‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ’21’: Dirty laundry

Senior Television Writer
09.25.11 47 Comments


“Boardwalk Empire” is back for its second season. I posted my review of the first six episodes earlier this week, and I have specific thoughts on the premiere coming up just as soon as I grow up to be a fishmonger…

“How does it feel – to have everything?” -Richard

Because Lucy is still pregnant with Van Alden’s devil spawn, we know that it’s only been a few months since the end of the first season, but a lot has changed while we were away. Jimmy and Angela have gone from common-law spouses to actual ones, and moved into a nice house on the beach, though it’s clear this relationship – and the now-omnipresent Gillian – is a struggle for Angela. Nucky and Margaret are so rooted in domestic routine that the kids refer to him as their “uncle,” while Nucky is already stepping out on Margaret with good-time girls at the speakeasies. Van Alden and Lucy have moved in together in some unexplained but unsettling arrangement. And the Commodore has recovered enough that he’s ready to begin his offensive against Nucky’s machine…

… which leads into that fantastic early scene where the Klan launches an attack on Chalky’s warehouse. As powerful as Chalky is, both within the black community and as an ally of Nucky’s, you knew that cutting off a Klan leader’s finger wasn’t something that would just be forgotten, and the Commodore cleverly managed to exploit the KKK’s racist agenda for his own purposes. Terence Winter told me at the end of last season that he wanted to give Michael Kenneth Williams more to do, and building so many early moments of the premiere around Chalky is a great way to start.

What I loved about the warehouse shootout was just how vulnerable Chalky became. We like to think of him as a badass because Williams played Omar, and because of the bookcase speech last year, but Chalky’s not a superhero; he’s just a man, and there are certain situations where men wind up scared and totally at the mercy of others. And if they’re lucky enough to survive, then they can start hating themselves for their own fear. Williams shows all of that without a word, even as Chalky’s picking up a rifle to take out one of the fleeing Klansmen. And he was just as fantastic in the later scene where Nucky visits the White home – and we see that Chalky’s domestic life is every bit as sophisticated as Nucky’s (if not moreso) – and Chalky threatens to start the civil rights movement about 40 years ahead of schedule. After five years of watching him as the cocky, carefree Omar, it took me a while to adjust to Williams’ perpetual frown as Chalky, but the more we see of the guy, the more it becomes clear just how much crap he’s had to swallow over the years. After enough of it, you’d frown all the time, too, even if you were as rich and powerful (on one side of town) as Chalky White.

Chalky is a useful ally to Nucky, but he’s not his friend – Nucky keeps everyone at such remove that it’s hard to view anyone in his circle (white or not) as a friend – and Nucky demonstrates his more opportunistic, self-aggrandizing side when we see his pro-black speech at one church dissolve seamlessly into an anti-Negro screed at another. It’s not always pretty to watch Nucky Thompson at work, but do it long enough and you understand just how he came to accumulate so much power – and why so many are so eager to take it from him.

At the start of the season, there’s a lot of jealousy fueling the conflicts. Jimmy’s grudge against Nucky runs deeper than that – he resents his surrogate father for not giving him opportunities when he came home, and then for his discoveries about how Nucky pimped Gillian out to the Commodore – but the Commodore is jealous of Nucky sitting on the throne he once occupied, Nucky is jealous that the Commodore has Jimmy’s ear when he doesn’t, Eli has always been envious of his brother, Richard sits at Jimmy’s table and looks in awe at all his friend has (though his jealousy is of a gentler kind, because he would never betray Jimmy), Margaret is jealous of the attention Nucky bestows on other people instead of her and the kids, and of course Chalky himself is jealous as hell that he does all the work of a Nucky but is treated like a second-class citizen (at best) by most of the people in the city.

Much of Van Alden’s quest to bring down Nucky last season was fueled by his envy that such a venal man could have so much power – and, eventually, have Mrs. Schroder – while he suffered for his virtue. For this week, at least, his pursuit of Nucky has been slowed so he can deal with a more pressing problem: his wife’s desire to move to Atlantic City to be close to her creepy, aloof, religious zealot of a husband. Though Van Alden is often a problematic character for me, I liked how he was used here, simultaneously giving his wife an impressive anniversary gift by busting up an illegal liquor joint to protect her honor, while also scaring her enough to never, ever want to move to this Sodom by the sea, where she might find out about little Nelson Jr. growing inside Lucy’s swollen belly.

Even with Van Alden distracted by the two women in his life – one a repressed angel, one a sloopy, pregnant devil – Nucky has more than enough trouble on his hands courtesy of Jimmy, the Commodore and Eli. The Commodore is feeling his oats, exercising with his spear and bragging on his big game-hunting days to anyone who’ll listen. He may believe that Nucky is just another jungle cat he can stalk and kill, but Nucky is much tougher and more clever than the Commodore is willing to admit – even as he was being arrested for election fraud at episode’s end, all I could think about were the many ways he would have to get out of this mess – and isn’t likely to end up as a trophy on his wall, any more than the Klan was actually going to be able to take out Chalky.

Overall, a very good start to the new season.

Some other thoughts:

• Who’s a cast regular and who isn’t is more often a matter of contracts than status within the narrative. Still, it was nice to see Jack Huston and Gretchen Mol added to the opening credits. Huston was an enormous addition late last season, and scenes like his shame at the thought of eating in front of other people – even trusted friends like Jimmy and Angela – were a reminder of why. Great character, great performance.

• I obsessed as much over “The Sopranos” as much as anyone, but I have to confess I didn’t spot Dominic Chianese in the episode, and only realized he was the old man with the muttonchops at the funeral parlor after seeing his name in the guest credits at the end. A look very much unlike Uncle Junior.

• I know many mothers of many eras have said things like “I used to kiss his little winky” about their grown sons, but given the close age difference and the creepy undertone to their mother-son relationship, the line takes on a very different meaning when it escapes Gillian’s lips. 

• Not much Capone this week, except to establish that his “today I am a man” moment from last season has continued, all the way to him being Torio’s right-hand man. Meanwhile, George Remus, the Cincy bootlegger who insists on referring to himself in the third person, is another real-life figure, and one of many men of this era alleged to be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s inspiration for Jay Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby.”

• Again, Van Alden’s not my favorite character, but I would watch a half-hour spin-off that was nothing but him mispronouncing the names of different ethnic foods. Also, the wobbly bed spring gag was a cheap joke, but still a funny one.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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