I love Al Capone. Let me rephrase: I love Stephen Graham’s portrayal of a young Al Capone on Boardwalk Empire. He shone particularly bright on Sunday, in the fourth episode of the third season. Al’s five-year-old deaf son is staying home from school one morning and Al discovers the boy has a big purple bruise on his sweet little face. He learns his son was picked on at school and is outraged that a bully would target a deaf child. But, as his wife reminds him, all the children at their son’s school are deaf and “boys will be boys, whether they can hear each other or not.” Al’s initial plan of action is to toughen up his kid, so that night he kneels before the child and tries to teach him how to fight. This could easily have become a Tree of Life-type scene between a hardened father with all the wrong ideas and a boy too young and uncomfortable to spar with his dad, a scene that illustrates how completely a man can fail to understand the needs of his child; instead, it evolves into Al’s tearful realization that he has frightened rather than fortified his child. Shocked, profoundly disappointed in himself, Al apologizes over and over in a heartbreaking tone his son cannot hear. In an increasingly desperate embrace, he tightens the boy’s grip on him and strokes his head, utterly devastated by his misstep. If you’re not crying just a little by now, you are much tougher than I.
The next night, Al beats a man to death in a speakeasy for inexplicably attacking his obese, slovenly colleague the day before--the same day he learned his son was bullied. His seemingly endless performance of intense, barehanded violence should not be easy to forgive, but when the fight is over and Al breathlessly asks the corpse, “You want to pick on people who can’t defend themselves?” he makes it impossible to forget the noble motivation behind this brutal endeavor. Regular viewers would agree this violent culmination of the storyline actually sets matters aright--after all, no one tunes in to Boardwalk to see some good, civil conflict resolution. This show disentangles the concept of justice from its association with the legal system, which is nothing but negatively portrayed in the Prohibition-era series. The continual, mindless murder of many characters we grow attached to is punctuated by brief but essential instances of an unlawful kind of justice that only villainous giants of history can carry out. Given the choice to kill an enemy or merely beat him senseless, Boardwalk characters always choose "kill" and the show always gives a satisfactory explanation why. How could we possibly forgive Al for such a horrifying act of rage? Besides the fact that we have had to do so countless times before (he has fought his way through two whole seasons already), we understand where his rage erupted from: The incessant pain of his son's bullying--an affront he could not rectify by any means, violent or otherwise--and his unmanageable fury at himself for scaring his son the way the bully did.
Boardwalk's Al Capone is not the one-dimensional bootlegging titan from The Untouchables, delivering fatal blows to unsuspecting dinner guests with a baseball bat. Rather, he is a richly illustrated, sympathetic low-life whose sole response to the world’s injustices is unconscionable yet justifiable violence. No matter what we know of Al Capone or how keenly Robert De Niro may have rendered the barbarity of the real man, Stephen Graham suspended my disbelief for a full 56 minutes this week and depicted (perhaps invented) a veritable sweetness in the storied figure. Therein lies the key aspect of the show: Though history greatly informs the plot, its contribution to character is very limited. It is up to the cast to show us who these people "really" were--even if, really, it's who they weren't.
~ Natasha Hirschfeld
Credit for Al Capone's 1930 Miami mughsots goes to Creative Commons.