Van Alden (Michael Shannon) began Terence Winter’s epic HBO series Boardwalk Empire as the anti-anti-hero, a stoic, pure-of-heart crusader who didn’t even entertain sexual thoughts in context of his joyless marriage. He was the intrepid T-man out to bring down the illicit empire of Atlantic City kingpin Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), the lily-white cop archetype and then some, up to the point of the fire-eyed evangelical fury in which he strangled his unbeliever (Jewish) partner – and in Shannon’s deft hands he was a seriously scary heel.
Credit Winter that he has taken his time to craft Van Alden’s arduous, miserable arc. We have enjoyed schadenfreude witnessing his hapless flight to Chicago, towing his bastard child by an ex-showgirl and a Swedish paramour, and finding demeaning work as bad salesman, then flower arranger/bagman for Dean O’Banion’s (Aaron Shiver) North Side Gang and occasional loan-out punching bag to the Capones. But all the while, knowing where he’d come from and seeing him gravitate back to violent trade, we had to wonder when the welling darkness might surge to the surface. It did last night.
Van Alden, operating under the alias George Mueller, has found himself squeezed between Capone’s heavy-handed leverage after involving him in the murder of an O’Banion truck-drivers and O’Banion’s frenetic bullying, particularly over his whereabouts on that particular night. Van Alden’s growing discomfiture is putting a strain his home-life, where his pseudo-bride is nattering at his work on their barely functional Sears kit-home. With their shaky truce shattered after O’Banion stung South Side Outfit boss Johnny Torrio on a real-estate scam, Al (Stephen Graham) and Ralph Capone (Domenick Lombardozzi) brace Van Alden seeking information on O’Banion’s movements, but a tight-wound Van Alden offers to off O’Banion himself for $1,000.
Don of the AC’s African-American wards, Chalky White (Michael K. Williams), is eyeing some wet-work of his own after nearly falling victim to the machinations of Harlem kingpin Dr. Narcisse (Jeffrey Wright) and only surviving by the betrayal of Narcisse by his sultry spy, Daughter Maitland (Margot Bingham). This does not cheer up Nucky, who suggests a sit-down with Narcisse and insinuates that Chalky let his heart (or privates) complicate things. He points out how much Chalky owes him for arranging his license to open the garish Onyx Club, the white-patrons-only new toast of the boardwalk, an unheard of operation for an African-American businessman. But in Chalky’s back pocket, of course, is that he was Nucky’s cavalry against the Masseria takeover bid last year. “Already said thank you, by saving your ass,” Chalky says.
Later encountering Narcisse, Daughter lies and says she couldn’t delay Chalky for the arranged murder, but Narcisse sees through her feint, noticing the new rug and glass shards that the cleaners missed. He beats her until she is unrecognizable, and Chalky, upon discovering it, goes looking for payback. Narcisse makes a show of taking a seat at Nucky’s table during a show at the Onyx, a marked affront for one of African descent, and both asserts his dignity as an equal and vows to destroy Chalky. Nucky informs him he is on to Narcisse’s machinations, but when Chalky enters looking for blood, Nucky puts himself between the two and, perhaps still unable to publicly admit his alliance with an African-American “businessman,” attempts to curb the spectacle. He bids Chalky walk away “unless you are ready for a war – one you will fight alone.”
Gillian (Gretchen Mol) has kicked her heroin habit, thanks to the kind ministrations of Roy (Ron Livingston), and out in the sun of the boardwalk, she comes still cleaner. She tells him of her dark past, stopping short of the murder-y and incest-y parts revolving around her dead son Jimmy, and plays the earnest mea culpa again at the hearing for custody of Jimmy’s son Tommy. Even as she does, she notes the entrance of Richard, Jimmy’s disfigured vet buddy who shot up Gillian’s Masseria-soldier-infested brothel, rescued Tommy and left him in custody his plainspoken, impossibly awesome love interest Julia (Wrenn Schmidt). In a reversal of period roles, Julia, realizing the court would be more inclined to award custody to a married couple, asks him to marry her.
Upon Nucky’s return to his hotel that night, Richard walks out of the mist. “I got married today,” he says. “I need a job.”
The morning he is to ice O’Banion, Van Alden finds still another fragment of his past lodged in his flesh. Having left the sales job with some violent punctuation, he is jumped on the way to work in a back alley by three old boorish office-mates looking for payback. They give him a severe beating, and until he draws his semiautomatic sidearm. This could’ve chased them off, but his blood is up and he caps all three in cold blood. Battered, he returns home, where the Capone boys brace him, but he insists the job will be done that evening, and they make it clear his life depends on it.
Back at the flower-shop, however, O’Banion presses Van Alden on the events of the night the truck-driver died and pulls a revolver to jog his memory. This pushes Van Alden beyond, and he morphs not into old Van Alden but into a new thing altogether. He disavows the truck-driver’s murder, but comes clean about killing many others, including his partner, when he was a T-man. “My name isn’t Mueller,” he says, “I’m not legally married to my wife, I used to believe in God, but now I don’t believe in anything at all.”
The storefront bell draws a stunned O’Banion to the front, where Frankie Yale and two compatriots commit his famous murder, sparing Van Alden the chore, but Van Alden empties the register before departing. Back home, he looms over his sleeping wife, gun tucked in his belt, wakes her, reasserts his authority as breadwinner, dumps the cash on the bed and entreats her into lusty congress.
New episodes of Boardwalk Empire premiere Sunday nights at 9/8CT on HBO.
Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO