All gangster films and television shows owe something to The Godfather Saga. And Boardwalk Empire, the HBO series, is no exception. Catholicism was one of many themes in The Godfather with weddings and the baptisms binding the dysfunctional and deadly family together in the films. Boardwalk Empire follows suit.
Boardwalk Empire is set in Atlantic City, New Jersey and syncs with some of the early days of The Godfather Saga. In the Age of Reason episode, religion is treated more expansively from Judaism to Christianity. Philly the Butcher, who is Jewish, has no qualms about torturing a man for information. What he refuses to do is kill the man, like a fatted calf out of the Jewish Torah and the Christian Old Testament. Philly has another man do it because a fatted calf cannot be sacrificed unless it is without spot, which basically means the animal must be flawless, not damaged in any way. Another man had to do the sacrificing so that Philly did not break with Jewish law.
Shifting to Christianity, the episode bounces between Catholicism and Protestantism. A priest is central to the Catholic scenes and references. Everyone in Boardwalk is dirty and could do with some atonement of sins from the priest. One young boy is seven and is quizzed by the priest about confession and forgiveness. It’s a difficult moment for everyone including the boy’s mother and “uncle”. Everyone is squirming. Ultimately, Maggie, the boy’s mother is called by the priest to confession. She chooses one sliver in her life in which to confess: thoughts of adultery. The last scene is of the boy who is dressed in white for the ritual of his first confession with the priest. His “Uncle” Nucky–this is the ruse though Maggie is Nucky’s mistress–should be doing most of the confessing. Nucky’s life as a gangster and a damaged human being has spilled over to the boy poisoning the kid. It doesn’t matter how much white the boy wears, which connects to the purity of Jewish animal sacrifice; it seems a given that the boy is a gangster in the making in his “uncle’s” image.
As for Protestantism, this period of Prohibition, the 1920 to the 30s, in which the series is set isn’t far from an American Protestantism, rooted in Pentecostalism. Asuza Street, was a transformational revival, of the early twentieth century in Los Angeles. Modern Pentecostalism comes out of this revival. The moving of the Holy Spirit is central to Pentecostalism and Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden is full of it. The Holy Spirit speaks to him through the words of dying man about sin. The Holy Spirit speaks to Van Alden in a different, in another way through a flickering light bulb outside the dying man’s room. Van Alden is a prohibition agent, ridding the world of liquor, but he’s done some bad bad things. He’s in need of some atonement himself. He tries to get it by confessing his sins in phone booth that mirrors the confessional in a box in the Catholic Church.
Finally, a child is born out of wedlock. Out of the Boardwalk Empire mobster miasma, is the child born with or without sin? Even if the child is born without sin, her parents–one a spiritually twisted mentally ill federal agent, the other one-time mobster moll–are not giving her the best start. But then again, depending on your theology, all can be redeemed.
So stay tuned. I’m expecting that these themes of sin, sacrifice, confession, atonement. and redemption will not be go away anytime soon on Boardwalk Empire.