One of the things I love most about Boardwalk Empire is the way it seamlessly integrates history into its narrative. Whether it’s the Black Sox scandal or the Harding Presidency, we are living and breathing this time intimately with our characters, and that makes every moment seem more poignant and alive.
“Hold Me in Paradise” was filled with more maneuvering than action, but that didn’t make it any less entertaining or relevant. Relevant because much of 1.08 showed us that however things may change, things really do stay the same, especially when it comes to politics. It was the political machinations led by Nucky (Steve Buscemi) that sealed Harding’s nomination (a womanizer and, according to Nucky, rather a tool) after the convention became deadlocked. Harding’s “Return to Normalcy” campaign was an attempt at steering government away from reform and back towards favoritism of the elite establishment (and away from new immigrants). Themes we see over and over again in this series as each continually challenge the other. Standing in front of the giant flag with Harding’s campaign manager, we not only see Nucky at his shrewd best as he outwits Senator Edge, but we saw a mirror into the past of the corrupt impact of lobbying and how it leads to the elections of the “best of the second-raters.”
It was good to see Jimmy (Michael Pitt) and Nucky back in each other’s company again, no matter how cold the initial reception. It was the first or second episode when Nucky chided Jimmy for becoming the gangster Nucky now desperately needs. “It’s a new world” may be the convenient rationalization, but it’s the same new world that Nucky himself helped to create. When power is gained purely on the merits of corrupt wealth, it takes muscle to enforce. Nucky is now faced with having to recognize that he is, indeed, a gangster. The kind that murders just to send a message. One had to feel for Jimmy as he watched the Italians playing cards and realized that the home he continues to search for after the war, a simple, meaningful place in things (regardless of its violent nature), was once again a mirage. “You sound lonely,” his mother tells him. Something even a $70 suit can’t fix.
Will Maggie (Kelly MacDonald) be the one who finally brings Nucky down? Or will seeing his ledger only help to further corrupt her? Maggie seems to be the reflecting lens through which we get to watch the entire process of corruption unfold. Suddenly Lucy (Paz de la Huerta) has become the voice of reason, at least in the sense that, yes she may be a bimbo, but she knows her role in the system. Knows what the system is capable of. Something Maggie is still entirely clueless about.
Van Alden (Michael Shannon) continued his righteous creepiness by neglecting his wife’s fertility surgery in order to return Jimmy’s money back to Jimmy’s wife. A nice twist in the name of following God’s plan. But Van Alden’s warped take on morality is perhaps just as violent as that of Nucky’s code of reluctant immorality. It’s just that the violence is subtler, a violence to the emotion and the soul (just ask Van Alden’s wife). A repression that deals its own powerful blows. We have two opposing ethical world views clashing amongst a class stratification that is tearing itself apart. But they each meet somewhere in the middle in terms of the resulting damage they cause.
Perhaps nothing summed up 1.08 better than Rothstein’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) practice testimony in the Black Sox scandal. The last thing he would ever do, he says, would be to besmirch the heart of an American by corrupting its game. Harding tells Nucky that Americans crave a “return to stability”. Perhaps what stability really means is ignorance. Looking the other way. As long as we each think we are getting our own, or that we still have the possibility of achieving it no matter how corrupt the entire system may be in its fix against us…now that’s what we call stability. We need the sanctity of baseball in order to forget why we need its distraction to begin with. That’s what we call America’s game.