A shocking twist highlights the drama's inability to make space for great female characters
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article contains spoilers for "Boardwalk Empire" season two, episode 10 ("Georgia Peaches"). Read at your own risk.
On one hand, yes, oh my God, oh the humanity, poor Angela Darmody (Aleksa Palladino), rest her soul; what a ghastly exit. Philadelphia gangster/butcher Manny Horvitz (William Forsythe) avenged a botched assassination attempt by Angela’s husband, Jimmy (Michael Pitt), by invading the Darmodys’ seaside house and putting Angela and her girlfriend down like livestock. It was obscenely dark, and I mean that as a compliment. Violence that’s supposed to mean something — to feel “real” and hurt the spectator — can’t be clean, abstract or comic bookish. It needs to have that ’70s movie nastiness, and this killing definitely had it. It reminded me of the murder spree that ended Boys Don’t Cry, with the bodies on the floor and the bloodstains on the wall. Horrifying.
But on the other hand: sooner or later “Boardwalk Empire” had to kill off somebody who was listed in the show’s opening credits, otherwise it would have seemed like Guest Star Murder Theater, and Angela was definitely the most disposable major character. She never drove important plotlines; mostly she reacted to her husband’s macho shenanigans, sometimes suffering in silence, sometimes acting out. Her appearances tended to tease the same question over and over: “Is Angela being true to herself and flirting with women this week, or trying to pass for straight again?” That’s a fascinating predicament for a female character in male-dominated 1920s Atlantic City, with its boho influence bubbling just under the surface, but “Boardwalk” has yet to address it in a meaningful way. We got a parting taste of Angela’s internal conflict during her final episode, but it ultimately felt like a glorified setup for the surprise of seeing a woman coming out of that bathroom instead of Jimmy. (On TV, when unhappy characters try to set things right with the people who mean the most to them, it often means that death is right around the corner.)
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Matt Zoller Seitz is the publisher of Press Play and TV critic for Salon.