Gretchen Mol Is the Damaged Secret Weapon of 'Boardwalk Empire'

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For two seasons, Gretchen Mol's understated, devastating performance as Gillian Darmody on Boardwalk Empire has stood out among all the loudmouth gangsters. Now with her future on the show hanging in the balance after last night's episode, let's take some time to praise her. 

When Boardwalk Empire began, it wasn't quite clear where Mol's character fit into the vast, labyrinthine world of prohibition era gangsters the show was trying to create. At times, it felt like the character's main purpose was to enhance the luridness of the world they were trying to create. She was the too-young mother of then-protagonist Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt)—pregnant by age 13 after being raped by Atlantic City elder-statesman The Commodore. It was heavily implied she was perhaps a little too close to her son. She was mostly a curiosity, enhancement talent to make Atlantic City's underbelly seem especially sinister.  

But then, at the end of season two—a season in which Jimmy and Gillian's sordid connection was finally, terribly revealed—Jimmy was bumped off by the show's lead gangster, Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi). Then, Gillian's story took a turn for the fascinating, and Mol got a chance to truly shine. Last season—the show's third—saw Gillian as a woman unable to face the truth. Deep down, she knew her son was dead, but acted out a grand burlesque of denial anyway. She eventually seduced an innocent young man, injected him with heroin, and drowned him in order to pass him off as Jimmy and truly inherit what her son left behind. It was an act that made your skin crawl—Gillian acted out her incestuous fantasy with her son and then killed his memory—and yet Mol gave her character an unlikely pathos, her sad eyes conveying her character's terrible history as she turned cruel. 

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In last night's episode, the penultimate one of this season, Gillian finally got her comeuppance. The Piggly Wiggly executive (Ron Livingston) who had nursed her out of a heroin addiction and seemed to be her savior was actually a detective coaxing her into a confession. Last night, just after proposing to her, he pretends to kill a man. When he wants to go to the police, she confesses her own murder to him, explaining that he can live with it, only to have him reveal his ruse to her. It's a tragic moment, coming just after she pleaded with him: "You can make yourself live with anything." She's a woman who has been constantly hiding things in plain sight—her love of her son; her crime—and she thinks she finally has found a kindred spirit, a cure for her loneliness. Though we know she's done horrible things, Mol makes us hope she gets her wish. Instead, the rug is pulled out from under her. Mol allows that veneer of propriety to slip away as she resists arrest, crying out as she is wrestled to the ground. 

Boardwalk Empire is, unfortunately, a show that doesn't get the love it deserves, and when it does, that attention goes to the showy performances. Bobby Cannavale's over-the-top third season villain, Gyp Rosetti, won him an Emmy. But Mol, a '90s it-girl who never quite amounted to the heights Vanity Fair once predicted, is a quiet revelation. If there's any justice, her name should be on the tips of our tongues next Emmy season.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.