The Arty Semite

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

By Gwen Orel

  • Print
  • Share Share
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.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Van Alden, Terence Winter, Steve Buscemi, Television, Sebso, Prohibition, Paz de la Huerta, Paris Green, Nicky Thompson, New York Times, Michael Shannon, Michael Kenneth Williams, Martin Scorsese, Howard Korder, Gwen Orel, HBO, Green Point, Golden Globes, Charles McGrath, Chalky White, Anti-Semitism, Brooklyn, Boardwalk Empire, Bally's, Atlantic City

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • What's a "telegenically dead" Palestinian?
  • 13 Israeli soldiers die in Gaza — the deadliest day for the IDF in decades. So much for 'precision' strikes and easy exit strategies.
  • What do a Southern staple like okra and an Israeli favorite like tahini have in common? New Orleans chef Alon Shaya brings sabra tastes to the Big Easy.
  • The Cossacks were a feature in every European Jewish kid's worst nightmare. Tuvia Tenenbom went looking for the real-life variety in Ukraine — but you won't believe what he found. http://forward.com/articles/202181/my-hunt-for-the-cossacks-in-ukraine/?
  • French Jews were stunned when an anti-Israel mob besieged a synagogue outside Paris. What happened next could be a historic turning point.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.