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How Sunday's Horrifying Episode of Boardwalk Empire Greatly Affects Television

Lately, television is safe. It rarely explores any new, exciting, taboo, or terrifying subjects. Channels like AMC have some “edgy” shows, but really, dealing drugs or putting bullets into inhuman monsters is considered safe; we hear about drugs every single day in the news, and murder is fine so long as it’s committed against monsters. Something needs to kick television in the pants. Sunday’s episode of Boardwalk Empire laced up some steel-toed boots and took a running start.

For the times we live in, and all of the terrifying, graphic, horrible things we can easily view on the Internet with literally only a few keystrokes and the click of a button, television is regularly tame. Even when we venture out from basic cable and into premium channels like Showtime or HBO, and even when we deal with gore-and-sex fests like True Blood or drug-and-sex fests like Weeds, it’s all pretty humdrum. This is odd, considering the stereotype of subscribing to premium cable channels like HBO and Showtime specifically to see edgier content. However, all we’re left with is the offscreen decapitation of Sean Bean and the occasional standard nudity. This is odd.

As our society grows more open (in large part due to the ubiquity of the Internet and ease of access to any kind of content our eyes don’t refuse to look at), it also grows more restrained. There are many subjects to which we’re desensitized, at least in the realm of fake media — specifically violence, and to a lesser degree, sex — and yet, television is as safe and wholesome as ever. This is funny when you think about it — “wholesome” doesn’t describe the blood and guts that explode all over the screen when a vampire gets killed on True Blood, and yet, all we can think about during the shower of organs are, man, when are Jason and Jessica going get together already?

Boardwalk Empire is a genuinely fantastic show, but we’re not here to talk about its incredible actors, great set pieces and wardrobes, non-embarrassing writing, or overall class. We’re here to talk about how it is unafraid to delve into extremely taboo themes for television — and media in general — and how it handles them with class. Sunday, in a flashback, main character Jimmy Darmody (played by Michael Pitt), and his mother, Gillian Darmody (played by Gretchen Mol), had sex with each other.

Yes, we are here to discuss incest.

Followers of the show will have seen this coming for quite some time, as the relationship between Jimmy and Gillian was always a little too weird, and a little too open. Gillian isn’t much older than Jimmy, having had him when she was fairly young, but that didn’t evince their odd rapport. She was always the aggressor, but he always seemed way too cool with it. So, finally, in a flashback, it turned out the two got drunk and slept together in Jimmy’s college dorm. We’re also not here to talk about the rights and wrongs of incest, or whether or not it deserves to be a taboo. None of that matters. We’re here to talk about how Boardwalk Empire classily danced around it for a season and a half, then when it finally deployed the incest bomb, we as the audience were horrified for a moment, but only a moment. After that quick flood of what the hell, our collective brains quickly ceased thinking about how incest between two characters we like happened, but jumped on the implications train. “So that’s why they’ve been so weird with each other.” “Oh! That’s why Jimmy left Princeton for the war!” We stopped caring that incest — one of the most delicate taboos in our modern society — happened, and we started caring about what it meant for the show.

This is why Sunday’s episode of Boardwalk Empire could mean a great deal for television. Not because the rest of television should laud incest as the new great storyline, but because Boardwalk Empire just took an extremely taboo subject and made it matter in a way that wasn’t just for shock value, and it happened on a classy, well-written, fantastic show. If Boardwalk Empire can do it, other shows should be able to take the more taboo, and thus interesting, themes television usually avoids, and give us something fresh. Shows don’t need a crazy storyline or plot twists to be good, but a good show could greatly benefit from dealing with something that we don’t see very much.

Now that television seems to be moving in a higher budget, better production values, but safer and more generic dialogue and storyline direction, we need fresh ideas and plot elements more than ever. While it is great to see a sprawling jungle and CG dinosaurs on Terra Nova, or see buildings float into the sky on Eureka, or see a spray of blood and guts on True Blood, it all gets a little tiresome when, at the end of the episode, the dinosaurs go back into the jungle, the buildings float back into their foundations, and no one really cared whose blood and guts sprayed all over the floor in the first place. Boardwalk Empire just did something relatively fresh for modern television, and all it took was an uncomfortable scene in a bed. Now, the entire show is different, and everything that happened before or will happen in the future with either of those two characters, holds significant new meaning.

The rest of television should take note of this.

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