Boardwalk Empire, season 1 (2010)

If Atlantic City is an allegory of America after WWI, and Chicago, New York and Philadelphia represent European nations, America emerges a victor in that war - which it did not instigate but was called in to finish.  Nucky Thompson, boss of AC, is a Republican at the cusp of the 1920s, when political parties begin to shift.  He is a boss in the tradition of city Democrats, but rejects the New Jersey political machine.  Nucky settles his scores with New York and Chicago when they suddenly need Jersey's help. Philadelphia is sacrificed.

A Consignment recently received from Phila., Pa. 749 cases of beer (18,000) bottles were today destroyed in the District of Columbia (Library of Congress)

America roiled internally after the war, with anarchist bombings, immigrant crackdowns, lynchings of blacks, and the creation of Federal crimefighters like Agent Van Alden.  Nucky runs a city in which many plots are hatched against him.  J. Edgar Hoover was appointed Director of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924, and like Arnold Rothstein, knew the prime power of information.

Nucky's success makes for good drama, as Agent Van Alden's failure makes good drama.  Each character follows a schizoid American way.  If Nucky is the black market capitalist, a spats-and-suspenders Republican gladhander and murderer, Agent Van Alden is the crew-cut crusader of moral authority, in grinless judgment of good and evil, and is out to save others but unable to save himself.  He hates the fleshly pleasures of Atlantic City because they tempt him.  Agent Van Alden is resentful of his humanity and demonized by self-consciousness, which turns him into a religious maniac.  As American as a mob hit.  The revenue agent ends up knocking down whiskey with a seasoned swagger, and drowns Agent Sepso in baptismal waters.  With rancor and self-disgust he rails his seed into Paz, and she gets off on it.  Agent Van Alden is not a minister of justice or savior of souls.  He is a beast of God.  He first decides to flee the boardwalk empire, but asks God for a sign that might keep him in Atlantic City.  In the final episode, he receives that sign.

The show documents the panorama of large social gatherings.  The Ancient Order of Celts holds an opulent banquet on the eve of St. Patrick's Day.  Irishmen in good standing wear sashes and white on white tuxedos.  Midget wrestlers dressed as leprechauns dance a jig.  Throughout the season, there is a Chicago bar mitzvah; stump speech meetings of the Women's Temperance League; vaudeville acts on midnight stages; and a backwoods river ceremony of black Baptists.  These sequences depict visual patterns of the period which communicate the ideas and habits of Irish and Jewish clans; female anti-saloon activists; showgirls and comedians and theatergoers; and oppressed minorities.

Atlantic City itself has a rich pedigree as a venue for mass group conferences in the 20th century.  In 1929, at the President Hotel, a meeting was held of “probably the greatest collection of powerful mobsters ever assembled in one spot,” headed by New York mob lord Frank Costello. (ed. Watter, P. & Gillers, S. Investigating the FBI. A Book of the Committee for Public Justice. NY: Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1973) Numbered among the delegates was Lucky Luciano. As a result of the Atlantic City conference, where “new ideas” challenged “the old order” of mob rule, Luciano instigated a wave of assassinations “in New York and other key cities.” Up to forty murders were carried out on a single day in 1931, “Purge Day of the Greasers.” In 1935, J. Edgar Hoover - who as FBI Director was often criticized for neglecting the existence of the mafia - addressed over 600 members of the International Association of Chiefs of Police at the Hotel Ambassador. Veteran New York Times crime beat reporter Meyer Berger called it "probably the bluntest talk on crime ever uttered by a public official."  Despite the major number of law school graduates working as FBI agents, Hoover cited "shyster lawyers and other legal vermin" and "sob-sister judges" as culprits in the lack of law enforcement.  Echoing the link between American power and violent crime portrayed in Boardwalk Empire, Hoover contends that "the bullets of the underworld are today poisoned by verdigris of politics."  In 1964, AC hosted the Democratic National Convention, where the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party fought for state delegates to represent the disenfranchised political voice of Southern blacks making grave sacrifices for the movement.  Atlantic City, as a convention city, shows a history of wiseguys, G-men, and radicals.

 Sixteenth Convention, Anti-Saloon League of America at Atlantic City, N.J., July 6-9, 1915 (Library of Congress)

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