(pictured below: Jimmy Darmody, already dead)
I don’t watch that much television. I never have. When I do watch a show I’ve opted for what makes me feel good, namely comedy. I reserved being devastated for the films I watched and the books I read. But television? No way. Television is a medium that has made me happy, nothing else. Thinking otherwise has never crossed my mind.
Well, until now.
What I’ve ignored over the years is the way television dramas suck people in and destroy them. That’s the rub. I’ve never invested myself in something serious so I’ve never experienced this. A miniseries, maybe, but they are relatively short and don’t leave an audience hanging. With an ongoing show the game is completely different because it’s constantly open-ended.
Sometimes a development on a television show is impossible to ignore. At least I knew that. Something upsetting becomes news despite the fact it’s fictional. For example, I was amused when the internet exploded over True Blood‘s head-twisting sex scene (which I thought was hilarious) or Sally Draper’s self-exploration on Mad Men. I also watched my Facebook feed turn into a bunch of capital letters, screaming and exclamation points after the season 4 finale of Dexter. I wouldn’t consider myself a fan of any of these shows, yet I know how much they disturbed and hurt people. Why? Because the reactions were very real. Thing is, the shows are not.
Most recently my friend Michelle sat through Supernatural‘s mid-season finale, “Death’s Door,” which aired last week. She wrote me personally to tell me what this show on the CW had done, taking her by surprise in the most embarrassing way: “It was like a monsoon down my face, I cried so hard.”
So there you go. Something as trivial as a TV show can rip your heart out, nail it to a wall and then have the audacity to keep you interested. That’s the power of storytelling and emotional investment, I guess.
This didn’t really mean anything to me until last Sunday evening, when I watched the latest episode of Boardwalk Empire, “Under God’s Power She Flourishes.” I’ve been watching the show for only a short period of time, having recently completed Deadwood, and I enjoy it. In fact, that’s an understatement. I love the show, and it’s the first television drama I’ve really liked.
Then this episode happened, bearing down like a freight train. I only slept three hours that night.
I ended up writing Michelle back and gave her my review: “I am in as much spontaneous, unexpected pain as a television show will allow.” A few days later I added: “It’s been almost 72 hours since I watched Boardwalk Empire and I still feel like I should talk to a counselor.”
I wasn’t the only one effected by the episode. Other watchers were disturbed, although it seemed like the best way to handle its topic was coming up with one-liners (writers titled their recaps “Oedipus Wrecks“, “Mommie Dearest“, even “Motherfucker,” to name a few). It was also common to make jokes and throw in words like “gross,” “twisted,” “crazy,” “sick” and “disgusting.”
If you haven’t guessed already, the topic was incest. The relationship concerned involves main character Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and his mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol), who had him when she was thirteen or so, the result of a rape. From the beginning of the series their dynamic has been close but uneasy. For one thing it was established that Jimmy had avoided his mother for years, which seemed odd.
Boardwalk had implied and threatened this issue from the very first episode and onward. It wasn’t until the beginning of season 2 that it became impossible to ignore. Gillian started to really creep me out, happily admitting she had been inappropriate with Jimmy as an infant. After that I noticed that Mol was a featured player on the show, making her character more expendable. I began hoping with each episode that she would stay the hell away from Jimmy or get killed off.
But I’m an idiot. This is television. When something bothers you the creators of the show make sure it doesn’t go away.
By “Fourishes” Jimmy had already suffered incalculable damage, both physically and mentally. As viewers know, his wife was brutally murdered in the last moments of “Georgia Peaches,” which aired the week before. Even worse, his problems were mounting, his business partners were turning on him and his asshole of a father was insulting him every step of the way (but that’s over now). The last thing he needed was his mother throwing herself at him.
So you can only imagine how Boardwalk became an absolute hell on earth when I found out that my anxieties didn’t matter. It had already happened. Gillian had taken advantage of her son years ago. There was no stopping it and the damage had already been done. Even worse was watching Jimmy’s reaction to the event- running away and basically trying to kill himself. I realized that was the origin of a character I watched develop over the past twenty-three episodes. It’s also the reason why he’s so fucked up in the first place.
To say the least I felt horrible about it. If I could have thrown up, I would have done it. Instead I stared at the ceiling for hours.
What struck me was the episode’s accuracy. It doesn’t surprise me when a parent coerces or forces their child to have sex with them and the child immediately wants to die. It doesn’t matter how old the child is when this happens (I’d estimate that Jimmy was about 17-18 years old, and I’m sorry- that’s still just a kid). The act is just that confusing and extreme.
Outsider artist Henry Darger once wrote, “According to the dictionary, [rape] means to undress a girl and cut her open to see the insides.” Of course with boys the effects are just as devastating and, even worse, overlooked. In Michael Arbeiter’s recap of the episode he felt the same way: “This is what killed him, so long ago. This is what sent him from college to the army, and what robbed him of any capability to feel like or accept himself as a human being.”
For now I’m not upset with the show or think it’s exploiting the subject. In fact, the chain of events and the way the characters handle it are painstakingly realistic, especially for the show’s timeframe (the 1910s-20s). Gillian is a victim of abuse herself; she’s just continuing the cycle. That’s very accurate and sadly how many of these situations arise. Also, no one addresses what has happened. The layers of denial are astonishing. What’s more, that denial has always been there. I’d bank on Pitt and Mol being aware of their characters’ histories and playing them accordingly, making future viewings of season 1 all the more interesting.
What remains is whether this mess will continue, which is entirely up to Jimmy. Right now I can’t answer that and doubt that tonight’s finale, “To The Lost,” will provide all the answers. I’m leaning towards “no,” simply because audiences would be completely alienated. I also know that Jimmy still has his son Tommy (Brady & Connor Noon), who he loves and wants to protect. It has been suggested that Gillian is taking an unhealthy interest in this little boy as well. I don’t see Jimmy allowing that to go anywhere.
In the larger picture of the show this revelation of incest is strategic. It’s now clear that no one has really cared for Jimmy except Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), especially in the wake of his wife and father’s deaths. Similarly, Nucky has also lost his father and the trust of his mistress Margaret (Kelly MacDonald), clearing the field so they can see one another and perhaps mend their relationship.
As for myself, I’ve had to do some mending of my own this week. I didn’t seek a counselor but eventually talked with someone and straightened myself out. And I’ve reminded myself that it’s just television after all.
But man… sometimes it can really hurt.
UPDATE (12/12/11): Having now seen “To The Lost” I am aware that my speculations were pipe dreams. Last night’s season finale did provide all the answers.
Jimmy is dead. This poor kid won’t be getting better or making any decisions, period. He signed his own death warrant and calmly walked to the slaughter. I’m now wondering why he existed in the first place if he was so disposable to the other characters. I’m also wondering what the purpose was of watching him get tortured for two seasons then shot repeatedly in the face.
At the moment I have no answers for this. Let’s hope that the makers of Boardwalk do.
All I know is that this seriously decreases my interest in season 3.