Boardwalk Empire – The Complete Series

And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

– Percy Bysshe Shelley

Was there ever a moment in Boardwalk Empire when Nucky was as successful or powerful as he was in the pilot?  At that time he had wealth, political power, respect, admirers, and an entire city under his command.  At his convenience he could summon leaders both legitimate and criminal, and he lived a life of luxury.

Boardwalk Empire is a story about decay – moral, physical, and economic.  In the end, the only characters who are in a better position than they were in the pilot episode are Margaret and Luciano.

Margaret only prospers after she breaks away from Nucky.  This is why his attempts at reconciliation during the final season rang hollow.  What, after all, did she need him for?  She made out well in the Mayflower deal, and gained the trust of the powerful, and more importantly legitimate, businessman Joseph Kennedy all on her own.  The fact that Nucky probably left her the lion’s share of his fortune upon his death is just gravy – here is a character who has broken free of her dependance on anyone.

Luciano is a different animal.  From their very first meeting in the pilot episode, Luciano despised Nucky.  We never really got to know Charlie as intimately as we got to know some of his historical counterparts, Al Capone in particular. We did, however, learn that his defining characteristics were patience and a hatred of the old authorities.  He was always one step ahead of his enemies, chose his friends wisely, and in the end became the force that undid everything those old authorities built.  His empire won’t last forever, but we won’t get to see his later imprisonment, deportation, and death.

Nucky mostly stopped caring long before Luciano made his final move, and cares about nothing afterwards.  His brother tried to kill him two or three times, but he goes to see him.  Gillian is in a mental hospital, and has always been dangerous and unpredictable, but he goes to see her.  He even needlessly gathers his effects from Atlantic City – how could he trust Luciano not to finish him off?  He has his Mayflower money – but it might as well be worthless newspaper.  It feels like a relief when Tommy takes care of him.

The saddest part about Nucky’s life is that one decision could have changed everything.  What if had quit the Commodore forever, and he and Mabel had taken Gillian in?  They might have left Atlantic City and found a peaceful, happy existence somewhere.

This other option, so clear to the audience, was shrouded to Nucky.  He was forever reacting to moves made by more skillful players, and never really in control.  He was incapable of taking, or even seeing, a different path.

At the end, Nucky Thompson was a soulless chimera.  He began to die the moment he gave Gillian to the Commodore, and no amount of wealth or power could stop the inner decay.

This fate wasn’t unique to Nucky.  Jimmy, Chalky, Capone, Gyp Rossetti, Rothstein, and Narcisse built  empires themselves, which are ground into dust by end of the series.  As powerful as Luciano’s empire seemed in 1931, it was ultimately doomed as well.  Even Richard Harrow – who lost everything trying to save Tommy, ultimately failed in the end.

So what does one make of Boardwalk Empire?  It was an uneven series at times.  At its best, it played like high tragedy, at its worst, it played like a dull historical reenactment.  But perhaps no show on television has so viscerally dealt with the consequences of empires built by crime, violence, and moral decay.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

Breaking Bad – The Complete Series

Per usual, this “complete series” post is for people who have watched the entire series described herein.  If Breaking Bad is still sitting on your Netflix queue – stop reading now and watch an episode or two.  You’ll thank me afterwards.

For mine own good, all causes give way. I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning would be as tedious as go o’er. Strange things I have in head, that will to hand, which must be acted ere there may be scann’d.

Macbeth, Act III, Scene IV.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations.  Centuries after his conception, he is still the archetypal anti-hero of the English-language theater.  To television viewers in the last ten years, Walter White is often the first character thought of when asked to name an anti-hero.  He is more human and thus more relatable than Tony Soprano, and far more evil that Don Draper (whom I would argue is not really an anti-hero at all).

Like Macbeth, Walter doesn’t start out as an evil man, and the transition is so seamless that by the end of the series much of the audience is still rooting for him.  He’s introduced to us as a family man, a teacher, and a cancer patient.  He’s desperate and angry, and he turns to making meth to pay for his treatment and support his family.

How is this like Macbeth then?  Macbeth is envious of Duncan and ambitious from the beginning, but it is the prophecy of the weird sisters that compels him to act.  Walter’s envy and ambition may be more repressed than Macbeth’s at the beginning, but his illness acts as a catalyst for him to desperately right the perceived wrongs in his life (not, as we’re led to believe, to help his family).  The main wrong – him not being on top.

Another similarity is that each man is essentially a wounded animal from the moment that they are compelled to action.  Both take increasingly brutal and amoral actions throughout their stories.  What sets Walter apart is that he is a far more dangerous animal than his Shakespearean counterpart due to his improbable luck.

Vince Gilligan takes careful steps to demonstrate the absurd improbability of Walter’s life.  At the end of the second season, for example, we are shown a series of events that leads to an air disaster.  Walter is somehow in the middle of this. He lets Jane die.  He meets her father, who will be grief stricken and make a mistake.  He personally sees the plane crash that results from that mistake.

The ending of the series has been criticized in some circles as too neat, too tidy, and too much a series of unlikely events.  Walter is destroyed in “Ozymandias,” and dealing with the consequences of that destruction in “Granite State.”  Were it any other story, even Macbeth, he would have died a broken man in “Felina.”

