Episode 2: The Ivory Tower

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term “ivory tower” refers to a “state of privileged seclusion from the facts and practicalities of the real world.” In one of the scenes in this episode, we find Margaret just beginning to read a book with this title as she sits in her hospital bed. It is The Ivory Tower by Henry James. Ironically, she is interrupted by a nurse who tells her that Mr. Thompson has arrived to see her. It turns out to be Nucky’s brother Eli, who basically bribes Margaret into giving false information to any federal agents who question her about her late husband Hans. If you recall, Hans was murdered by Eli himself to frame him as the criminal involved in the recent alcohol heist. Margaret knows none of this, of course, but she appears suspicious nonetheless.

Interestingly, the author of the novel The Ivory Tower sets out to criticize the Gilded Age in America. With all of the extravagant wealth and pompous lifestyles, James suggests, comes major corruption and curse. In short, nothing is as it seems. I have noticed this to be a recurring theme during this episode, especially as we dig up more dirt on some of the characters. Several noteworthy scenes carrying out this paradoxical thought include:

-Jimmy, after making money off of the alcohol shipment heist, showers his wife and child with gifts. However, we then see him go to the rehearsal of a sexy and scantily-clad showgirl. When they affectionately reunite backstage and he hands her a beautiful necklace, we fear the worst. Is Jimmy having an affair with this woman? We then learn that the woman, Gillian, is in fact his own mother.

-Federal agent Van Alden, who we know thus far to be unemotional and rigid in character, writes a loving yet straighforward letter to his wife. When he’s finished, however, he tightly but passionately clutches the stolen blue ribbon that we had once seen in Margaret’s hair just hours before.

-Margaret goes to see Nucky very late at night to return the money that Eli had given her at the hospital. As she recounts a famous quote from George Sand, “Charity degrades those who receive it and hardens those who dispense it,” she goes on to say that the writer was in fact a French baroness who simply used a male pen name. Nucky is impressed.

-Lastly, in keeping up with this recurring theme that nothing is as it seems, comes the most important and dreadful scene of all: one of the victims of Jimmy and Al Capone’s alcohol heist is actually alive, while Jimmy and Al thought they had killed everyone there.

This overall theme has quickly escalated the events of the episode, and leaves many questions still unanswered. After all, it is simply a reflection of the very characters in the series. These men are loving fathers, givers, friends, and respected politicians. However, we’re are also consistently reminded that they are crooked criminals, dealers, murderers, and gangsters too. To my surprise, it is apparently possible to be both. Nucky and Jimmy, along with their enemies and comrades, drift between their two different realities.

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Episode 1: Boardwalk Empire

The HBO television series Boardwalk Empire sets out to examine the lives of Atlantic City’s politicians, mobsters and everyone in between during America’s Prohibition Era, mostly focusing on the figure of Enoch “Nucky” Thompson. We learn quickly in the pilot episode that Nucky is first and foremost a well-known and respected county treasurer and community leader, but we eventually come to find that he is so much more than that.

We first meet all of the characters amid a flurry of meetings, dinners, and parties, all in the name of the looming prohibition laws. Marking the end of an era, the people of Atlantic City, New Jersey take to the streets and nightclubs both to mourn liquor’s fate and to stock up on as many bottles as they can the night before the law takes effect. Nucky and his fellow corrupt politicians (including the city mayor and his brother Eli, the sheriff) meanwhile, are not in the same frenzy as these people. This is because they are busy discussing their plans and making deals to ensure that Atlantic City remains the ritzy social hub that it has always been. The men covertly refuse to accept the Volstead Act, and the episode then largely becomes a series of negotiations and calculated moves made by Nucky, his fiery prodigy Jimmy, and several other gangsters from New York and Chicago. The rise of the bootlegging industry has officially begun.

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As this is my first time watching the series, I found it quite difficult to keep up with learning the names and faces of all the characters as they were introduced in this pilot episode. Perhaps this is simply a realistic reflection of the multifaceted and complex nature of the bootlegging industry in Atlantic City at the time. That said, I did not seem to be the only one confused; as two federal officers (senior agent Nelson Van Alden and his deputy) attempting to spy on Nucky and his business partners struggle in keeping track of the mobsters’ names and titles.

In keeping up with the show’s reflection of life and culture during the Prohibition Era of the 1920s, I also enjoyed the musical score, which seems to consist of popular songs of the time. Even more entertaining is the way in which some of these songs are juxtaposed with certain scenes, foreshadowing and almost describing what is about to happen. For example, Hans, an abusive and alcoholic husband to the helpless and pregnant Margaret (who has graciously received kind charity from Nucky), is taken from his home during the song “Sunset Melody” and subsequently killed at the hands of Eli. At the same time, Colosimo, after finishing his business with Nucky in AC, arrives back in Chicago only to be executed from behind by a mysterious man. Neither of these victims foresaw their fate, but by listening to the music, we already know that the sun is about to set on their lives. Similarly, the episode ends with Nucky bringing flowers to Margaret in the hospital, while the song “I Never Knew I Had a Wonderful Wife” is heard. Is this suggesting a future match?

I look forward to my continuation of the series Boardwalk Empire and updating this blog with my weekly reviews and reflections. Despite the quick and complex plotline already, I have still learned a lot about the culture, practices, and growing corruption of this unique time and place.