In the HBO series Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014), Nucky Thompson’s Atlantic City is a world made of words. Advertising and signage are the building blocks of the boardwalk as well as key themes on the level of plot. Advertising masks things, provides them with an aura, attracts customers, and builds the American Dream. In business, organised crime, and organised politics, language is king: above boutiques and clubs, on bottles of bootleg booze, in slogans of political protest, and in the pamphlets handed out by the members of the Women’s Temperance League. One character re-appropriates these ubiquitous signs, images, ciphers, and sentences and begins to assemble them into more personal fictions. Richard Harrow the masked veteran – who, paradoxically, is the only man in Atlantic City who does not always wear his mask – is also the series’ diarist, a prohibition Pepys. In season two, episode one, we first see him writing. He cuts out newspaper advertisements and images from magazines and constructs a scrapbook for himself, a fictional family album. The book he chooses to paper over is an anonymous work by an anonymous author. It is a work re-written: between its pages Richard’s secret world writes itself. Here he fulfils his desire for love, friendship, innocence, and family. In his diary he builds his own reality, an individual dream. He pulls apart adverts (collective social fictions) and rewrites them, creating his own images. By using the signs he sees to build his own imaginary sentences, he blurs the line between reading and writing. While the very format of his imaginings belies their fictionality (they are, after all, saccharine images of an idealised world in a picture-book), in the very best fairy-tale tradition, Richard’s dreams really do come true. When he meets Julia, in season three, his wildest hopes materialise. He is granted his wish. Perhaps it is in deference to his position as creator of fictions that the series’ writers treat Richard differently. Although he dies a violent death shortly after his marriage, the diarist is, metaphorically at least, afforded that ultimate dignity of fiction: a happy ending. His dreams of a perfect family life do not spoil in the hot sun of a banal reality; his fictions are never proven false. He is never forced to wake up from his dreams – instead they continue to play, in all their rose-tinted perfection, between the pages of his scrapbooks.
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This is where I blog about representations of writing in visual media.