The Arty Semite

'Boardwalk Empire' Exec Dishes on Character's Anti-Semitism

By Gwen Orel

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Courtesy HBO
Erik Weiner as agent Sebso, center, and Michael Shannon as Van Alden in HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire.’

If you drown a Jew while trying to baptize him against his will, are you anti-Semitic? That was the discussion brewing in the blogosphere after the penultimate episode of the HBO hit series “Boardwalk Empire” aired on November 28. The show, set in the 1920s in Atlantic City, follows the people who run the city and the Federal Agents trying to enforce Prohibition.

Agent Van Alden, played by Michael Shannon, grew increasingly fanatical as the episodes aired — he flagellates himself and talks to his wife about signs from God. His assistant, Agent Sebso (Erik Weiner), is Jewish — he understands the Yiddish spoken by Simon, a suspect in a bootleg robbery, when Van Alden revives him with cocaine in the third episode. Sebso is also, as Van Alden suspects, working for the other side. But it was in the eleventh episode, “Paris Green” (written by playwright/screenwriter Howard Korder), that Van Alden’s true crazy emerged, as he submerged Sebso in front of an African-American congregation.

At the “Boardwalk Empire” panel at the New York Times Arts and Lesiure Weekend on January 9 I asked showrunner Terence Winter if Van Alden was intended to be anti-Semitic.

“I think it was also a surprise to Van Alden that he drowned Agent Sebso,” Winter said. “He’s anti-everyone who doesn’t see the world as he does. The baptism of Sebso exorcised some demons for him.”

On televisionwithoutpity.com, hitfix.com’s “What’s Alan Watching?” and on HBO’s own talk forums Van Alden’s murder-by-baptism led off debates about anti-Semitism. Van Alden says to Sebso when the two of them first encounter the black congregation, “you people don’t believe in Heaven, do you?” He also tells Sebso that he is damned. “Oh man,” wrote Joe Reid, the Televisionwithoutpity.com recapper. “It never bodes well when a Christian looks at a Jew that way.”

Along with Winter, the New York Times panel featured Steve Buscemi, who plays Nucky Thompson, who runs Atlantic City; Paz de La Huerta, who plays Thompson’s former girlfriend Lucy, and Michael Kenneth Williams, who plays Chalky White, the black bootlegger who has the ear of Atlantic City’s African-American community. The New York Times’ Charles McGrath moderated.

After debuting in September, “Boardwalk Empire” has been nominated for Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild awards, and begins shooting its second season next month in Green Point, Brooklyn. The pilot, filmed by Martin Scorsese (who is one of the show’s Executive Producers), is the most expensive television pilot ever made. The show is so popular it even has legs in Atlantic City, where a “swing-off” competition held at Bally’s Casino on January 13 references the Charleston era.


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