Recap: Boardwalk Empire, “Erlkönig”

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“Erlkönig” is the episode I’ve been waiting for, one that erupts in change for all of the cast. The cause and effect that made the first few seasons of Boardwalk Empire so engrossing returns with a bizarrely directed and universe changing installment. People die, people pay, and halfway through season four, Boardwalk finally reveals its characters.

Throughout Boardwalk‘s run, we have watched characters create their own systems of operation. Within those systems, they run things a certain way, some through violence, others through cunning, and some through sex. Season four aims to change this up and has done so in the past few episodes. For instance, the sharpshooting phantom of the opera who feels nothing for the lives of criminals, Richard Harrow, buried his gun after failing to kill his sick dog. He can no longer get the job done, a far cry from the dependable assassin of previous seasons.

Last week, we saw characters facing consequences. Willy saw the dead body of schoolmate and bully, while Van Alden’s quiet demeanor led him right into the employment of Al Capone, a man who threatens Van Alden’s anonymity. This week we see what these consequences actually entail. Willy, now in police custody, must ask his uncle for legal advice; Van Alden, no longer under the dark of night, must publicly follow Capone’s orders; Eddie, also now in police custody, has his loyalty tested; and Gillian Darmody looks for her son in all the wrong places. In each of the episode’s threads we see this breakdown. Van Alden cannot rely on standing quietly in the back of the crowd when he’s thrust into action. Similarly, Gillian cannot use sex to coerce lawyers to give up her son. Their characters have been written to work a certain way,and this episode refuses this mode of operation.

The prime interest of “Erlkönig” is Willy and Eddie, two peripherals of Nucky. Willy feeds off of his pedigree, which eventually lands him in jail. He believes in his own invincibility because of his name, which Nucky reminds him to change. Conversely, Agent Knox attempts to break Eddie of his character stipulations, too, challenging his character by revealing to Eddie of his past life. Neither are prepared for the consequences of their own system. Willy figured he could just get away with it, like all Thompsons have, and Eddie thought the feds had nothing on him. However, both learn that outside forces can alter their system drastically.

Director Tim Van Patten creates a far more visceral episode of Boardwalk, one that attempts visualize this collapse. It’s most frequently seen in the awkward shot reverse shot technique used in the episode. Typical shot reverse shots separate characters by the space, creating distance between the players. “Erlkönig” separated them by nothing, putting the setting behind the character. In other cases, they put far more Now, because this so directly rejects film language, it has a confusing effect, but his point is clear: these are characters on the edge.


The point of all this is that plans on Boardwalk rarely work. No matter what way Nucky sets the pieces, unforeseen players change the game. For Willy it’s Thompson pride and for Eddie it’s his past. Characters eventually go over the edge in this episode and restore some of the surprise that’s been sorely missing in the past few episodes. Maybe, with all his pawns in turmoil, King Nucky will come down from his tower and do something next week. Though, let’s hope he takes the stairs.

  1. October 14th, 2013

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