What an interesting scene from Season 2 of BOARDWALK EMPIRE. Somewhat late to the party, I’m working my way through this remarkable HBO series for the first time, and so the experience of Richard Harrow in the woods in the Season 2 episode “Gimcrack and Bunkum” came as a pleasant, if moving surprise to me.
If you don’t already know, BOARDWALK EMPIRE is a period drama, set in the 1920s, and Richard Harrow is a World War I veteran who has returned from the war horribly disfigured, wearing a crude prosthetic mask to cover his injuries.Tormented by an all-encompassing, aching loneliness, Harrow decides to commit suicide. After hitching a ride from Atlantic City to the Pine Barrens of the New Jersey countryside, he walks a distance into the woods and removes his mask, before lying on the ground and carefully placing a shotgun in his mouth.
Seconds before he can pull the trigger he is interrupted by a wild dog, which growls at him and, ignoring the food he has brought for his last meal, instead runs off with his mask.
Harrow impulsively chases after the dog, yelling out as he does, “Wait! I need that!” (If you think about it for a few seconds, it’s a wonderful line).
Though feral, the dog has informally attached itself to two hunters who regularly come to the woods for squirrels (“tree rats”, as one of the men describes them). The men are Pete
They return Harrow’s mask (the dog presumably retrieves squirrels for the men and has a soft bite, so the mask is undamaged) and offer him a drink from a flask of moonshine. The three men talk in subdued tones by the fire. They eat squirrel. They sip moonshine. Harrow tells them, unconvincingly, that he has come to the woods to hunt–in a suit and tie and with no gear other than his shotgun.
A short exchange then takes place regarding the dog. I’m paraphrasing it below from memory:
HARROW: What’s his name? (Gestures to the dog).
GLENMORE: We don’t know his name. He isn’t ours. He just hangs around.
PETE: (Chuckling) He knows his name.
GLENMORE: He’s just an old soldier who keeps fighting.
HARROW: What’s he fighting for?
GLENMORE: You’d have to ask him.
The dog, scarred and abandoned, is an obvious analog for Harrow himself (thankfully the screenwriters don’t overplay their hand by giving the dog a missing eye). The significance of the exchange is obvious: Harrow has to find something to fight for, to live for, and only he can decide what that will be–as do we all.
Glenmore and Pete, of course, know the real reason Harrow has come to the woods. Although they never raise the issue directly, after the exchange about the dog, Glenmore tells Harrow that all kinds of men come to these woods to “make trouble” (an allusion to alcohol bootlegging and, perhaps, mafia executions). His parting words to Harrow are “These woods are for living. Don’t forget that.” Pete then offers to drive Harrow back to Atlantic City, which he does, off-camera.
Harrow leaves the woods with his will to live renewed. His experience with the men and the dog is a profound moment of grace. There is kindness and compassion everywhere in the world, and sometimes all we need is a glimpse of it to find the strength to carry on. Admittedly, the dog and the hunters are a blatant deus ex machina, perhaps out of place in a series as devoted to gritty realism as BOARDWALK EMPIRE. But I don’t mind it. It’s storytelling. It’s myth-making. Every once in a while, we need to believe in dogs that interrupt our worst impulses and kind strangers in the woods. Bring it on.