A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I start picking up on people’s signals…
“How was dinner with your father?” -Angela
“Which one?” -Jimmy
“Boardwalk Empire” didn’t set itself up with the same obvious family vs. Family dichotomy that fueled so much of “The Sopranos,” but family relationships and feuds are still an important part of the show: Eli and Nucky’s sibling rivalry, Jimmy’s various unusual relationships with both blood relatives and chosen loved ones, Margaret’s obligations to her late husband and her kids, etc. With “A Dangerous Maid,” family comes to the forefront again – with strained relations between fathers and sons the primary, but not only, topic.
Obviously, so much of this season is about Jimmy banding together with his biological father to destroy his surrogate father. That cold war gets very heated in the episode’s climax, as Nucky confronts Jimmy in front of the Commodore, the governor and most of the other important players of Atlantic City. As I said in my review at the start of the season, Nucky in gangster mode is, by design, a much more magnetic figure than Nucky in politician mode, and seeing Nucky lose his patience, stare down his opponents and make it clear that Babette’s – and, by extension, the whole city – is still his turf was extremely gratifying, and a strong moment for Steve Buscemi. (And Michael Pitt, for that matter.)
But just as Nucky’s tough talk wasn’t enough to intimidate Eli last week, it doesn’t seem to have moved Jimmy an inch – if anything, as with the Eli phone call, Nucky winds up only driving the wedge between them deeper by speaking so bluntly (and, to Jimmy’s mind, disrespectfully) about Gillian. That Jimmy is now blaming the pimp while leaving the john blameless, and that so much of this vendetta is driven by Gillian, who has an uncomfortably close relationship with her son, suggests he’s going to be very hard to pin down and sway. Right now, though, he’s firmly against Nucky, not wanting to kill him – as he tells Capone, he and the Commodore are trying for a political coup where they take over both the legal and illegal parts of Nucky’s machine, part by part – but very much wanting to make him pay for what he perceives as betrayals of both his mother and himself. But when he comes home to Angela, he seems lost. He’s married to a woman he doesn’t quite love (and vice versa), can probably tell that he’s being used by the Commodore (even if he wants his father to want to use him, you know) is furious with Nucky and yet on some level still craves his approval and respect (which Nucky isn’t giving him under these circumstances) and is mainly just mad at the world.
Jimmy’s old Chicago pal Al Capone, meanwhile, pays his first visit to Atlantic City in a very long time to terminate Johnny Torrio’s business arrangement with Nucky, and to check in on Jimmy, but primarily as springboard for a visit to deal with the affairs of his recently-deceased father. The real Capone’s father was, indeed, a barber, and we see that while Al has forged a very different path from that of his old man, he still has more affection for him than Jimmy does for either of the men with a claim on that title for him. (And Al, in turn, is envious watching Jimmy play with Tommy, no doubt thinking of the struggles he goes through with his deaf son.)
In more father-son developments, Eli comes home to deal with the aged father whom he’s always believed favors Nucky, even as the old man suggests that Eli can handle himself while Nucky doesn’t know what he’s doing. (UPDATE: Or it’s entirely possible I misinterpreted the scene when I watched it a few weeks back; everyone else is convinced the dad has confused his sons and assumes Eli doesn’t know what he’s doing.) And though it’s not a paternal issue (that we know of, at least), Margaret finally gets news of the other members of her family who have settled in America – and is dismayed to learn they consider her dead to them. She says they had a bad parting, but how bad for that to happen?
And then there’s there matter of father-to-be Nelson Van Alden. We finally get to the bottom of his arrangement with Lucy: for a fee, he gets to keep her indoors through the pregnancy and away from prying eyes who could ruin his career and/or marriage, and the contracted captivity is driving her nuts. This is certainly not my favorite season two storyline – thus far, it’s pretty far removed from the main action, and after his turn from evangelist to maniac late last season, I think being more a part of the plot would have been just what the doctor ordered – but this week it managed to make me actually feel sympathy for Lucy (something of a cartoon character in season one) and also drew an emotional connection between Van Alden and Nucky, if not a plot one. Van Alden was initially drawn to her to vent his frustration at not being able to get at Nucky any other way, and even here you can tell he buys her what turns out to be a life-saving Victrola to compete with her memories of life with Nucky. And yet there are hints that he does have, buried deep down below his religious fervor and various psychological disorders, some actual affection for her. He’s happy the Victorla pleases her because it puts him on at least equal footing with Nucky, but he’s also happy because it pleases her, even if circumstance and his own hang-ups usually force him to make her miserable. While Van Alden can border on cartoonish himself at times, Michael Shannon and the script (by Itamar Moses) did a good job of giving him some shading this week.
And in an episode filled with stories of fathers and children, I can’t help but wondering what the offspring of Nelson Van Alden and Lucy Danziger is going to wind up like – and, if Van Alden plays any role in his or her life, what kind of conflicts they might have when he or she grows up to be Jimmy’s age.
Strong episode, with Nucky’s outburst as the highlight.
Some other thoughts:
• Nucky’s organization may be depleted (especially with Chalky still in jail), but it looks like young Owen Slater may be a valuable addition. Every criminal organization can use someone whose self-described specialty is “Making people stop… whatever it is you don’t want them to be doing.”
• In addition to Capone’s visit, we get the return of two other real-life figures in Eddie Cantor (who tries to comfort Lucy with tales of vaudeville) and Chris McDonald’s Harry Daugherty, now appointed Attorney General under President Harding.
• In addition to hinting more about Margaret’s backstory, that subplot also dealt with the tricky dance she has to do as a former blue-collar worker who’s now the lady of a house with three servants. She briefly drops the barrier when enlisting Katie to help contact her family, but it’s right back up by episode’s end – if anything, tougher because Katie’s learned too much.
• Interesting to see how Richard responds to Capone versus how he reacts to Owen. Capone calls him “Frankenstein,” and Richard clearly would be happy to put a bullet in his head if Jimmy asked him to (and if history didn’t stand in the way). In his brief interaction with Owen, meanwhile, the Irishman simply treats him as a man, and Richard seems to respect that, along with Owen’s obvious skills.
• If Jimmy baited the two wise guys into a fight last week as a favor to Lucky and Meyer, it might have been nice for him to tell them about it, as they get into trouble for a pair of murders they don’t even know about. (Jimmy’s so hard to read that you never entirely know why he does the things he does; he might have just had his blood up that night.) And in resolving the matter, Rothstein gets to show that, while Messrs. Luciano and Lansky might be the future of organized crime, there’s a reason why he’s still very much the present.
What did everybody else think?