Boardwalk Empire recap: Season 4 episode 5 “Erlkönig”

In the world run thoroughly by corrupt agents that is 1920s America and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, there is little distinguishing between “good guys” and “bad guys,” which leaves us generally rooting for those among bad who go about their badness with some semblance of common sense and at least some universalist notion of honor. This generally puts them at odds with worse of the bad – the Machiavels, the draconians, the narcissists – and makes the worse act even more the heel, which only shores up our predisposition.

Last night’s episode put some stark, ugly and, in a couple cases, lethal emphasis on such moral ambiguities.

Per creator Terrance Winter’s heady admixture of real and simulated history, the series thus far most deeply developed cop characters very much echo the “type” of the New Breed of Cop coming on the national scene at the time, and both reminded us last night they wield nearly the heroic tendencies of Gyp Rosetti. The nascent Bureau of Investigation, in particular, was headed up by an OCD-tending, paranoid, moralizing quasi-fascist puppet master, J. Edgar Hoover, who tended to recruit men of similar characters, thus yielding heroic True Believers like Agent Knox (Brian Geraghty).

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Knox has an idea of a weak link in the AC criminal chain of command, Nucky’s elderly German-born former Man Friday and newly elevated capo Eddie (Anthony Laciura), and has picked him up for a breezy afternoon of the third degree in an abandoned building. We already know Knox has murdered his way into a top Fed job in AC on behalf of Hoover, but now Eddie is getting a dose of how he incarnates both good cop and bad cop in his aw-shucks All-American patter.

When Eddie asks who he is to treat him so, Knox looses a vicious fist into the gut of the sequestered elderly man. “That’s who I am,” he says. “ And I’m going to own every last bit of you.”

Knox reveals he was U.S. Army intelligence, speaks German and has unearthed a file of the less-than-savory aspects from Eddie’s employment history in Germany. He also reveals Eddie’s sons have changed their names to distance themselves from the disgrace of “their father, the thief, the liar, the traitor,” and promises him further shame upon his deportation – unless of course he starts telling him things. Eddie, broken, reveals that the man he met at the station where Knox had braced him was Ralph Capone, whom he had met on Nucky’s orders.

“See how easy that was?” Knox says and lets him leave, calling after, “We’ll see you again soon.”

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Meanwhile, after some fitful dealings with Philadelphia authorities, Nucky (Steve Buscemi) manages to fix nephew William’s dire straits over the accidental booze/poison-induced death of fellow Temple student, whose offense, Will says, was thinking “he was better than me.” The problem is, the dead kid’s parents are big political contributors, so the crime needs a perp to officially settle it, and Nucky convinces Will to finger his hapless roommate as the goat.

Nucky imparts the ice-cold wisdom that seems only to further pave a dark path for Will: “The only thing you can count on is blood…The rage you feel…it’s a gift, use it, but don’t let anyone see it…You know that I’m watching over you. Show me the person you intend to be.”

Karma seemed ready to lap conniving murderous grifter Gillian (Grethen Mol). Her prospective new mark Roy (Ron Livingston) seemed to have ditched her, and her promise of sexual favors A) failed to grease a judge ruling on the custody of her grandson and B) succeeded in convincing burgeoning heroin distributor Dunn (Eric LaRay Harvey) to sell her a cheap fix. After her humiliating failed attempt to kidnap Tommy at his school, Roy re-emerges, discovers her works and, registering genuine contrition on her part, decides to play angel.

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Boardwalk‘s original joyless True Believer cop, disgraced T-man Van Alden (Michael Shannon) has lulled us into a false sense of schadenfreude while being bounced back and forth with stoic gawkiness between the Capones in their new Cicero base and their Irish rival Dean O’Banion. After impromptu adventures with Frank (Morgan Spector) and Al Capone (Stephen Graham) in which Van Alden and Al murdered an O’Banion henchman-who-knew-too-much, a coke-fueled Al greets Van Alden with a boisterous reminder they have the goods on him so he’ll be dancing to their tune. As they are bankrolling the local Republican ticket to firm their grip on Cicero, they task Van Alden with doing some election-day voter dissuasion at a local factory. Frank, increasingly looking to be the true leader and voice of reason in the Capone wing of the Torrio organization, eases Van Alden’s apprehensions, promises to take care of him and puts him in charge of the goon squad.

Emerging workers prove unwilling to be bullied and as their post-shift numbers amass, and the situation gets worse when a still-coked Al rolls up eager to provoke a untenable fight. Both Capones are beaten badly and Van Alden unholsters his .45 and, amid the melee, sees a chance to excise himself from the Capone clutches and mulls using it on a felled Al. Frank sees him raise it, and is about to draw on Van Alden when he takes a round from new entrant, a mysterious a phalanx of armed gunman. They proceed to loose a barrage into Frank.

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At the morgue, Van Alden maintains his feint with Al as he mourns over Frank’s corpse. His intel, Van Alden says, says the mystery gunself were some kind of special squad of freebooting Chicago cops. Al vows that “Everything that crawls is gonna pay.”

Eddie limps back to Nucky’s hotel HQ, at least some of him owned by Knox. In lieu letting it go further, he straightens his and Nucky’s stuff up, then goes to the window of his hotel room, opens it and steps out, presumably to his death.

New episodes of Boardwalk Empire air Sunday nights at 10/9 CT on HBO.

Photo credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO