Boardwalk Empire‘s “Erlkönig” takes its name from the Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem, which translates to “The Elf King,” as recited by Knox and Eddie. The story is about an anxious boy who is being carried home by his father. The boy feels the presence of this King and warns his father, who dismisses it several times as nothing but a rustle or a whisper. But, when the boy finally cries out in pain, the father realizes the “king” is real, and his son is dead in his arms. “Der Erlkönig” is about the omen of death, and its namesake episode focused heavily, and with exceeding solemnity, on loss. Hit the jump for why “In the end, all you can count on is blood.”
Boardwalk kept up its trend (after the premiere) of only focusing on a few characters per episode. The chosen few of “Erlkönig” surely wish they weren’t though, as the pallor of death shadowed them all. In the most shocking development, Eddie’s new responsibilities lead him very quickly and directly into the hands on the FBI. Shamed by his past, he sold out Nucky in order to protect himself from having to face that. But for Eddie, this wasn’t a light decision. For him, being forced to confront his sons would be a fate worse than death. Once he betrays Nucky then, he chooses death.
It’s a terrible thing to lose such a wonderful character who often brought much needed soul and humor to the show, but for Nucky, it shows that he is truly alone. Eddie was the last person he could count on completely. The episode began with a sad foreshadowing of Nucky calling for Eddie and him not being there (of course, Tom was ready to step in with mismatched socks!)
The other obvious loss was Frank Capone, another blow for those both onscreen and off. Frank had his violent streak, but he usually tempered Al and kept him from completely blowing his top. He counseled him about boundaries and controlling his rage. Without him, Al might be even more insane than usual. But it was a nice bit of storytelling to have Van Alden consider murdering Al just before Frank was taken down. The show incorporated that bit of history with the narrative nicely (and easily — not something it often does). His allegiance, however, seems tied with the Capones now.
Boardwalk also found a way to keep Gillian relevant (slightly) by tying her in with Purnsley and his new drug racket. But Gillian’s luck and graces are gone now, and neither Purnsley nor the judge were wooed by her offers of sexual favor. Her loss came in the form of Tommy, who seems to be part of Julia’s family (and hopefully, eventually, Richard’s as well) forever. Thank God for the boy. For Gillian though, it’s the absolute end of Jimmy. She’s hooked on heroin, and alone. Though Roy says he understands, he can’t fathom. What’s left for her now isn’t of any particular interest, but her woeful tale for the episode’s theme perfectly, and answered some questions about Tommy’s custody.
Finally, Willie called upon Nucky to help him out after Henry’s death. Not to be glib, but Willie really did lose a piece of his soul. He murdered — however accidentally — a classmate. Then he sold out his roommate and ruined his life to keep himself safe and his misdeeds hushed up. Yes, Clayton was technically an accomplice, but he was really more of an innocent bystander. Willie reminded me strongly of Jimmy in his final scene with Nucky, and later as he sat in the dark and then let Doris in. He’s hardened now. It’s not just about hijinks and pranks, he has taken two lives. He wanted in on the Thompsons gangster lifestyle? Welcome, kid.
Boardwalk has continued to excel this season. It may not have a clear overall direction, but it has allowed its ensemble cast to really expand and get their own stories in ways that are interesting and connected to both history and the overall plot. The politics and schemes haven’t gotten too twisted, yet (and we’re already halfway through this truncated season). Last year felt adrift. This year has purpose and is giving itself over to character study, not all of which is focused, mercifully, on Nucky.
Musings and Miscellanea:
– “That rage you feel is a gift. Use it, but don’t show it.” – Eli. Al could use that advice.
– Boardwalk has a penchant for killing off favorite characters, doesn’t it? And yet others, like Gillian, remain …
– I liked the visual meditation on Eddie’s room, the little bits and bobs that make up his rather austere life, given what a caper he pulled when he left Germany.
– Knox continues to surprise and delight me. He’s not like any character the show has had before. He makes his ruthlessness and intelligence under a “gee whiz” demeanor. And it is damn effective.
– I had to laugh at Nucky’s mismatched socks. Tom is just not cutting it!
– Apparently Margaret is out of the picture because Kelly MacDonald was on maternity leave. Still, though!
– Van Alden’s eyes after snorting the … heroin? was hilarious.
– Roy: “I know about weakness, and about sin.” Gillian: “You don’t know about me. I’ve done the most awful things.”
– Interesting direction in this episode, most characters were portrayed alone to the side of the frame (Van Alden, Nucky, Willie, Al, Eddie, Knox and others). Not sure what it means, but found it interesting (though overused to the point of distraction).
– “Every fucking thing that crawls is gonna pay.” - Al