‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘What Does the Bee Do?’: Strokes and slaps

Senior Television Writer
10.16.11 82 Comments


A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” review coming up just as soon as there are Creamsicles in my icebox…

“You’re not the only one looking to settle scores.” -Nucky

To borrow Fienberg’s favorite current running gag, “What Does the Bee Do?” seems like the perfect episode… for REVENGE!

Now, many of this season’s stories are already being driven by a desire for vengeance – particularly Jimmy seeking redress for the many ways he feels Nucky has wronged him – but the Payback-O-Meter seemed cranked up to 11 for this one. Chalky is still hot to get back at the KKK troops (who, remember, were striking back on behalf of their 9-fingered leader) and the men who sent them. Jimmy links up with Philly mobster Manny Horvitz, who conveniently wants very much to stick it to Nucky’s new Philly partner, Waxy Gordon. And after the Commodore suffers a stroke that otherwise throws a giant monkey wrench into Jimmy and Eli’s plans, Gillian finally has the old bastard right where she wants him, having turned his organization over to her son and now too powerless to resist her slaps and taunts about the awful, awful night they first had sex.

Gillian’s assault of the Commodore is chilling and yet cathartic. She’s beating up a stroke victim, but one who’s a right sonuvabitch who raped her when she was a teenager, and the whole scene is a reminder that if Jimmy were really interested in avenging his mother’s honor (as opposed to grabbing the biggest slice of the pie), he’d have been waging a systematic campaign against the old man and not Nucky. (Though Nucky remains far from innocent in all of this.) And it’s also a reminder, along with their unsettling kiss and Eli’s comments about their relationship, that something is very off about Jimmy and Gillian, and that she remains an enormous wild card in whatever’s coming.

While some characters are hot for vengeance, cooler heads are largely able to prevail in this episode. Nucky puts Chalky off for the time being, and is able to fight back on multiple fronts. He teams up with Rothstein (the ultimate cool customer) to get his liquor pipeline back up and running, sends Owen Sleater to bomb Mickey’s warehouse (which has the unintended consequence of solving a problem for Agent Van Alden), and even figures out a way to get the charges against him made the purview of his powerful pal Harry Daugherty. After physically confronting Jimmy and the commodore last week, Nucky is back on the offensive, and it’s welcome to see.

But while Chalky’s no closer to the Klansmen who shot up his warehouse and killed his people, he’s at the center of one of this week’s two most compelling subplots, neither of which have much to do with the ongoing Jimmy/Nucky war.

In the season’s first two episodes, we got glimpses of Chalky’s fancy home and family, and here we spend an extended period of time on his side of town, both at work and home. Like Nucky, he’s king of his particular mountain, and like Nucky, his kingdom is a bit under siege at the moment. The Klan assault has shaken his people’s faith in him, and at home he’s under constant pressure to put aside his country upbringing and try to conform to the city ideals of his wife and kids. Chalky puts on the fancy clothes, admires his son’s piano playing and tries to adopt the air of a cultured man, but at heart he’s still the poor kid from Elgin, Texas. It doesn’t take much – in this case, his daughter’s young suitor making fun of the kind of food Chalky grew up eating – to make him feel like an outcast in his own home. It’s not easy being Chalky White, and Michael Kenneth Williams continues to do great work with his expanded role.

And we already know that it’s not easy being Richard Harrow – and that Jack Huston is mesmerizing – but his portrait session with Angela was a fantastic sequence nonetheless, and one that left me feeling like I know the man a bit more than Jimmy admits to at the end of it. I loved the way the scene was put together so that we’re focusing on the same things Angela is – his hands, his eyes, his mouth – and yet always aware of the parts that we assume we’re not going to see. And then after he reveals more of his inner self to Angela than he’s told anyone else – with the poignant monologue about the sister he no longer feels connected to since he came back from the war – he’s finally comfortable enough in showing her his outer self. And Angela doesn’t flinch – nor does the camera – and just gets to work capturing the terrible beauty of that face.

I’m definitely enjoying the machinations between Nucky and Jimmy, but the Chalky and Richard scenes this week were reminders of just how much power great character-driven moments can have. We know a lot about our two male leads already, so it’s not like the season’s main arc involves two ciphers trying to destroy each other (though Nucky comes close at times), but it’s always a tough act to balance plot and character.
A few other thoughts, revenge-based and otherwise:

• Whatever’s going on between Owen, Katy and the jealous Margaret (who’s back to being high-handed with the maids this week), right now it seems our friend from Ireland has taken Jimmy’s place in Nucky’s operation – which Nucky could use right about now. Odds that there’s an actual Owen/Jimmy fight at some point this season? Or would you wager on Owen vs. Richard (as the boss’s seconds)?

• Nelson Van Alden, born under a good sign: whenever he has a partner or underling who becomes concerned about what he’s up to, that man winds up suffering great bodily harm or worse. Of course, the last time it was Van Alden causing the harm (and in front of a crowd powerless to speak out against him after), but his divine rescue this week was another reminder of how tangential Nelson has been so far this season, with or without Lucy involved.

• I almost did a double-take at the sight of William Forsythe as Manny. Forsythe’s a familiar, hard-working character actor, but one of the first times I really noticed him was in the ’90s syndicated version of “The Untouchables,” where he played… Al Capone. And now I really want to see Forsythe and Stephen Graham have a scene together.

What did everybody else think?

Around The Web