It seems strange to begin to say, in Boardwalk Empire‘s fourth season, that this year the show is about power. Terence Winters’s mobster epic began on the eve of Prohibition, and followed Atlantic City’s most dominant political figure as he first dabbled in the alcohol trade and then, by increments, became as involved in criminal activity as any other more unambiguous a hoodlum. Boardwalk Empire has in this way been a study in the abuse of power, in the way in which the social contract between ruler and ruled is a scrap of paper principally useful for wiping blood from one’s hands. In every murder, every rape, and every extortion, power has been the sine qua non of Nucky Thompson’s increasingly degraded, and yet consistently more profitable, life.
But ‘Resignation’, the second episode of the show’s current season, seems to follow through on the premiere’s hints of a shift in perspective. The most obvious source for its title is the notice given by Nucky’s domestic factotum, Eddie Kessler, who has stayed by Nucky’s side with an unswerving loyalty quite unusual in the world of the boardwalk. Since his injury at the end of the third season, incurred whilst protecting his master, Eddie has been less useful as a manservant; but he sees his own qualities and here demands a less active, but more responsible, role in Thompson’s organisation. Eddie has cultivated a wilful blindness to Nucky’s affairs for years; his insistence, upon shakily delivering his employer an over-cooked egg, that he suddenly become intimately involved in arranging them is a sign that servants know and crave more than it may appear to their lords.
The former Bureau of Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden, for instance, is caught between two masters and in this way seems more than either: he is hiding under an alias in order to escape the consequences of murdering his partner (and now more besides), and neither of two crimelords of his adopted home, Chicago, know that in their employ is a man who can recite every element of Prohibition back to front. Caught between Dean O’Bannion and Al Capone, Van Alden – or, as they know him, George Mueller – is shaken down by each for information on the other. He responds because, like most servants, his home life is far less impressive than his master’s (his wife, for instance, wants nicer soft furnishings). This decision, like Eddie’s, will lead him down yet darker paths – he’s seen here breaking up an election rally for a candidate opposed to Capone’s dealings.
From Eddie Bader, the neutered mayor of Atlantic City, to the bank clerk confronted by Richard Harrow and is subject to the hired guns of the men he seeks to swindle, even men who in one setting might feel mighty are in another very small. In the episode’s most arresting scenes, Chalky White, the African-American proprietor of the boardwalk’s finest nightclub, is confronted with the consequences of his minion’s poor choices last week by Harlem crime boss and pan-African advocate Dr Valentin Narcisse. “I see a servant pretending to be a king,” Narcisse intones, to which White can only sneer impotently. Indeed, when Nucky arrives to negotiate a settlement, it is clear that, whilst Chalky is in charge of the performers backstage, when front of house his writ runs less far.
For resignation also has other meanings: when Harrow’s sister realises she had the wrong date etched onto her father’s gravestone, she shrugs it off – the funds do not exist to correct the mistake. When Kessler snipes that “Everything is ‘only’ something”, and rejects Nucky’s offer of money, he recalls Margaret Schroeder, the estranged wife on whom Thompson appears to have entirely given up. And when Nucky gives ten per cent of Chalky’s club to Narcisse as a peace offering, White must roll over and have his tummy tickled. One imagines, too, that, whilst the homicidal Richard Harrow’s refusal even to shoot a dying pet dog this week suggests he wishes to see the back of all that killing, the parlous finances of his widowed, pregnant sister will require the simple acceptance that he is who he is – and must work with what he has within the limitations set for him by others.
In previous years, Boardwalk Empire‘s lens has sat at the apex of this relationship; in its fourth, it seems more interested in those players struggling not so much, in the way of Jimmy Darmody or Gyp Rosetti, to topple the king – but those who have no prospect of doing so, and yet may still come to some form of accommodation with power. There are still the unfortunate moments in which might runs roughshod over sensibility – Narcisse orders the brutal execution of a woman who (falsely, of course) claimed an African-American raped her – but if Boardwalk Empire has occasionally been open to Game of Thrones-ish accusation that it has only superficial sympathy for the cannon fodder, its fourth season looks set to redress the balance.