‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Battle of the Century’: This is spinal tap

Senior Television Writer
11.20.11 78 Comments


A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as Sepinwall reviews this show…

“Every battle ends, boy. They’ll have to understand that.” -John McGarrigle

This war between Nucky and Jimmy is fundamentally pointless. It’s based in part on a series of bad decisions made by both men in the first season, in part on a bit of business from before Jimmy was born where the Commodore was arguably more at fault than Nucky. These are two proud, stubborn men, and they’re going to keep fighting, it seems, until they burn Atlantic City down around them.

And in case Nucky can’t understand the situation he’s in, he takes a trip to Belfast to meet with his contacts in Sinn Fein to trade those surplus Tommy guns for whiskey(*) and discovers that the war with the hated English may be on the verge of ending, which would ruin his deal. John McGarrigle, the esteemed but irritating man in charge – in the same way Nucky ruled Atlantic City for so long even as people griped behind his back – is the one pushing for peace, possibly as the result of his son being recently killed in action. But just when Nucky thinks he’s going home empty-handed, the men who work for McGarrigle assassinate him so they can keep the blood flowing. On the one hand, this is tremendously helpful for Nucky, as they’re once again in need of those guns. On the other, having just barely survived a recent assassination attempt himself, and with so many of his former underlings having turned on him, it’s a real “There but for the grace of God” moment for Nucky, who strongly voices his displeasure at being kept in the dark to Owen.

(*) I’ll admit to not entirely understanding the necessity of this move. From what we’ve seen so far this season, Nucky still has access to booze. The problem was getting it into Atlantic City, given the Commodore’s sway over the Coast Guard. What Nucky needs is muscle and more political allies. The Irish can’t provide the latter and Nucky doesn’t ask for the former. Maybe it will make more sense in upcoming episodes – I’m assuming this deal comes at a cheaper price than having to pay off Rothstein and Waxey and everyone else for the previous arrangement – but he still has to somehow get the whiskey from Belfast to Atlantic City, no? Or can he just stick it in the cargo hold of the passenger ship the way he smuggled the guns in the coffin? 

McGarrigle didn’t comprehend the displeasure his men felt at his actions, just as Nucky for so long underestimated how bitter Eli and Jimmy and the rest were feeling towards him. Throughout the series, Nucky has waffled on how much of a gangster he’s willing to be. Will witnessing (and profiting from) McGarrigle’s death lead Nucky to reconsider his latest course of action, or push him even further into the criminal mindset? He could, after all, decide that McGarrigle’s fatal flaw was a lack of commitment – that once you go to war, you have to stay at war until you’ve either won or died.

Jimmy, meanwhile, is very much committed to his new identity as king of Atlantic City – maybe too committed. Now that he’s the man in charge, he’s enjoying the spoils, but also acting like something of a spoiled brat. As Meyer points out, all Jimmy has to do to make the Manny problem go away is to pay the man – and if Jimmy’s somehow still low on cash at this point in his reign, Mickey Doyle(**) makes the not unreasonable suggestion to cut Manny in as a partner on some scale. But Jimmy just plain doesn’t like Manny, and would rather kill him than pay him what he’s owed. And because Manny’s tougher than Waxey’s enforcer (and because the guy had evidence of a recent Atlantic City trip on his person), Jimmy has another problem that he doesn’t especially need.

(**) Not dead. Oh, well. Can’t win ’em all, and his period neck brace is amusing to look at.

Nucky’s Irish trip, and Jimmy’s ascension, played out in contrast to a very tough, personal story for Margaret, who faces the parental nightmare of being helpless to ease their child’s suffering. The spinal tap scene was brutal, and the sense of dread about polio at the time (decades before the Salk vaccine) was palpable throughout the episode. And it played well in conjunction with Nucky’s story, not only because Nucky has already lost a child – and then his wife, who couldn’t live with her grief – but because of the lies he told Jimmy and the others about his reasons for retirement. We know that he cares about Margaret and the kids, and maybe on some level he would be happy to just step away from all this madness and be a family man. But he’s too used to power – to the acquisition, maintenance and expansion of it – to let go so easily.

This war isn’t likely to end with Nucky dead, but there are going to be more unnecessary casualties, be they other men killed, or relationships damaged through absence or overconfidence.

Some other thoughts:

* Chalky follows up on Nucky’s suggestion about pushing for a service workers strike, and does so with the most unexpected of accomplices: Dunn Purnsley. Their secret partnership was a reminder of both Chalky’s brains and sway. He could have just had his people roughly escort Dunn outside the city limits once his jail stint ended, but instead he recognized that the man’s gift for agitation could have value to him, set him up with the kitchen job and set him to stirring up trouble when the time was right. The strike’s also going to play into Nucky’s plans somehow – possibly with him offering to end it in exchange for getting most of his political empire back – and I look forward to seeing Nucky and Chalky working in concert again.

* When I first saw Nucky arriving in Belfast to meet with the IRA, I had PTSD flashbacks to “Sons of Anarchy” season 3. Fortunately, no children were kidnapped during these events, but eventually I want to see a Venn diagram of all the overlapping plots from the various HBO/AMC/FX/Showtime crime-related dramas.

* We get more insight into Esther Randolph, who’s sleeping with her investigator – and still has to remind him that she’s his boss (it’s 1921, after all) – and who cleverly teams up with him to run a good mindgame on poor, dim-witted Deputy Halloran. I do hope there’s a long-term plan for the character, because it feels like she arrived pretty late in the season to be stirring up so much additional trouble for Nucky.

* I thought I saw an odd look on Richard’s face when Jimmy promised him a home and a wife last week, and here we get the follow-up: Richard thought his only friend was making fun of him. But as he did in Chicago, Jimmy winds up being a good wingman for Richard, as his new kingly aura brings over attractive, eager women for both of them to make out with during the Dempsey fight.

* Manny Horvitz = bad-ass. Just sayin’.

* Alan Sepinwall thinks that George Remus is going to run up an enormous hotel tab on Jimmy Darmody’s dime, given Remus’ prior gripe with Nucky Thompson.

* Heads up: Next week’s episode is the last one HBO is expected to send out in advance (last season, they didn’t send the finale out early), so my final two reviews of the season will likely be posted sometime Monday morning.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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