‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Anastasia’: I ain’t buildin’ no bookcase

Senior Television Writer
10.10.10 79 Comments


A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as you sell me linseed oil…

“Where I come from, some people had an idea about what I was supposed to be.” -Jimmy

There’s so much to talk about with “Anastasia,” which is the episode where “Boardwalk Empire” goes from a very promising new show to a potentially great one. There’s Jimmy’s new life in Chicago and the tragedy he brings with him. There’s Nucky’s birthday party, and the big romantic moment he has there with Margaret Schroeder, and Nucky’s dabbling in national politics.

But there’s no way I’m not starting with Chalky White’s speech to the Cyclops of the local KKK chapter, because… wow.

Like any fan of “The Wire,” I loved Michael K. Williams’ work on that show, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him as good as he is delivering that monologue. The level of control, and anger, and grief to it is just fantastic. (Just check out the way he caresses his daddy’s tools, remembering for the thousandth time how those tools inadvertently got his daddy killed.) For those who were impatient with Williams’ frequent absences from the first few episodes, I hope this made the wait worth it.

Yes, it’s a show-off moment for Chalky, but he’s earned it. He built himself up from that little boy from Elgin, TX whose daddy got lynched from a pepper tree into the unofficial black mayor of Atlantic City – a man so influential that the city’s white chief of police would leave him alone in a room to do what he wants with the Cyclops to find out if he was responsible for lynching Chalky’s driver. If Chalky can’t show off here – can’t make this hateful man feel every bit of fear his daddy did – what’s the point of all that power?

Similarly, “Boardwalk Empire” has earned this kind of moment. “Anastasia” is the episode that takes all the pieces of the show that were laid out in the previous three hours and makes everything deeper and richer. It gives us not only Chalky’s speech, but Nucky’s dance with Margaret (shot so beautifully that I had to check to be sure Martin Scorsese didn’t come back to direct it; actual credit goes to Jeremy Podeswa), and an expansion of the series’ scope with Jimmy setting up shop in Chicago, and more thematic unity than any of the previous episodes have offered. The set-up is mostly done, and now it’s time for the story to really unfold.

The episode’s title comes from the story of the young woman claiming to be the last of the Romanov dynasty. The fairy tale quality of it enthralls Margaret, and she gets to live out a version of it at Nucky’s birthday party. Sent to deliver Lucy’s belly dancer outfit, she gets to debate politics with Senator Edge and Jersey City’s mayor Frank Hague – and verbally get the better of them – then is pulled into a dance by the birthday boy himself. They swing around the dance floor and for a few moments Margaret isn’t the sad widow of an abusive drunk, but a princess at the ball being romanced by her charming prince.

“Anastasia” wasn’t really the Grand Duchess, and Margaret isn’t Nucky’s girlfriend, or part of his social class. The song ends, Margaret turns to go, and moments later Lucy emerges from the cake – yet there’s that moment where Nucky can’t help looking past his sexy but simple girlfriend and focus on the smart and enigmatic woman he’d like to help with more than a job. Steve Buscemi’s not the first guy you’d think  of for a romantic lead, but boy was he good in that dance, and then watching Margaret go.

Just as the bigots of Elgin expected Chalky’s daddy to go in through the back, and just as men like Senator Edge and the Commodore expect a Margaret to be dumb and deferential, the world had plans for Jimmy Darmody, and Jimmy defied them. He went to war, then robbed the Canadian Club shipment, and has now become a different kind of soldier in Johnny Torio’s army. He’s saddled with the impulsive, violent Capone as his partner, and that blows back in a big way when Capone pushes too far with rival gangster Sheridan, and Sheridan in turn takes his revenge out on the beautiful face of Jimmy’s prostitute girlfriend Pearl. I suspected something like that was going to happen when Sheridan saw Pearl kissing Jimmy goodbye during the negotiation, but that was still brutal to see.  

And what does the world expect Nucky to be? It expects him, as always, to be the man who can get things done, and who’s ready for every occasion. And we see here that being the man who has everything, and can do anything, isn’t as easy as it looks. Early in the episode, he carefully rehearses the “spontaneous” reaction he’ll give at his surprise party. Later, he throws a tantrum at uber-competent manservant Eddie because he notices a lipstick stain on one glass, and again loses his temper when Senator Edge asks for the one drink they don’t have at the party. Nucky can never let himself look less than resourceful, so of course he has to arrange for a crate of Pimm’s Cup to be sent to Edge’s office, along with the note “I do expect to have everything.”

And right now, “Boardwalk Empire” feels very much like a show that has everything, and has learned how to use its vast resources well.

Some other thoughts:

• Lawrence Konner & Margaret Nagle are the credited writers on this episode, but when I asked Terence Winter about Chalky’s speech, he said it came from another of his writers, Howard Korder. Winter said he was working on that scene himself, and he wanted Chalky to give a speech that ended with the line, “These are my daddy’s tools.” So he went to Korder, and, as he recalled, “I said, ‘Could you just fill this in?’ He came back two hours later and put them on my desk, and I went, ‘Holy shit!’ He said, ‘Well, you gave me the last line.'”

• Both Edge (played by Geoff Pierson) and Hague (Chris Mulkey) were real New Jersey politicians of the period.

• While Jimmy’s off in Chicago, Gillian (not “mom,” nor “grandma”) is helping out with Tommy, and also with the Lucky Luciano problem, since Lucky seems very interested in the woman he understandably thinks is Jimmy’s girl, rather than mother. The scene where Lucky watches Gillian exit the apartment building was another beautifully-photographed scene, feeling very much like a silent movie shot.

• Chalky doesn’t find out who lynched his driver, but we now know it’s the Philly wiseguys attached to giggly Mickey Doyle.

What did everybody else think?

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