‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Nights in Ballygran’: For the sea is wide…

Senior Television Writer
10.17.10 70 Comments


A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I know my audience…

“Everybody wants what they ain’t allowed to have.” -Nucky

In some ways, “Nights in Ballygran” is the most overtly “Sopranos”-ish episode of “Boardwalk Empire” so far. Tom Aldredge, who played Carmela’s father Hugh, here turns up as Nucky and Eli’s dad. The business with the discarded soda bread is very reminiscent of Tony’s disinterest in the leather jacket Richie Aprile gave him. And Nucky telling the Daniel Webster joke once too often with his jealous brother evokes various “Sopranos” stories (some involving Steve Buscemi as Tony Blundetto) about grudges grown out of jokes taken one step too far.

But the view “Boardwalk Empire” takes of its world, and its characters, is a lot more complicated than the relentlessly cynical take of “The Sopranos.” That was an incredible series, but also one where you knew that every character would ultimately act in his or her own self-interest, regardless of who else was hurt in the process. There’s certainly selfishness to be found in “Nights in Ballygran,” in which various characters strive for things they’re forbidden or unable to have – Nucky and Margaret want each other, Eli wants to be a smooth politican like his brother, the little boxers want respect and more pay, and Jimmy and Pearl want her face to not be irreparably scarred – but the approach they each take, and the end result, is at times messier, more romantic or more tragic than those scenarios might have gone down on “The Sopranos.”(*)

(*) Well, okay: the boxing story would have gone down exactly that way if Tony and Paulie Walnuts were involved.

The story that dominates the hour, building off of last week’s memorable birthday dance, is the hostile push-pull between Nucky and Margaret. He wants her but doesn’t need another complication in a life full of them. She wants him – in part out of attraction, in part because she wants the life he can provide (and that will allow her to forget the awful one that she had) – but is operating in a world she doesn’t really understand, with a man whose all-things-to-all-people persona makes him a tough nut to crack. She offers the soda bread, then realizes he doesn’t care, and catches him in a lie about it. She wears the fancy underwear she stole from Madame Jeunet, then rips it to pieces when Nucky won’t see her in his office. She fears he views her as a pathetic immigrant woman beneath his station, but she can’t let go of her feelings for him and lashes out at Nucky by going tipping off Agent Van Alden about the barrels of beer in the garage acros the street.

When Nucky sees her demonstrating with the other temperance women outside the Celtic dinner (a classic photo op well-orchestrated by Van Alden), he could view it as the last, best excuse to stay away from this woman. Instead, it makes him realize she’s just going to keep pushing – and that he wants her to. An affair with Mrs. Schroeder might be bad for business (depending on how much she really cares about Prohibition), but he wants her, and last week Nucky warned us that he’s a man who thinks he can have everything.

Even amid the dysfunction and gamesmanship, there’s been a real sense of romance to this story, and particularly to their kiss in her doorway, and that romantic quality carries over to Jimmy and Pearl’s story in Chicago. That one obviously ends in tragedy, with Pearl killing herself rather than try to cope with her ruined face and future, but before that, there’s that incredibly tender scene where Jimmy tells her the story of the perfect day he and his mother spent with the rich man and his boat. Pearl asks if Mr. Lancaster ultimately married Gillian, and Jimmy, wanting her to hear a story with a happy ending, lies and says that he did. But Pearl knows the truth of her own situation. She wants a life that’s no longer available to her, so she decides to check out, leaving Jimmy with another thing to feel guilty about(**).

(**) And leaving Michael Pitt some more great material to play. Of the show’s leads, he’s the one I had seen the least previously, and he just floors me in moments like the story, or Jimmy blowing on Pearl’s face like the breeze, or Jimmy staring at her dead body and realizing this is all his fault. The Chicago scenes are only tangentially connected to Nucky’s story right now, but Pitt’s so good I’m invested, anyway.

Jimmy’s far away in Chicago, but Eli’s clearly still not feeling the love from his big brother, and is frustrated that the politicial stuff doesn’t come as easily to him as it does to Nucky. He chafes at the Daniel Webster jokes, bulls ahead on making his big speech at the Celtic dinner and is so inept that he nearly incites a riot between the American-born Irish and their immigrant counterparts, saved only by Nucky’s timely move with the leprechaun dancers, and then rendered a footnote when Van Alden raids the place.

Still, a drunk Eli takes a swing at Nucky. And the last thing Nucky Thompson needs – as he’s about to begin a potentially problematic affair with Mrs. Schroeder, as Arnold Rothstein and Nelson Van Alden are both gunning for him, and as everyone keeps wanting more and more from him, whether they can have it or not – is to have his strong right arm mad at him.

Some other thoughts:

• The story at the temperance meeting about the child who died of alcohol poisoning from a bathtub full of homemade hooch, and then Mrs. Schroeder’s argument with Van Alden about how Prohibition is creating criminals, are more reminders of the unintended consequences of the Volstead Act.

• After being absent last week, Arnold Rothstein returns, and is getting some heat from his role as mastermind of the Chicago Black Sox scandal that rigged the 1919 World Series. I can’t help noticing that Rothstein tends to appear in episodes where Chalky is either absent of only appears briefly. Coincidence? Or is this a Clark Kent/Superman situation?

• Getting back to Tom Aldredge, I would say his casting went against what Terry Winter has said about not wanting “Sopranos” alums to be a distraction. No, Hugh DeAngelis was never a major “Sopranos” character, but he was the father one of the show’s two main characters, so to bring him in here as the protagonist’s dad called attention to itself. Better that the casting people had saved Aldredge for another part.

• I again had Monopoly thoughts when looking at Van Alden’s map of all the illegal hooch in Atlantic City.

• In offering to become Tommy’s guardian so Angela (who turns out to only be Jimmy’s common-law wife, as they didn’t get hitched before he went off to war) can go off and live her “bohemian” lifestyle, Jillian again raises the suspicions Jimmy had about her relationship with the photographer and his wife. And then Angela all but confirms them when she goes to their studio on her night out.

• “Carrickfergus,” the song performed at the Celtic dinner, and then again over the final montage, has a special place in my heart, because it was prominently featured in the final, unaired episode of the brilliant-but-canceled CBS mob drama “EZ Streets,” with an Irish gangster singing it as he and his mates gave his dead father a weird Viking funeral. Like “Nights in Ballygran,” that episode took its title (“Neither Have I Wings to Fly”) from the song’s lyrics.

What did everybody else think?

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