Season 2 of “Boardwalk Empire” continues the program’s exploration of the Roaring 20s as the show further reveals key aspects from that important decade. Set in 1921, the season illustrates major trends in culture, technology, and politics.
The season premiere opens with a Ku Klux Klan attack on black ward leader Chalky White and his allies. During the battle, a Klansman declares, ““Purity, sobriety, and the white Christian’s Jesus.” With this outburst, the Klansman offers a good summary of the Invisible Empire’s agenda during the 1920s. In this era, the Klan’s platform moved beyond enforcing segregation and white supremacy to strongly supporting Prohibition and the maintenance of traditional sexual mores.
Indeed, many rural and small town Americans were disturbed by the decline of Victorian values and the rise of a more permissive and secular urban culture. Treasury Agent Van Alden refers to Atlantic City as “Sodom” because of the hedonistic behavior of its residents and tourists. Less than pure himself, Van Alden impregnates Nucky Thompson’s ex-girlfriend during a one-night stand. After discovering that her husband had a child out of wedlock, Van Alden’s wife asks for a divorce, a practice that was becoming increasingly common in the 1920s.
Other signs of cultural clashes appear. At one point, police harass a woman on the beach for wearing excessively revealing clothing, as more and more “flappers” were doing at the time. She eventually becomes involved with Angela Darmody, whose artistic nature and embrace of sexual freedom reflects the emerging bohemian culture of the time.
Economic growth and technological change were also hallmarks of the decade, with many contemporaries referring to the 1920s as a “New Era” that was providing unprecedented material benefits to middle-class Americans. None of the new goods was more revolutionary than radio, which made its initial appearance at the end of season one. Growing in importance in season 2, we see James Darmody and a large crowd listening to Jack Dempsey’s heavyweight title fight on the radio. Facilitating what many called the “Golden Age of Sports,” radio allowed the entire country to thrill to the exploits of Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, Red Grange, and other icons of the decade.
Warren Harding is inaugurated as president in March 1921, ushering in a decade of conservative Republican dominance of the White House. Nucky Thompson played a key role in Harding’s successful campaign for the Republican nomination and helped him win the presidency. The Harding Administration was one of the most corrupt in American history, as Nucky himself discovers in a fictional plotline. Though he initially assigns a pliant prosecutor to Nucky’s criminal case, Attorney General Harry Daugherty brings in an aggressive lawyer when a senator threatens to investigate the administration’s behavior if he doesn’t pursue Thompson. After Harding’s death in office in 1923, the country would discover the “Teapot Dome” scandal, which was the worst presidential scandal of the 20th century prior to Watergate.
Following a failed post-World War I strike campaign, organized labor remained weak and on the defensive throughout the decade. When black workers strike for higher wages in episode 10, local employers employed thugs to disperse them. While it is unlikely African Americans workers would have been so bold in 1921, the rough tactics used against them were common and reflected the anti-labor climate of the time. Major advances for unions would not come until the 1930s, with support from President Franklin Roosevelt and the collective bargaining provisions of the Wagner Act.
The show’s direction takes a dramatic change in the season finale and it will be interesting to see what producers have in mind for season 3. It will likely begin in 1923 and I will provide episode-by -episode explications of the history in the show, beginning with the September 16th premiere.