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‘Boardwalk Empire’ Review: “Erlkonig”

Boardwalk Empire Erlkonig
HBO

In tonight’s new episode of ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ there’s plenty of trouble to go around when organized crime becomes disorganized and interrogations push men to be better, or push them right over the edge. “Erlkonig” is a pretty grim title for a majorly grim episode; if this is the calm before the storm, then there’s one hell of a storm brewing in Atlantic City (and Chicago, for that matter).

There are not one, but two deaths on tonight’s episode, which borrows its name from “Der Erlkonig,” a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In the poem, a father is carrying his anxious son home on horseback — the son is terrified of a supernatural being in the woods known as the Elfking, who promises that if the boy goes away with him, he will be rewarded handsomely. The boy claims he has been attacked, but the father doesn’t believe him, and in the end, the boy dies in his father’s arms.

This poem is quoted in German by Agent Knox, who has taken Eddie Kessler in for interrogation regarding his mysterious business assignment from Nucky. At first, Eddie is as loyal as Eddie has always been (the gun in his pocket is for protection “from Apaches,” he says!), but we all knew Eddie wasn’t cut out for this sort of life. In a twist, Knox reveals some of Eddie’s not-so-sterling history — he stole a bunch of money in Germany and ran off with a mistress, leaving his wife and sons behind. That’s not the Eddie we know, but it perhaps explains his insistence that Nucky trust him with more responsibility. Perhaps his years in America and his regrets have softened his heart, and that weasel Knox knows the way in. All he has to do is quote some beautiful, sad German poetry about a father who loses his son, and Eddie’s soft heart becomes even more pliable.

But betrayal is betrayal — Eddie gives Knox just enough information to help him with his case, which gives Eddie just enough additional regret and shame, further exacerbated when he returns home and Nucky scolds him for disappearing (and for leaving him with mismatched socks). And so he pens a suicide letter in German and leaps out the window, a scene made all the more harrowing because we never hear the thud of his body hitting the ground. The men on this show consistently make similarly daring leaps, and while we know the end game — the ground swelling up to meet them with blunt force — we don’t need to see it to believe it. It’s the leap that matters to guys like Nucky and the Capones, but as Eddie illustrates so unnervingly and literally, there’s no going back once you jump.

This week also brings the death of Frank Capone. If you’ve been avoiding looking up these characters’ real-life counterparts on Wikipedia as I have, it’s a bit of a surprise. Hot-tempered and coked-up Al and his more reasonable brother Frank send Van Alden out to choose a group of suitable men to help him “sway” voters into picking the Republican mayoral candidate so the Capones can run Cicero the way they intend. But it’s not a very thoughtful plan, and Van Alden is alarmingly outnumbered by a bunch of working class guys who aren’t even about to deal with being interrogated about their voting preferences. When Al and Frank show up to address the tense stand-off, all hell breaks loose. Just as Van Alden considers gunning down Al in the commotion and putting an end to this weird, violent limbo he’s trapped in (and maybe currying a little favor with O’Banion), Frank spots him — and just as Frank goes to retrieve his gun, a mysterious group of men in black brutally gun him down.

Which brings us to revenge. As Nucky explains to his nephew Willie Thompson, rage is a good thing, and you can use it wisely to give you purpose and drive, as long as you don’t let anyone see it. Nucky and Willie aren’t so different — Willie killed his “pal” because the guy had the nerve to think he was better than Willie, and that’s something Nucky certainly understands. And it wasn’t that long ago that he offed a guy just so he could take a girl as his own (remember Margaret’s husband in season 1?).

For Al Capone, rage isn’t easy to hide. Willie took his revenge and got away with it the family way, by throwing his roommate under the bus and learning a little something about keeping crime organized. But Capone is out for blood, and he’s going to kill “everything that crawls.” Capone is a hot-headed, short-tempered guy who doesn’t make plans and just bludgeons his way through problems, unlike the more civilized Nucky and Rothstein, who carefully maneuver and negotiate to get what they want. A raging Al out for revenge sounds like a nightmare, and those drugs aren’t going to help anything.

Speaking of drugs, Gillian Darmody is a damn mess. She tries to do a little negotiating during her own interrogation at the hands of a judge this week, but poor, doped-up Gillian only knows one way to negotiate — and it’s not doing her any favors anymore. The judge dismisses her flagrant attempt at exchanging sexual favors for custody of Tommy, and in a dopey haze (thanks to one Mr. Dunn Pursley — living the high life, getting his shoes shined, and calling himself Mr. Oxford), she wanders over to Tommy’s school to try and take him home. But even Tommy knows she’s up to no good. And now Roy knows she’s been up to no good, too — luckily for Gillian, it seems that Roy is quite familiar with living a sinful life. So far, Roy has been rather enigmatic, his presence sporadic and his objectives shrouded in mystery. Is he the simple businessman he presents himself to be and a possible savior for Gillian, or is there something much, much darker lurking beneath that gentle surface? We only have six episodes left to figure it out.

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