Saturday, 21 March 2015

Characters We ♥ : Richard Harrow (Boardwalk Empire) [Spoilers]


take as a screencap from the season 4 DVD set of Boardwalk Empire
© HBO | Source: Screenshot Boardwalk Empire - Season 4

Richard Harrow’s stay on Boardwalk Empire was originally intended to last for only three episodes in season 1. Fortunately, the producers of HBO’s mobster drama changed their mind when they realised his potential as a recurring character. Played with utter dedication, complexity and impeccable subtlety by Jack Huston, the man with the mask quickly gained a huge fanbase.

“A man's death is no laughing matter.”  -- Richard Harrow

Having fought in World War I as a marksman for the US Army, Harrow returns home with a trauma and severe mutilations on the left side of his face. As a result, he has to wear a tin prosthesis painted in his skin colour to hide his gruesome scars and make his face look as natural as possible. However, his unconventional appearance, the coarse sound of his damaged vocal chords and his reserved yet frank behaviour render him an outcast of society. Regarded as a freak by most people, it is his friendship with fellow veteran Jimmy Darmody, one of the main characters of the show, that enables him to feel less alone. Eventually, it also grants him access to the underworld mechanisms of the prohibition era, introducing him to characters such as Nucky Thompson, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano and the like.

Harrow’s one talent, we are made to understand from very early on, is killing. Skilled with guns and in fist fights, he soon becomes the hatchet man for Darmody and his partners in crime. The appealing thing about his character, though, is that underneath all those brutal abilities lies a sincere, witty, likeable and genuinely good-hearted man who is longing for love and acceptance. He is not a ruthless war machine but rather a man whose interior has been left just as damaged by the war as his exterior. A man who actually has a tender soul and an interest in the arts, a man with a strong moral compass, a man who has a way with children and profound respect for independent women.

Harrow, I believe, speaks to our own insecurities and vulnerabilities. He reflects our own sense of unease about ourselves; about our looks, our regrets, our interpersonal relationships. We are able to identify with his fear of rejection, with his longing for a fulfilled life. I suppose that’s why I root for him. I want him to succeed. I admire his impressive, badass killing spree against a bunch of evil guys in the season 3 finale of the show just as much as I love to see the writers explore the sensitive aspects of his character. I love his relationship to Darmody’s young son Tommy, which brings out his benign and fatherly qualities and gives him a sense of purpose. I love to watch him court his eventual wife Julia, who makes it clear to him that he is indeed worthy of affection and desire. I love to find out more about his connection to his twin sister Emma, who is one of the closest ties he has and who appears to have deeply shaped his personality. In the course of Harrow’s story arch, it pleases me to watch him travel from the dark realms of contemplated suicide to the comforting sphere of a loving family life. It delights me to see his dreams come true.

”I loved Richard, I really loved him. That’s how I played him, I played him through love. Even though he was a stone-cold killer when he wanted to be, everything came from a place of love in a certain way.”   -- Jack Huston (Interview with RollingStone, November 2013)

Jack Huston’s portrayal of the character is one of those notable instances in which the actor seems to completely disappear in his role. The born and bred Englishman transforms as soon as he puts on Harrow’s mask, adapting a mode of speech and a way of body language that is utterly Harrow’s own. The thesp manages to evoke the entire range of Harrow’s emotions using only one half of his face, and not once does he fall into the trap of overacting. His performance is subtle and restrained, fitting the reserved manner of Harrow’s character. Still, there is a vigorous power and something deeply moving in Huston’s rendition. His conveyance of desperation, longing, happiness and heartbreak is quiet and yet perfectly engrossing.

Harrow’s tragic demise in the final episode of season 4 came as a shock to many of his fans. I myself cried like a baby. After accidentally killing an innocent person on his very last job for the underworld bosses, it was clear that Harrow’s own death could be the only solution to his moral dilemma. In a beautifully arranged montage, we see him die of a bullet wound underneath the boardwalk, finally feeling like a ‘whole’ person again, at peace, with thoughts of his family. Yet it is overwhelmingly sad to know that he will never be able to live the family life that he has dreamt of for so long even though it was waiting for him right at his doorstep. The only comfort is that he left a defining mark amongst his loved ones. He brought Julia and her estranged father closer together. He made Emma happy by re-establishing their contact. He did his very best to save Tommy from his psychologically unstable grandmother and a life filled with violence and organised crime – even though his efforts were in vain, eventually.

Richard Harrow’s end was bittersweet. Beautiful yet upsetting. Poetic and heartbreaking. The perfect farewell to one of television’s most compelling characters.





YouTube Hint: Conversations with Jack Huston of BOARDWALK EMPIRE by the Screen Actors Guild Foundation (posted on 29 May 2013) 

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