Boardwalk Empire, Season 4, Episode 5, “Erlkönig”
Written by Howard Korder
Directed by Tim Van Patten
Airs Sundays at 9pm EST on HBO
Kate is new to Boardwalk Empire this season and her reviews will approach the acclaimed series from the newbie’s perspective.
This week, on Boardwalk Empire: Gillian becomes desperate, Mueller moves up, and Eddie is taken by the Erlkönig
As many viewers will no doubt be aware, Der Erlkönig is a poem by Goethe based on Danish folklore that was adapted by the great (early) Romantic composer Franz Schubert into one of his most famous lieder, or art songs. To set the mood for the discussion of by far the best episode this season, so far:
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Schubert’s “Erlkonig” tells the story of a father racing through the forest on horseback to get his young son home while the son shudders and cries out to his father about the spectral Erlkonig (trans. Alder King, or Elf King) coming to take him that only he can see. Two guesses how it ends. This episode of course features the amazing scene with Agent Knox and Eddie quoting the poem, but more than one storyline mimics the tale this week.
The opening of the episode is incredibly effective, with Willie’s anxious pleas to Nucky for help contrasted against the trappings of his privileged, formerly carefree existence at school, including, of course, a shot of the sheet music for a Schubert piece sitting at a deserted piano. Willie has been taken in for questioning concerning the death of his schoolmate and is desperate to escape prosecution. This is by far the most interesting material Ben Rosenfield has had to work with this season and Willie’s fear is convincing. The approach Boardwalk Empire takes of several weeks of buildup to payoffs such as this does make the big moments Willie gets here effective, but one can’t help wondering if they could’ve still achieved this a bit earlier in the season. There are at least three Erlkönig readings in this story- Willie could be the boy, in a change saved from the clutches of the police by his surrogate father, Willie’s friend could be the boy, taken by the boogie men, or most interestingly, and most accurately to the tale, Willie is the boy, in danger and eventually taken in by the whispers of Erlkönig Nucky, the threat others don’t see.
Elsewhere, Gillian gets perhaps the most literal titular parallel, as she attempts to snatch up her grandson. Gretchen Mol continues to do great work as Gillian, her performance artfully accompanied by point of view blurring of the frame, as she tries desperately to find solace in one after another lifeline- Roy, her grandson, and her drugs. Tying her in with Narcisse and Purnsley’s heroin schemes could be very interesting and it seems Ron Livingston’s Roy may be around longer than expected, if 10 messages and a syringe kit don’t scare him away.
The murkiest Schubert/Goethe parallel this week is in the Mueller scenes. Is he the boy, swept up (somewhat) against his will into the Capone gang? Is he the Erlkönig, causing Frank’s death, unbeknownst to Al? We’ll have a better picture once we get a sense of the role he’ll be playing in Al’s revenge. There’s a shift in Mueller this week, a hardening that this new viewer assumes may be a bit of the Van Alden edge coming through- him working with Al doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea for anyone involved (though Al of course remains oblivious Mueller’s frustrations), but it should be entertaining to watch. Michael Shannon remains emotionally gripping and delightfully humorous as Mueller and it’s great to get some time with his family again; hopefully there will be more to come.
The emotional core of the episode, however, is the progression of Eddie from silent, stubborn prisoner to regretful father to collaborator to repentant sinner. Anthony Laciura is fantastic this week, particularly in the Goethe-quoting climax of his scenes with Brian Geraghty’s Agent Knox. Again, we’ve spent a lot of time with Eddie this season and while it’s all been interesting, it’s a shame we only get to see this depth and range of emotion upon his (presumed) death. Howard Korder’s writing throughout these scenes, making Eddie’s eventual turn not only believable, but perhaps inevitable, is amazing and tying everything in with “Erlkönig” is a beautiful extra flourish. Longer-term viewers may have been aware of Eddie’s past, but to this season four hop-on, it was an illuminating and welcome surprise. Nucky, the unaware father to Eddie’s son, killed by the unseen menace of his Erlkönig, Knox, will certainly be affected by this loss- with few others in his life he cares about, perhaps this will be what finally brings Margaret back into the story. Or maybe it’ll send him running down to Tampa and Sally. Either way, Eddie’s suicide will have massive ripples throughout the rest of the season. It’s a shame to lose Laciura from the recurring cast, but at least in “Erlkönig” he gets an amazing final episode.
The season is now half over and, with certain storylines just starting to come to a boil, it looks like we’re in for some big changes ahead. If even a few of the rest of the episodes this year can match this week’s intensity and emotion, we’ll be in for one hell of a ride. To take us out, here’s another fantastic rendition of Schubert’s “Erlkönig”, in this case, Hilary Hahn performing Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst’s arrangement for violin:
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What did you think of the episode? Any predictions for the second half of the season? Is this production crew capable of making a not-visually-gorgeous episode? Reassure me- there’s no way Gillian gets her grandson now, right? Post your thoughts below!