“My name is Nelson Van Alden. Take off your nightgown.”
Last week’s episode of Boardwalk Empire was Chalky White’s show. This week is all about Van Alden. After being on the back burner for a while, his subplot is finally front and center, and the results are about as fantastic as you’d expect them to be. Van Alden, after all, is a violently unbalanced fellow, and actor Michael Shannon is so great in the role that it’s hard not to feel just a little giddy whenever he shows up.
A couple episodes back, Al Capone was given the green light to take out Dean O’Banion in retaliation for double-crossing Johnny Torrio (and likely being involved in the murder of Frank Capone). This episode, a clearly coked-out Capone enlists Van Alden’s aid in his quest for vengeance. Van Alden, perhaps feeling a bit emasculated after a thorough hen-pecking from his (sort-of) wife, one ups Capone and offers to do the deed himself. Of course, nothing works out quite as planned for Van Alden, but he does get the opportunity to give one hell of a speech to O’Banion.
“I used to believe in God,” he tells O’Banion menacingly, “but now I don’t believe in anything at all.”
That’s quite a stunning admission coming from a man who once drowned someone while baptizing him too hard, but it also makes perfect sense. Van Alden has sunk so low, morally and spiritually, that to believe in God at this point would be to believe in his own damnation. The only way for him to move forward at this point is by adopting the same sense of morality as notorious murderers Leopold and Loeb, who are once again mentioned in this episode. That is the morality of the ubermensch, which eschews the “slave morality” of Christianity for one which says that for a superior class of humans, there is no right and wrong in the traditional sense. There is only action.
Van Alden springs to life when he shoots the three men who attack him on his way to offing O’Banion. After being pushed around by his wife, O’Banion, Capone, and seemingly everyone else he has come into contact with for quite some time, he finally feels a sense of power and control. He carries that forward into the speech he gives O’Banion, and even though he’s not the one who ends up doing Capone’s dirty work, Van Alden goes home a renewed (and apparently aroused) man.
Unfortunately, the rest of the episode doesn’t quite match the excitement of Van Alden’s subplot. After getting a welcome reprieve from Gillian Darmody for the last few episodes, she’s back in the picture. Against the backdrop of a sunny day at the beach she comes clean to Roy Phillips about her past. Well, she almost comes clean. She still lies to him about when and how her son died, which indicates that perhaps she’s not 100% ready to trust him with her darkest secrets just quite yet.
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