‘Boardwalk Empire’: I want my mommy!

12.05.11 6 years ago 263 Comments


A review of last night’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I don’t like the way you loom…

“There’s nothing wrong, baby. There’s nothing wrong with any of it.” -Gillian

Nucky and Margaret spend much of “Under God’s Power, She Flourishes” debating whether Emily’s polio is divine retribution for their various sins, or if it’s simply a terrible coincidence. But the episode itself sure suggests that “Boardwalk Empire” itself has recently come to believe in the idea of terrible justice rained down from on high – and that some sins can’t be escaped, no matter how hard you try.

Where Nucky has, for a long time, been able to talk, bribe or otherwise maneuver his way out of paying for his sins for a long time, now he seems trapped in quicksand. Every time it appears he’s figured a way out of this legal mess, he only sinks deeper, now with Margaret – with whom he’s been far, far more candid than the average gangster (of the ’20s or any other era) would usually be with his special lady friend – contemplating the idea of testifying against him as a way to unburden her soul and spare Emily any more pain.

Van Alden has committed various sins, big and small, over these two seasons, and though he’s tried recently to live more cleanly (giving his Nucky files to Esther Randolph, signing Rose’s divorce petition, even turning down Mickey’s offer of a huge score from Capone and the others), the killing of Agent Sepso is too big to be ignored, and Nucky’s friendship with the African-American community sends Deacon Cuffey into the post office, and Van Alden on the run as a disgraced fugitive.

And in the storyline that I imagine everyone will want to talk about today, we learn that Jimmy has some serious sin of his own – that in a moment of drunk, tired weakness, he didn’t resist when Gillian seduced him back in college – and he’s been paying for it ever since.

Jimmy and Gillian’s sex by train light is the kind of thing that could have played out as cheap shock value on some other shows(*), but “Boardwalk Empire” has been building to this for a long time. As Eli pointed out, and as we’ve seen and heard over and over again, something isn’t right with these two. They’re too close, not only in age, but in every way they interact. Their physical manner when they came back from the Princeton mixer wasn’t that of a son taking care of his drunken mother, but of a romantic couple returning from an exciting night on the town. It almost would have been more shocking if Gillian hadn’t tried to make a move under the circumstances, and while it’s still incredibly disturbing to see Jimmy give in to her, it fits with every previous piece of the puzzle the show has given us. We all figured Gillian was going to try to make her affections plainer at some point in the future, but it turns out she did it years ago, that Jimmy went along with it, and that so many of his actions since then – enlisting to fight in a war he didn’t care about, siding with Gillian and the Commodore against Nucky – have been driven by the shame and disgust he feels over that night. If he goes to Europe, he doesn’t have to be around the mess his life has suddenly become. If he goes against Nucky to defend his mother’s honor –  even if it means teaming up with a man who sullied her just as much as Nucky did – then he’s being a good, dutiful son.

(*) If Ryan Murphy were running “Boardwalk Empire,” for instance, Jimmy and Gillian would have had sex three scenes after we met her, and then it would quickly be forgotten.

But some sins can’t be run from or ignored forever. Angela – whom Jimmy (like us) never really got to know – is murdered, and Jimmy gets the news just as he’s returned to the location of his terrible night of passion(**). And when he returns home and Gillian makes plain her intentions to take over Angela’s role in his life – preferably in every way, it’s implied – Jimmy finally fights back against her. Instead, though, a rejuvenated Commodore attacks him – with the same spear he was showing off throughout the early parts of the season – and he has to use his trench knife to complete the Oedipus parallels. And then sick, wicked Gillian brings out Jimmy’s son as both a human shield and, perhaps, a promise of how the cycle may continue with the next cute little boy in Gillian’s life. (Hat tip to Alyssa Rosenberg for pointing out just how terribly one could read her “One day soon, he won’t be a little boy anymore. It happens, just like that” speech.)

(**) Usually, shows doing a flashback-heavy episode like this one have some kind of obvious structure or visual signature to make clear when we’re in the past and when we’re in the present, but “Under God’s Power” treated Jimmy’s college scenes as belonging naturally alongside scenes set in the present day – perhaps because that night is one that Jimmy still thinks about, and can’t escape, to this very day – and when the Jimmy of 1921 finally appears fairly late into the hour, it’s not immediately obvious that we’re seeing him and not just the pre-war Jimmy trying to drown out his horrible memories one last time. (The phone call from Gillian, and then Jimmy’s use of Meyer’s heroin to dull his pain, were the first clear sign that we were back in present-day.)

