A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I besmirch the national pastime…
“We’re at war, kid.” -Nucky
Nucky spends most of “Hold Me in Paradise” out of his comfort zone, both physically and emotionally. He knows Chicago a little, but it’s not his home turf, and he knows nothing about the electability of Warren G. Harding until he gets to spend time with Harding’s campaign manager (and gets some extra insight from one of the johns at Torio’s whorehouse). And as he tells Eli in the episode’s penultimate scene, neither of them are prepared for the war that the Italians have declared on them. It’s a war, and Nucky’s a fixer, not a fighter.
Fortunately, he knows a soldier quite well, and that soldier is conveniently living in the city he’s visiting, which leads to the first Nucky/Jimmy scene since episode three. They’re in a different place now than they were when Nucky sent him away. Jimmy has gained in confidence – and willingness to kill – thanks to his role in taking out Sheridan and his crew, while Nucky is finally beginning to recognize the wisdom of Jimmy’s words from the pilot about how he can’t be “half a gangster” anymore.(*)
(*) Fienberg and I talked about the show on last week’s podcast, and about the dissatisfaction we’ve seen here and elsewhere from some viewers – in particular their frustration with Nucky coming across as a middle manager rather than a mob boss. As Dan said on the show, that’s kind of the point, as we’re spending this season watching him transition from a guy who knows how to get things done under the old rules to one who’s finding a way to survive in a world destined to be run by the Capones and Lucianos. We’re seeing his evolution, and that to me is more interesting than if Buscemi had started the series playing the man as fully-formed.
And just as Nucky recognizes that he needs Jimmy more than he thought, he begins to see that his preconceptions about national politics weren’t right. He enters the convention asking “Who cares about Harding?” and leaves it realizing he’s going to be the next president.(**) Edge screwed him over on the road money, and in meeting Harry Doherty (played by veteran character actor Christopher McDonald), Nucky realizes what horse he should be backing. He runs Atlantic City, and much of the Eastern seaboard’s liquor trade, while remaining the behind-the-scenes power broker, and he can recognize that same skill in Doherty. He throws his backing behind Harding, takes Nan Britton off the campaign’s hands for a while, and looks to be doing well come election time.
(**) History is not a spoiler. We all know – or should know, if our high school history teachers were doing their jobs correctly and we were paying attention – what happened with Harding, and maybe even with Rothstein and the Black Sox scandal, Luciano, Capone, etc. I’m certainly not going to stop people from talking about history in the comments. But given that the series is going to keep letting its fictional characters with significant historical figures, I’m not going to go out of my way to include a lot of detail about what happened next in the real world. Feel free to Google Nan Britton if you want, though.
In the midst of this crisis with Eli and the Italians, Nucky makes another alliance – or, rather, changes one, as he decides that Margaret is the only person he can trust to watch his crooked books until he gets back into town. On the one hand, it’s a smart move, as none of the men in his organization seem entirely trustworthy. On the other, though, Nucky might be underestimating just what a woman with Mrs. Schroeder’s intelligence might do with the information she gleans from reading the ledger.
Earlier in the episode, meanwhile, Margaret learns just how quickly and painfully Nucky can dissolve a relationship, as Lucy turns up at Madame Jeunet’s shop looking just as bitter and jealous as Senator Edge will look when Nucky abandons him in the hotel lobby. (Margaret literally slaps Lucy, where Nucky just throws a few verbal jabs at Edge.) Nucky’s with Margaret now, and she with him, but what happens if the winds change and he’s drawn to some other woman? With what she’s learning about the organization – and with Agent Van Alden’s interest in both her and bringing Nucky down – how badly could she hurt him?
And speaking of Van Alden, he gets his first big spotlight episode story as we get a deeper, sadder glimpse into his marriage, and into how he twists his religious convictions around and around to justify his behavior (or lets himself be twisted around by beliefs that even his wife can recognize are inconsistent). Some of you have compared Van Alden to Rex Banner from “The Simpsons” episode that spoofed Prohbition, and that’s not entirely unfair. As written, and as played by the gravel-voiced Michael Shannon, Van Alden has definite bordered on cartoonish at times. But here he seemed painfully human, if not all that sympathetic, and I admit to being faked out about what he was going to do with the envelopes of cash he’d been keeping from Angela Darmody. I think there’s a part of Van Alden that does want his wife to be happy, and to produce the child she so desperately wants to give him, but he’s too screwed-up – and too selective in his morality – to do it. Some very good work from Shannon in this one.
If Jimmy’s heading back to Atlantic City – both for the percentage stake of the business Nucky offered, and because he recognizes that he’ll never rise very far in a gang where he’s the only non-Italian – Van Alden will have to be dealt with. But Nucky and Jimmy working together – combining Nucky’s business savvy with Jimmy’s ruthlessness and grasp of tactics – should make them very tough for Van Alden, or the Philly wiseguys or anyone else to beat. You make the right alliances, and you maybe do well in this life, whether home or away.
Some other thoughts:
Poor Eli. Even before he gets shot, we see yet again just how badly he wants to be like Nucky – and just how inadequate he seems at the task. Heck, even the stag film catches fire when he’s throwing his private shindig.
In talking with Nan Britton, Nucky mentions a son who died. Certainly, Nucky has spent enough time staring wistfully at the baby incubators that this wouldn’t seem a surprising detail. But do you think it’s true, or just another one of the many lies Nucky tells to ingratiate himself with a particular audience?
I was very glad to see that Richard Harrow is still hanging around with Jimmy. Even though his appearance here was brief, Jack Huston was so fantastic last week that I want to see Richard as part of the show for a while to come.
What did everybody else think?