden left his family long ago, and George Mueller doesn’t seem too loving toward his current family, either. Now he finds himself shifting from O’Banion to the Capones, meaning there is almost no one for him to show loyalty to. Is everyone expendable to him? Not necessarily but, if matters become hairy again, I can see him fleeing Chicago on his own.

Him and his latest employers head along to a factory to intimidate voters into choosing the Republican candidate. The workers are tired of the fascistic thuggery, though, as are the police. They strike back against the mobsters (but not before Mueller can amusingly and dryly note that Team Capone is in “a numerically disadvantaged situation”. The workers are well on their way to winning this showdown before the detectives intervene, at which point the miscalculation becomes a disaster for Al and Frank, as the latter gets Sonny Corleoned. This actually worked out well for Mueller, as he was about to be killed by Frank for plotting to shoot Al. Again, Mueller really doesn’t have anyone to be loyal to.

At the morgue, we see that Ralph has returned from Atlantic City and is mourning his brother. He muses to Mueller about why they ever had to leave Brooklyn – “We were so happy there”. We had other things to muse on (but for similar reasons): why did Al have to head into Cicero with such brazen force; why did Eddie ask for the promotion from Nucky; why did Willie poison Henry’s drink? Pride and ambition are at the root of their decisions. Both are intertwined and we see that all three men hate being undermined. Sometimes, they will attempt to better themselves after being made to feel inferior, as Al did a few seasons ago when Johnny Torrio criticized him for his immaturity. With Willie, his decisions are likely solely connected with pride, though ambition may come into play soon enough, too.

All said and done, “Erlkönig” was a great episode. Easily the best of the season so far, it managed to deal with the various (and numerous) plot lines perfectly and neatly. None of the strands lost any of their impact or weight, and it is a testament to the show’s writers that they’ve been able to confidently balance roughly three to four locations and the many compelling characters that inhabit each place. This is something a certain other HBO show (the one with all the dodgy weddings) could learn from, as Boardwalk Empire appears more willing to trust its viewers to remember characters than others do. We haven’t seen Richard in two episodes now, and there’s been no sign of Margaret yet this season, but we haven’t forgotten they exist (although in fairness they are well established at this point).

Bravo to Terrence Winter and his band of creatives. I look forward to next week. – E

Quoteworthy: “Whatever occurred, it’s over. And, every now and then, you’ll think about the terrible thing that happened to a boy whose face you can’t quite remember. I promise, you can live with it.” – Nucky, to Willie

*I wonder what will happen if Eli finds out about Willie seeking help from his uncle, rather than his father. Also, will anything happen to Mickey for supplying the booze? I reckon Eli will find out (although perhaps not for a while yet), but Mickey will continue on as before.

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