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Sunderland Repository records the research produced by the University of Sunderland including practice-based research and theses.

The Rise of the satellite character: Boardwalk Empire’s Nelson Van Alden

Larke-Walsh, George S. (2020) The Rise of the satellite character: Boardwalk Empire’s Nelson Van Alden. In: SCMS (Society for Cinema and Media Studies) Annual Conference, March 17-21 2021, Online.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


Contemporary Television seriality is understood “not just as a simple marker of continuity but as a multi-faceted variable, with a range of potential storytelling possibilities” (Mittell, 22). As narratives develop and adjust to critical responses across seasons, one unique quality of television serials is their ability to present innovative character development. This paper will examine one of the beneficiaries of such adjustments by focusing on the narrative construction and audience appeal of a satellite character whose story increases in significance and develops new narrative trajectories across multiple seasons. In Boardwalk Empire, while Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), as the central protagonist, has backstories that accompany each season-long narrative arc, Bureau of Prohibition Agent, Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon), is originally constructed as a satellite character, and thus his narrative purpose and character is more confined. Initially his role is to support the central narrative and is “built from the forward-moving accumulation of narrative statements that create triggers for future events” (Mittell, 25), such as evidenced in his investigation into Nucky’s bootlegging business. Once that narrative purpose is dissolved, Nelson’s character should disappear. Instead, he re-emerges and this paper will examine how the writers develop Nelson’s character into a significant and satisfying secondary narrative. Transformed from religious zealot, through a perverse ‘Willy Loman’ figure, and finally to gangster, Van Alden’s story trajectory is one of Boardwalk Empire’s most entertaining subplots. It draws attention to its construction through a unique blend of ‘bad luck’, coincidences and dark humor and thus emerges as an exercise in the interplay between audience empathy, or “closeness” to character (Eders, 2006) and an open acknowledgement of the narrative operational aesthetics at play in his character development. This paper will discuss Van Alden’s story as an example of satellite narrative potential in contemporary television. It will examine how such character development encourages a unique form of audience engagement with a fictional character based, in part, on empathy with his increasing vulnerability, and also on the pleasures of unravelling the construction of the narrative.

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Depositing User: George Larke-Walsh


Item ID: 13052

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Date Deposited: 21 Jan 2021 15:30
Last Modified: 09 Feb 2021 12:10


Author: George S. Larke-Walsh

University Divisions

Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries > School of Media and Communications


Media > Cinema and Film
Media > Film
Media > Media and Cultural Studies

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