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New Show Recap: Boardwalk Empire 4×05, “Der Erlkonig”

This episode asks viewers to look through the fog and see things for what they really are.

Knowing his uncle has connections in Philly, and wanting to keep his trouble secret from his parents, Willie calls Nucky for help after being picked up on the suspicion of murder. Nucky shows Willie how a Thompson gets out of jam by stressing to Willie that Biff was his buddy, he drank too much and he knows nothing about the booze. Luckily, they haven’t yet charged Willie, and the DA owes Nucky a favour.

But, with the DA unavailable, Nucky is forced to try to deal with his assistant who very frankly tells him that Biff’s dad has been a supporter of the Republican party for many years — meaning someone will have to go down for the death.

I took a moment here to lust after the light fixtures in the DAs office. I noticed them because so much of the episode was shot in drastic low shots and claustrophobic over-the-head shots. For good measure, the director mixes in some disorienting effects, especially for poor Gillian Darmody.

Poor Gillian — who’s been pacing around her large and empty house, in an uncharacteristic state of indisposition. After leaving multiple unanswered calls for Mr. Piggly Wiggly, she realizes that she’s out of heroin. The telling part of this storyline is that while we think she’s leaving to score, she actually has a very important meeting with the judge who will ultimately decide whether or not she gets custody of her grandson back.

In the judge’s office, peaked and distracted, Gillian tries to convince the judge that she’s fit to care for Tommy. But, after smashing a glass of water accidentally with her bare hands, the judge is unconvinced. Withdrawal aside, Gillian may have been able to stay in the judge’s good graces, but, her chances are completely shot when her offer to trade sexual favours for a ruling in her favour are angrily turned down by the judge.

Desperate for a fix, Gillian finds herself in a barber shop in the north part of Atlantic City. Now in a foggy glassed stupor, the camera is tight and claustrophobic on her clammy skin and short breath. Deep in the shop she finds herself in front of Dunn Purnsley (or, Mr. Oxford, as he calls himself) sitting atop a common throne. Gillian once again offers “other forms of payment” when he points out to her that her small pile of bills and change won’t be enough. Instead of taking her up on it (he’s been burned once by a white lady already this season), he gives her a small envelope pouch — just enough to tide her over — because he likes his lambs coming home again. Like a lamb to slaughter…

From there Gillian goes to Tommy’s school to try to take him home with her. Presenting an Abba-Zabba bar as a bribe (and to show us where the other part of the change came from in her clandestine heroin deal), we see the reality that Gillian is never getting Tommy back. And that’s a good thing.

She’s escorted out and awakes to Mr. Piggly Wiggly. He’s laid her to rest in her bed, cleaned her up and rewrapped her bloodied hand from the glass incident earlier in the day. After he shows her that he’s found her heroin kit she admits that she’s done terrible things and he assures her that he “knows about weakness and [he] knows about sin.”

Which brings us to Mueller/VanAlden who’s been picked up for a day of campaign… negotiations with Frank and Al Capone. I think this might be VanAlden’s shimmering willows. Behind the pine walls of the home he’s built, we see him with his son and daughter, and dearly devoted nanny-turned-wife. This is the first time we’ve seen him with his family in a long time, just as he’s about to step out for some dirty business with the Capones.

Al is out of control — angry and coked out of his mind. In the car on the way to the Western Electric factory to meet the morning shift, Frank tries to assure Mueller/VanAlden by telling him that his brother sometimes just needs a “good kick in the ass.” But Mueller/VanAlden, seeing the power that Al wields, asks Frank just “who is going to do the kicking?”

When negotiations aren’t producing enough blood for Al’s liking, he shows up on scene. The inevitable riot breaks out and while Al is hurt and crawling for cover, Mueller/VanAlden looks through the action and sees an opportunity to “do the kicking.” He raises his gun to shoot Al in the back, but big brother Frank looks on, seeing the plan. At the last second, Frank is shot in a gruesome firing squad execution by a faction of the special police force who have shown up just in time.

And, speaking of negotiations, Eddie has been held hostage in a negotiation by Agent Hayseed and his associate since being picked up at the train station the morning before.

Tellingly, our first Eddie sighting isn’t of him, but through his stuff instead. Nucky takes a moment to visit Eddie’s apartment and we see the empty, almost museum-like quality of Eddie’s lonely life.

While Agent Hayseed works to break Eddie, we see the power dynamic (and, we see the reality that we’ve been dreading since last episode). In each scene Agent Hayseed stands tall and powerful above Eddie and Eddie is small and dwarfed by sharp overhead shots.

Agent Hayseed gets the intel he needs and we learn that Eddie’s über-loyalty now is an attempt to make up for the life he left behind in Germany, one where he stole money, abandoned his family and ran away with his mistress. For Eddie, this is but another failure of life.

And speaking of loyalty, Agent Hayseed is loyal to the badge, to a fault. The pleasure he takes in the power he holds over Eddie reminds us of the cold and unfeeling response to killing his double-timing partner from a few episodes back (what did I tell you? This show loves the psychopath hiding underneath).

Agent Hayseed recites part of Goethe’s poem (and Danish folktale) “Der Erlkönig” to Eddie — a poem about the failings of a father and testament to the ignorance of a man — as the final twist of the knife following a day of interrogation and psychological imprisonment.

Eddie finally breaks down and, after a small admission (implicating Ralph Capone as the receiver of Nucky’s payment), Agent Hayseed tells Eddie they’ll be seeing him again soon. Eddie, not willing to allow that to happen, pens one last admission and promptly steps out of his bedroom window.

Back in Willie’s bedroom, Nucky leaves him with sage words of advice. Willie has admitted to poisoning Biff “because he thought he was better than me.” Remember how last week I mentioned how scary the prospect of Willie’s anger was? Nucky’s words ring true and deep: “The only thing you can count on is blood. The blood that’s in your veins, and the blood that’s in mine. The rage you feel is a gift. But, don’t let anyone see it.”

Like the son in “Der Erlkönig,” we’ve seen what others don’t. A wisp of fog and shimmering willows. We’re not ignorant to the plight of these people — heroin’s hold on Gillian, the poison in Thompson blood, and Agent Hayseed’s beast underneath.

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4 thoughts on “New Show Recap: Boardwalk Empire 4×05, “Der Erlkonig””

  1. I just knew it wasn’t going to end well for Eddie but dammit, I didn’t expect him to kill himself. It’s odd to say that in doing so, he proved that he really was “honorable” but that’s what I was left feeling.

    And the poor sap who thought he was Willie’s friend…. Talk about choose your friends wisely! He didn’t and now he’ll pay the price for Willie keeping his freedom. Ugh.

    Ain’t gonna lie, I love Stephen Graham’s Al Capone and I really thought this episode marked the coming out of the “real” Capone. I want more!!!

    1. Yes! totally agree about Al. I feel like up to this point it was a lot of horsing around and having a good time at the top, but now he means business. I think that’s why they had him being so frivilous at the beginning of the episode – just having fun getting coked up.

      To me this started the war between the good-guys and the Chicago gangland. I’m looking forward to Al’s beast underneat because every glimpse we’ve been given of him has been so entertaining.

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