I would argue that a traditional, “ruined villain gets what’s due to him” ending wouldn’t have fit Gilligan’s story.  Walter has been in the center of far too many bizarre events to have simple justice done to him.  To me, it fits perfectly that he is able to undertake one last unlikely action to right at least some of his wrongs.

Did he deserve to be in a position to do so? Absolutely not – he deserved to die alone in that cabin.  In this way, the ending isn’t earned – but I think that’s the point.  Walter White doesn’t stop rolling sevens from the moment he gets sick – sometimes being portrayed as being a force of nature unto himself.  When much of the audience turns against him by the end, when we recognize his evil and see his comeuppance, we want his luck to run out.   It remains frustratingly consistent that Walter is equally as fortunate when we’re on his side at the beginning and when we’re against him at the end.

Only a man “untimedly ripped from his mother’s womb” can destroy Macbeth, but it seems that the only thing that could destroy Walter White is Walter White.  It’s his own bullet, after all, that finishes him.  How I wish it were anyone else’s.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

The Sopranos, the Complete Series (1999-2007)

The Sopranos

Primary Show Runner: David Chase; U.S. (HBO)

Premiered: January 10, 1999; Ended: June 10, 2007

(This article is designed for people who have watched the entire series of The Sopranos.  If you plan to watch the series in the future and want to avoid spoilers – you should stop reading now.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

“I am the way into the city of woe.  I am the way to a forsaken people.  I am the way into eternal sorrow. Sacred justice moved my architect.  I was raised here by divine omnipotence, primordial love, and ultimate intellect.  Only those elements time cannot wear were made before me, and beyond time I stand.  Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

– Dante Alighieri, from “The Divine Comedy” c. 1315

The Sopranos begins as a rouse – a deceptive glamor.  We think we are being told a story about redemption.  After all, we open with a gangster, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) going to a psychologist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) for help.  This attempt towards self-improvement gives us hope that this fundamentally evil man can change.  This hope carries us through seven seasons – even as it becomes increasingly obvious that The Sopranos is about something else entirely.

It isn’t the first time we have been made to sympathize with the bad guys – the Godfather films being the first example that comes to mind. Vito Corleone, after all, didn’t turn to crime because he wanted to be a criminal or because he was necessarily a violent man. He turned to crime out of a desire to protect, and provide for, his family.  Michael Corleone never intended to join the family business, so his decent into becoming a violent criminal is a tragedy.

Neither Corleone ever really enjoyed being a mob boss, while Tony never wanted anything else.  He had a chance to go to college and leave North Jersey behind, but he dropped out in favor of pursuing “the Life.” Over seven seasons, we don’t watch him become a better man, just a more vicious criminal.

Throughout its run we were confronted with characters that were seduced by evil, and too in love with its spoils to turn themselves away from it.  Tony B. (Steve Bucsemi) and Vito (Joseph R. Gannascoli) try to leave “the Life” but are seduced back into it, resulting in their deaths.  For Carmella Soprano (Edie Falco), her rationalizations and denials increase throughout the series.  Sure Tony may have killed people, but he gets her all those fine necklaces.  Even the once street-wise Meadow Soprano (Jamie Lynn Sigler) is, by the end of the series, making the same rationalizations as her mother.

It should be obvious to the viewer that these people are only going to get worse as the series progresses.  Tony especially is nothing more than a ten year old bully in the body of an adult man.  He enjoys pushing people around, teasing people to their limits, hitting people in anger, and watching old movies with a bowl of ice cream and a smug look on his face.

But he provides.  For his family he provides wealth.  As long as they don’t question where that wealth comes from.  For his men he provides the thrill of the gangster life, as long as they don’t cross him.  For Dr. Melfi he provides a professional challenge.  For himself he provides whatever he wants however he wants to get it.

He provides for the audience too.  He provides the thrill of criminal violence and intrigue.  He provides girls, guns, and gold.  He provides just enough charm to like him and ignore what should be obvious to all of us.  We see him make jokes, cry for his children, pour his soul out to Dr. Melfi.  We think, maybe this time it will be different.

It’s never different, and that’s because The Sopranos is not a tale of redemption.  It is a decent into hell.  And Tony Soprano is the devil.

(c) 2014 D.G. McCabe

The Wire – The Complete Series (2002-2008)

This is the first in a series discussing the complete series of notable past television shows. If you have NOT seen the entire series, and are either in the middle of watching it or planning to watch it you should skip this article – it is filled with spoilers. When you’ve finished the series, come back for this commentary.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you – D.G. McCabe

The Wire

2002-2008, U.S., Creator and Primary Showrunner- David Simon

“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”

– William Shakespeare, Brutus from “Julius Caesar” Act IV, Scene III

The Wire often tops “best of” lists for television dramas and television programs in general. The declining aspects of Baltimore, Maryland, which at its zenith in the 1950’s-1970’s had almost a million people, serves as the backdrop of a story of institutional decay as seen primarily through the eyes of the Baltimore Police Department (although the show does a fantastic job developing characters ranging from powerful politicians to poor school children).

