A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I make Junior Beach Patrol…
“I’m no stranger to man’s cruelty. Sometimes, it’s best to leave the past where it is.” -Margaret
The men at the center of this week’s “Boardwalk Empire” have scars. Some are incredibly obvious, like the missing half of the face of Jimmy’s new friend Richard Harrow; his painted tin mask(*) covers them up, but only draws more attention to what’s underneath (and what isn’t). Some are more easily hidden; Jimmy’s limp never goes away, but all he has to do to cover his damaged leg is put on pants. And some are barely noticeable at all, like the brand from the red hot poker that Nucky’s father gave him on his ninth birthday.
(*) I’m going to have nightmares about that mask, which was drawn from a bit of research done by “Boardwalk” writer/producer Howard Korder. The woman who made those masks often had her clients grow a half-mustache and put on glasses so she could better create the illusion of the missing parts of their face, but that only makes it more disturbing, in a way. I got chills in the scene where director Allen Coulter left the camera on the mask side of Richard’s face so we heard Richard’s voice even though his lips weren’t moving.
But regardless of the size, placement and degree of their physical scars, all three men carry with them terrible emotional ones – nightmares and stories and memories they can’t let go of, and that few people want to hear about in a way that would be helpful.
Nucky tries telling Margaret about his father’s abuse, but she’s been warned by a fellow concubine not to let her sugar daddy reveal too much of himself, lest he start to resent her when he’s feeling less vulnerable. But Nucky isn’t like the others. He really is looking for a deeper connection than he got with Lucy, or with any of the other women he’s been with since his wife died. You see as he listens to the story about his colleague’s baby daughter how much he wanted kids, and how much it hurts him just to be back in his childhood home, whether in the dangerous state left by his hoarder father or the remodeled version. Nucky’s a survivor, but it’s never been easy, and all he wants is someone to let him talk about it a little. But Eli and his cronies don’t care, and even after Margaret recognizes her miscalculation and lets him tell her about how he lost his baseball mitt, the pain is still there, and the only way for him to cope is by burning down the house and throwing a wad of cash at Fleming to find a better place to live.
Jimmy finds a doctor who wants him to do a “personal inventory” of his combat experiences, but Richard explains that this isn’t designed to help men like them, but to help mold the next generation of soldiers for the next war. Instead, the two bond over their shared past, Jimmy arranges for one of Torio’s whores to deflower Richard, and Richard in turn puts old Enfield sniper rifle to use in helping Jimmy get his revenge on the man who carved up Pearl’s face.
What a great scene that is. As with Nucky torching the house even after he tells Margaret the story, here’s Jimmy finally talking something out, as he tells Liam about the man caught in the barbed wire in the Argonne. He’s opening up about a horror from the war, in a way he hasn’t been able to with most people, and in the process he gains complete psychological dominance over Liam. If he lets Liam live, Liam will always know how completely powerless he was and will absolutely live up to Jimmy’s demand that he never see him again. But that’s not quite enough for Jimmy(**). He wants to have his cake and take out the man who drove Pearl to kill herself, too, and so he makes Liam fear his own imminent death, then lets him off the hook but quivering like a little boy, then kills him anyway. And as the camera zooms across the street to show Richard packing up his gear, Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” – famous as the score to so many early monster movies – roars on the soundtrack, transitioning into Lucy, stood up by Nucky, watching the silent 1920 “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
(**) Or perhaps it is. Fienberg suggested to me that Richard is acting on his own, as a way to pay back Jimmy for the hooker, and is doing something he suspects Jimmy really wants to do but is choosing not to.
Richard is a monster not unlike Mr. Hyde. So is Jimmy. So is Nucky. But they didn’t suddenly become that way. Someone made them into monsters. And for one reflective, haunting, great episode, we get to hear a little bit about how they were marked as such.
Some other thoughts:
• Jack Huston, by the way, was terrific as Richard. The mask obviously helps the performance immensely, but the way he carries himself and speaks conveyed just how broken and alien this man feels. Huston was recently cast in one of the lead roles in David Chase’s feature film debut, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Terry Winter raved about the guy to his old boss.
• A very interesting writing duo for this episode, with the scripted credited to Timothy Van Patten and Paul Simms. Van Patten is, of course, the show’s lead director, but his only previous TV writing credit was for Terry Winter’s “Pine Barrens” script for “The Sopranos,” where Van Patten came up with the story idea of wiseguys lost in the woods. And Simms was the creator of one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, “NewsRadio,” but has been mostly out of the business for years (other than a couple of “Flight of the Conchords” scripts) and doesn’t have anything on his resume suggesting a show like this. (Then again, neither did Winter or Matt Weiner before “The Sopranos.”) So how did this team-up come about? I asked Winter, who explained that Van Patten and Simms became friends after working together on a 2002 pilot that wasn’t picked up, and Winter in turn befriended Simms through Van Patten. “He’s not just a great comedy writer, he’s a great writer in general who is also extremely smart and well-versed in history. Tim wanted to write an episode and suggested that Paul partner with him and I was all for it.” A very good call by the one once known as Salami.
• Another real-life wiseguy makes his first appearance in the series: Meyer Lansky (who would’ve been 18 at the time of this episode), first posting as “Michael Louis” as he approaches Chalky, who mistakenly assumes he’s some kind of test from Nucky. And that mistake will probably come back to bite Nucky, who still doesn’t realize the size and nature of the threat against him. On the plus side for Nuck, now that the Italians from Philly have teamed up with Lansky, Luciano and Rothstein, he’s not being attacked by multiple independent forces.
• Meanwhile, the blonde kid who helped Al and Jimmy out with the hijacking returns to rat Jimmy out to Agent Van Alden.
• I’m curious to see what kind of place Lucy has in this story now that Nucky has moved on to Margaret, or if Paz de la Huerta won’t be a regular next year.
• It’s not TV, it’s HBO: Angela and Mary the photographer’s wife get very naked together (and clarify what Gillian meant when she dismissed Angela as a “bohemian”), while the Commodore projectile vomits in his one and only scene.
• Michael Badalucco somehow never guest-starred on “The Sopranos,” though his brother Joseph had a small role in the first season as Family captain Jimmy Altieri. Here, Michael pops up as Nucky’s pal Harry, whose girlfriend is the one giving Margaret the bad advice. And as Fienberg point out, Harry is about to become a victim of the very first Ponzi scheme, courtesy of Ponzi himself.
What did everybody else think?