‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Emerald City’: Today, I am a man

Senior Television Writer
11.21.10 81 Comments


A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I grab a tripod…

“Sometimes I forget what I look like. Then I pass a mirror, and I remember. I stare sometimes at my face, and can’t recall how I was before.” -Richard

As we barrel towards the end of season one, can any of these characters look at their reflections and remember the person they used to be? Or would they all be as startled by who they’ve become as Margaret is?

Forget Richard Harrow, whose pre-war face we get to glimpse in an opening dream sequence.(*) Margaret is now both a mobster’s kept woman and, thanks to the passage of women’s suffrage, a sudden power player in the world of Atlantic City politics. Nucky is now a guy who stands in warehouses while his colleagues shoot or strangle his enemies to death, Jimmy one of the ones doing the shooting (and almost as a joke, at that).

(*) For “Sopranos” fans who hated that show’s dreams, at least this one was both brief and fairly literal.

Even within this episode, we see some stark transformations. Agent Van Alden, having again blown a chance at Jimmy and clearly in trouble with his boss, decides to confront the object of his obsession having no idea how horrified Margaret will be to learn of the one-sided affair he’s built up in his head. And her rejection of him is so definitive – and his obsession with both her and Nucky so unrelenting – that he winds up in bed with Lucy, who proceeded Margaret as Nucky’s woman but in every other way is the opposite of Mrs. Schroeder. The Nelson Van Alden who thinks of himself as a good Christian man – who mortifies his flesh with his own belt whenever he feels himself becoming too lustful – would never have sex with this dumb floozy. But Van Alden isn’t entirely in control of himself anymore, not since he came into this world and has been foiled at every turn.

And then there’s Al Capone. You may not know the life stories of the other real-life gangsters in this story, but chances are you know something of the life of Alphonse Capone, and this episode was the first big step in his maturation from unpredictable young punk to future legend – and that transformation comes, appropriately yet surprisingly enough, courtesy of a bar mitzvah(**) for the son of one of Johnny Torio’s associates. Having been scolded by Torio over the firecracker gag, and getting a crash course in how a boy becomes a man in the Jewish faith, Al realizes it’s time to put away childish things (and hats) and do whatever it takes to fulfill the destiny that he belives in and we know about.

(**) Lot of talk of God, repenting, maturing, etc. in this one, between Van Alden’s usual ranting and the more measured words of Al’s new friend at the synagogue.

All these people are changing, but is it for the better? Margaret has creature comforts and political influence, but all her strings are being pulled by Nucky. Jimmy is a rising star himself, but it’s not exactly a healthy thing that he would kill a man as the punchline to a sick joke. Nucky is finally fighting back against Rothstein and the D’Alessios, but you can see as he watches Chalky choke the life out of one of the brothers that this is not the kind of business he wants to be in, even if it’s the one has has to be in. Van Alden finally has an outlet for his repressed sexual urges, but will probably feel the need to punish himself even further for consorting with this Jezebel. And while Capone could do with some growing up, the man he’s about to become will do some very bad things, and along the way he might lose the sensitivity that allows him to empathize (in private) with his deaf son.

One thing’s for sure: “Boardwalk Empire” itself is getting better week-by-week. No doubt.

Some other thoughts:

• “Oh, fucking tough guy. You going to shoot me for mouthing off?” “Well, I wasn’t going to, but you kind of talked me into it.” BAM! Such a sick, funny moment – if, again, disturbing for what it says about Jimmy.

• Margaret’s speech about Bader was fantastic, talking about the responsibility that women voters get along with their power (very Spider-Man’s uncle of her), but of course she’s crestfallen to see Nucky laughing it up with his cronies. She tells the women about change, but nothing’s changing but the name of Nucky’s latest puppet.

• Screener DVDs don’t come with closed-captioning, so I had to check with someone on the show to clarify what it was that Chalky figured out before he took the D’Alessios and Lansky prisoner. It sounded like the key phrase was “dropped a packet” (some 1920s smoking thing?), but it was actually “drive a Packard,” which they would have known from when Chalky’s driver got lynched.

• While Lucy riding Van Alden was the opposite of sexy, I thought Jimmy and Angela’s lovemaking on the kitchen table was very well-done, and a sign that while Angela may prefer the company of ladies, she’s not always as “bohemian” as Gillian insists she is. And for a few moments, we get to imagine that things might be okay between these two, until Tommy spots a picture of “Mommy’s kissing friend,” Jimmy makes an incorrect assumption about who that might be, and delivers a savage beat-down to the photographer. Just an ugly, ugly scene, so well-played by Michael Pitt. And it’s no surprise that Angela would be so open to the possibility of fleeing to Paris with Mary after that.

• It was great to have Jack Huston back as Richard, and in an expanded role from his last appearance. Everything about the alien way he carries himself, how he talks, and the things he says – the way he’s able to put Margaret’s kids at ease, in spite of what he’s said to Jimmy about not feeling connections to other people anymore – is just fascinating.

• Also glad for Chalky’s biggest spotlight in a while, including that gorgeous shot (which was featured in all the trailers) of him pulling out both guns once he realizes what the D’Alessios did to his driver. And holy hell was Michael K. Williams scary in the scene where Chalky strangles the one brother.  

• Interesting that Nucky still treats Eddie like dirt even after Eddie foiled the assassination attempt last week. Eddie’s role in Nucky’s world, alas, is to be the target of Nucky’s abuse.

• As we saw last week with Lucky escaping Jimmy through the grace of Agent Van Alden, Meyer Lansky is allowed to walk away from Chalky’s warehouse while his fictional associates lie dead around him. The key to this sort of thing going forward will be to make sure the explanations for why the fictional characters can’t kill the real ones are both interesting and convincing. Here, I buy that Nucky would have wanted a messenger to go back to Rothstein – and that, frankly, he was tired of being a witness to killing that day.

• The “Where you going?” / “Wherever you tell me” exchange between Torio and Capone reminded me very much of one of the earliest Richie Aprile scenes from “The Sopranos” season two, where Richie is pledging his loyalty to Uncle Junior. I don’t think the phrasing is identical (more along the lines of “What are you going to do?” / “Whatever you need,” as I recall), but a similar structure and intent.

What did everybody else think?

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