“Boardwalk Empire” is sometimes accused of being as cool and detached as Nucky himself, but that was an insanely hot, great last 20 minutes or so last night. This is a conflict that’s been building for the better part of two seasons, but even if we suspected something wasn’t quite right about Gillian, I’m not sure any of us imagined the depths of her sickness, and how much she in turn had corrupted Jimmy. When you give the audience incest (accompanied by a roaring train for added symbolic/melodramatic value) followed by attempted matricide, followed by a stroke patient stabbing our man with a spear, followed by patricide, followed by Gillian making like John Huston (grandfather of Jack Huston) at the end of “Chinatown,” you’ve got something no viewer of the show is likely to forget for a long, long time, and yet something that doesn’t feel like it came out of nowhere. This has all been set up as meticulously as any of Nucky’s business plans, and it was horrifying, and it was amazing.

About the only negative I can say about the closing scenes with the Darmody family is that they seriously overshadowed everything else in the episode, including what appears to be a major break in Nucky and Margaret’s partnership and Van Alden being found out and going on the lam.

The story of Nucky and Margaret has, like a lot of season two arcs, waxed and waned, as each have been distracted at times by other things. (Though the distraction itself has been part of their story: see Owen Sleater, for example.) But we began the season with Margaret pushing Nucky to be honest and open with her about his business, which seemed fine when she was a hustler herself and enthusiastic about participating. Now that she’s drowning in Catholic guilt, Nucky’s earlier candor is opening up one more vulnerability for him. Van Alden can’t testify against him anymore, and I imagine he can sway Eli in some way, but how exactly does Nucky intend to stop a woman as strong-willed and independent as Margaret Schroeder from sending him up the river just as he’s cleared all his other problems away?

I imagine Nucky will get out of it somehow in the finale – or else his court case will continue into season three – but it does seem like we’re nearing the end of Nelson Van Alden’s time on the show. He can’t plausibly return to work, and he’d have no interest in becoming a bootlegger – and even less value to guys like Mickey if he doesn’t have his badge. Given where the show took Van Alden at the end of last season, and then the weird psychodrama with Lucy for the first half of this one, he probably wasn’t a character who had a lot of long-term viability. (And I imagine Michael Shannon is eager to cash in on his window as the hot movie character actor du jour before it closes on him and the next guy starts getting all the offers.)

We could, frankly, see a lot of turnover before next season begins. The Commodore is dead (Rest in Peace, Great White Hunter). Angela is dead. Lucy has left town. Van Alden’s a fugitive from justice. Eli’s in jail, possibly heading towards a life sentence. And Nucky may need to put Margaret on a slow boat back to Ireland to escape his latest predicament. Given where Jimmy’s plans have brought him, I imagine he’ll try to make peace with Nucky in the finale, but what kind of empire’s going to be left for these two to run given the scorched earth of the last several episodes? And how will Gillian react if her sweet little boy turns his back on her in favor of her ex-pimp?

Some other thoughts:

* Last week, I lamented that Angela died after two seasons of the show not knowing entirely what to do with her, and I appreciated that she was so present this week for the Jimmy Darmody origin story, which among other things helped flesh out the nature of their relationship. We know they hadn’t known each other very long before he went off to war, but we didn’t know how brief it was, nor how abruptly he had to split.

* Van Alden also got an origin story, albeit told rather than shown. As with Gillian – who responded to being sexually abused as a girl by seducing and manipulating her son – we see that there’s a cycle of abuse and madness going on in the Van Alden family. Nelson was raised by zealots, which is unsurprising, but we learn that their zeal wound up destroying the family by falling under the sway of a 19th century Harold Camping type who convinced them to give up all their possessions in anticipation of the Second Coming. Where some children might respond to this dire outcome by renouncing God altogether, Nelson found his own style of religious mania, one wrapped around principals of order and austerity.

* The episode mainly focused on Jimmy’s response to Angela’s murder, unsurprisingly, but we also know how attached Richard had grown to her, and Jack Huston had some great moments early on as he quietly studied the blood stain on the bedroom floor and tried to make sense of it. For all that Richard says he can’t emotionally connect to people anymore, he sure connected to Angela.

* Glad to see that Mickey Doyle has dropped a lot of the cackling, cartoonish mannerisms he had earlier in the series. The guy remains at a disadvantage, though – and again represents one of the trickier aspects of the series – as he’s currently trying to take out three real-life characters whom history has other plans for.

My hope is to have a review of the finale written sometime Sunday night, so check this space, my Twitter feed, etc. And let me remind you, as always, of the No Spoilers rule around here, which means no talking about the previews for the finale, or anything else you’ve seen or read about what happens in it. Any comment that violates this will be deleted, regardless of what else is in there.

Until then, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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