The quality of The Wire cannot be denied.  The acting and writing are consistently excellent, and the camera work weaves an impending sense of doom throughout even the series’ more mundane moments.  It has several key themes woven throughout it’s five season run beyond the obvious “decline of middle class institutions” theme.  It is also one of the most frustrating stories ever told, an anti-show that would make Anton Chekov proud.

Getting to the Top

The main antagonists during the series’ first three season are drug kingpins Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and Stringer Bell (Idris Elba).  While Bell and Barksdale are clearly evil, they are not corrupt in the sense that they operate by an established code and run their drug organization much like a legitimate business would operate.  At one point, Bell even establishes a co-operative with the other Baltimore drug lords so that everyone can benefit from the high quality drugs being smuggled in by an Eastern European crime syndicate. While both men are ruthless, paranoid, murderers, they don’t get to the top by breaking the rules, so to speak, of “the game.”

The same cannot be said about Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector), Bell and Barksdale’s successor as “most powerful drug lord in Baltimore.”  Marlo is corrupt in ways that Bell and Barksdale are not (the murder of Proposition Joe, ordering Chris and Snoop to murder a family because the guy was “talking smack,” etc.). Nor can it be said about Police Commissioner Ervin Burrell (Frankie Faison) who gets his position not through ability but by manipulating crime statistics and through shady political connections.  Interestingly enough, these corrupt men stay on top for long periods of time.  While they are ultimately done in by outside forces, they personify the nature of how breaking “the rules” can result in unjust rewards for people willing to do anything to gain power.

Keeping Power

Even people seeking power with good intentions fall short due to what it takes to keep power.  In season three, Tommy Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) runs for mayor to “clean up the city” and promises Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick), at this point the leader of the Major Crimes Unit, a future without manipulation of crime statistics for political purposes.  This goes out the window at the end of season 5 where, in exchange for promoting Daniels to Commissioner, Carcetti asks for manipulated crime statistics to bolster his run for Governor of Maryland.

Likewise, Frank Sobotka, the union leader in Season 2, allows an Eastern European crime syndicate to flood Baltimore with drugs and prostitutes in exchange for the funds he needs to keep his co-workers employed.  He also uses the money to lobby politicians to give his dying profession a future.  In summary, he looks the other way from violent criminals in order keep himself in a position when he can help his fellow dock-workers.

Justice and Vengeance

Another major theme of The Wire is the relationship to justice and vengeance, and how the show makes the audience feel about them.  When Stringer Bell is gunned down by Omar Little (Michael Kenneth Williams) at the end of Season 3, it is anti-climatic because we watched for three years the struggle of Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn), Lester Freeman (Clarke Peters) and the other protagonists spend so much time and energy trying to put Stringer behind bars.  Indeed, Stringer is an evil man who deserves his fate, but the show makes the audience feel cheated in the way that fate is doled out.

Similarly, in season one, when Greggs is shot by Barksdale’s thugs, the man who pulled the trigger is killed off-screen.  While it is satisfying that Barksdale himself ends up behind bars, something feels empty by the way that the man responsible for the near murder of one of the show’s main protagonists simply disappears.

Disruption

Whether it is McNulty making up a serial killer to fund the operation to take down Marlo, Howard Colvin (Robert Wisdom) and his season three “Hamsterdam” experiment, or Stringer Bell setting up the drug lord co-op, there are dozens of instances in The Wire of one individual taking initiative to disrupt the regular way of doing things.  In most instances, these disruption are punished by the status quo.  McNulty and Colvin lose their jobs (McNulty is demoted twice before that) and Stringer loses control of the co-op due to the return of the “status quo” drug violence of Barksdale.

The character of Omar, with McNulty a close second, personifies the disruptive figure. Omar is an outlaw even among outlaws, robbing drug dealers at gunpoint and avoiding the resulting bounties on a regular basis.  Still, even Omar cannot escape the random and violent world of the drug “game” when he is unceremoniously taken down by a twelve-year old in a bodega at the end of season five.

Missed Connections

And this brings me to the Shakespeare quote and Chekov reference above.  In season one, the cops have D’Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.) ready to turn on his uncle, when his mother convinces him not to.  In season two they have Frank Sobotka in the same position, when he is murdered by the Eastern Europeans.  In season three they have Stringer Bell nailed, when Omar takes care of him for them.  There are dozens of instances in their investigations like this, they have everything wrapped up when something happens to unravel everything.

One of the most frustrating missed connections occurs in Season 4, when Herc (Domenik Lombardozzi), trying to find a camera that he lost investigating Marlo, destroys the life of  promising middle-schooler Randy (Maestro Harrell) by mishandling him as a source of information.  The mistake would have been avoided but for a homicide detective failing to pass along a message to Bunk Moreland (Wendell Pierce) out of spite.

Conclusion

The richness of themes, high production quality, and even its frustrating plotlines make The Wire one of the finest shows in television history.  It is not a perfect series (the newspaper sub-plot in Season 5 never really connects and most of the events of Season 2 exist in isolation from the rest of the series) but it may be the closest thing television has produced thus far to the thematic density of the novels of Victor Hugo and Leo Tolstoy.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe