‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Paris Green’: Down by the river where the dead men go

Senior Television Writer
11.28.10 148 Comments


A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I make a pretense of my need to micturate…

“Every road leads to a reckoning.” -Deacon Cuffy

“Paris Green” opens with the image of Houdini’s brother Hardeen in a straightjacket, the camera whirling around him so it’s not clear if he’s upside down or the camera is. It’s an apt bit of visual shorthand for an episode in which so many of the central relationships are thrown into turmoil that it would be hard to blame any of the characters for wondering which end was up.

The episode is filled with attempted break-ups and new unions, some more successful than others. Nucky kicks Eli out of his political machine for having the temerity to question big brother’s motives. And Nucky in turn is rejected by Margaret, who wants the lifestyle he offers but not the restrictions – or guilt – that come with it. Agent Sepso tries to get away from the suspicious Van Alden, then foolishly tries to ingratiate himself with his partner and winds up dead in a river. Jimmy finally makes a connection with his father (as the hints about the Commodore from a few episodes back are confirmed), only to discover that the parent who’s always been there for him has been poisoning the other one. Angela makes a bold plan to leave Jimmy for her “kissing friend” Mary, but it turns out that Mary’s marriage to the photographer was about more than convenience, and they appear to have left for Paris without her.

With so many dizzying shifts, is it any wonder that Nucky ends the episode going in to see Lady Jean? In such uncertain times, even a complete skeptic can take comfort in the idea that someone knows what his future holds.

Seasons of “The Sopranos” typically followed a familiar structure, where the big story arcs tended to climax in a wild penultimate episode, followed by a quieter finale that tied up loose ends and gave Tony, Carmela and company a chance to contemplate what they’d been through. Several of those penultimate shows were written by Terence Winter himself – most famously, season five’s “Long-Term Parking” – but while “Boardwalk Empire” certainly owes many stylistic and spiritual debts to the earlier show, he seems to be following a different model with these late episodes. Everything remains very much in flux going into the finale, and with the exception of Sepso’s fatal baptism (which I’ll get back to in a moment, because… yeah…) and Nucky and Margaret’s argument about the Lysol contraceptive method, it was a relatively low-key episode. I haven’t seen the finale(*), but I have a feeling that there are going to be much bigger fireworks – regarding the election, the feud with Rothstein and the D’Alessios, the Commodore’s health and Jimmy’s aspirations, Nucky and Margaret, and, of course, Van Alden – than we tended to get when Winter was working for David Chase.

(*) In fact, HBO isn’t sending the finale out in advance, which means this will be the last of this season’s reviews I’ll be able to post immediately after the East Coast airing. Not sure yet whether I’m going to stay up to write that review, or if I’ll sleep on it and work on something Monday morning. We’ll have to see how I respond to it, how much energy I have, etc.

Though a bit more mellow than the show has been in recent weeks, I found “Paris Green” another really strong episode in what’s been a great finishing kick for the first season. My only real concern is about Van Alden.

When you do a show where the protagonists are prominent criminals drawing the interest of law enforcement, there are usually two ways you can justify their continued evasion of justice. One is to make the cops corrupt (which is an advantage Nucky has on the local level, but not the federal one). The other is to do what “The Sopranos” did and make the good guys incompetent (or, at least, not as clever as the bad guys).

With Van Alden, Winter and company have chosen a third way: complete bat-shit insanity.

And while that’s been fun for a while – it’s a note Michael Shannon has played often in his career, and one he plays spectacularly well – I worry that Van Alden drowning Sepso in full view of dozens of witnesses is taking the character’s religious mania too far. I recognize that in 1920 Atlantic City, those witnesses are unlikely to alert the authorities to the crazy white G-man they saw drown his partner, but it was such an extreme action that – coupled with him putting himself into a Christ pose as he walked through the shallow water (no doubt imagining himself walking on it), gun in one hand, badge of office in the other – I may have a hard time taking the character seriously going forward. “Boardwalk Empire” features a heightened kind of reality like any good scripted drama, but for the most part it seems determined to show these historical figures (both the real and fictionalized ones) as natural and human, and Van Alden in this episode was just cuckoo bananas. Unless the idea is that he’s going to jail in the next episode for what he did, and that we were just seeing how Nucky’s world can drive the wrong man crazy, I fear it’s a big misstep for one of the show’s most prominent antagonists.

(Also, Van Alden’s crisis of faith from last week seemed to end pretty darned quick. Did sex with Lucy scare him straight?)

But if things got a bit silly with Van Alden, the rest of the episode was spot on as usual, particularly the scenes with Jimmy.

Michael Pitt has gotten better and better as this season has gone along (I think it took him a couple of episodes to grow into the character, and/or for the writers to tailor Jimmy to him; that’s often a natural evolution on shows), and he did some fine, quiet work as Jimmy had to tend to the dying father who never had much use for him (and vice versa). I like that Jimmy never entirely softens to the old man, but at least recognizes that there might be a value to this relationship – and that epiphany in turn informs how he acts around Angela and little Tommy when they return from their failed escape to Paris. Angela’s understandably terrified of his wrath after realizing he’s seen the Dear Jimmy note she left, but Jimmy’s focus seems entirely on being attentive to his son’s needs in the way his own father never was. And the idea of the Commodore trying to drive a new wedge between Jimmy and Nucky has a lot of potential for future seasons (and will hopefully give Dabney Coleman more to do than he’s gotten this year).

And then there was the Nucky/Margaret fight, which was definitely evocative in intensity (and the caliber of acting) to some Tony/Carmela arguments, but with different stakes. Even though this is 80 years before the start of “The Sopranos,” Margaret expects more power – or, at least, more free will – than even Carmela ever wanted Tony to grant her. She didn’t marry into this, and while Nucky’s right that she’s not some naive innocent – “A good person wouldn’t be here right now” – it seems self-defeating (from a 21st-century point of view) for Nucky to be drawn to this woman for her independence and intelligence (as well as her beauty and children) and then to punish her for wanting to exercise those traits. I don’t expect Margaret to stay gone from Nucky’s life for long, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if, when she returns, the terms of their partnership have changed as much as the Nucky/Jimmy alliance did when Jimmy came back from Chicago.

But since I have access to neither a screener nor Lady Jean, I get to spend the next seven days speculating along with the rest of you. Can’t wait to see what happens.

Some other thoughts:

• Good call, all of you (starting with Fienberg after he watched his screener) who recognized that the get-rich-quick idea Harry told Nucky about was the original Ponzi scheme.

• So Rothstein needs someone in Chicago to do him a favor to avoid being tripped up by the Black Sox scandal, eh? If only there was someone in the city who was both known to Rothstein and an ally of Nucky’s…

• Though I didn’t love the actual drowning of Sepso, I thought the way director Allen Coulter shot all the scenes at the river was just gorgeous. Great use of a natural location.

• Again, Jack Huston makes his limited screen time count as Richard. A chill went down my spine as he matter-of-factly told Jimmy, “I would kill the mother, the sisters, and the dentist. That would make them stick their heads up.” It’s not even that Richard is evil; he’s just empty. Though he can fake human connections on occasion (as he did with Margaret’s kids last week), he really doesn’t feel them, and has no more of a problem killing innocent D’Alessio relatives than he did assassinating Liam in Chicago.

What did everybody else think?

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