‘Boardwalk Empire’: Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret

Senior Television Writer
11.27.11 111 Comments

A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I pay to hear what kind of fool I am…

“There are things that are out of our control, as much as I want to tell you otherwise.” -Dr. Holt

As we head towards the finish line of season 2, all three of our leads are trying very hard to get their lives back under control, but outside forces – be they God, Esther Randolph, Manny Horvitz or Chalky White – are leaving things chaotic.

Margaret takes Emily’s condition as an excuse for self-flagellation over her criminal, adulterous lifestyle. She tries to buy a miracle by donating all her fancy jewelry and the money she’s been skimming from Nucky to the local church, but the prognosis is as bad as she feared.

Nucky arrives back in Atlantic City with 10,000 cases of good Irish whiskey(*) and is able to disrupt Jimmy and company’s plans in the process. (Who wants watered down medicinal alcohol when you can enjoy the real thing for less money?) But his legal troubles only seem to be getting worse, as Esther Randolph has proved smarter and more formidable than either of the brothers Thompson might have suspected. If given a choice between a murder conviction or rolling over on Nucky, what do you think Eli’s going to do?

(*) And now his scheme makes more sense than it did a week ago, as we see that he was able to have it transported on a legitimate ship that wouldn’t be stopped by the Commodore’s pals in the Coast Guard. I look forward to the new ad campaign for Feeney’s Irish Oats: “A surprise in every box!”

But the character under the greatest attack seems to be Jimmy, who’s getting hit on every front. Nucky ruins his liquor distribution plans (and eventually sends Jimmy back to Princeton and the life he walked away from when he enlisted for the war), the workers’ strike (and Jimmy’s inability to get Chalky to call it off) is shaking the faith of the business and political leaders he needs in his corner to stay the king, and Manny Horvitz is understandably not going to be bought off with $5,000 worth of George Reumus’ booze.

Manny’s murder of poor Angela (and Louise, who had the poor fortune to be over at the Darmody house that night) is shocking, but also opens up a lot of interesting avenues for the series. Angela was one of many “Boardwalk” supporting players to appear so intermittently that it becomes hard to follow their character arc. I think there’s a fascinating story to tell about a young woman coming to grips with her lesbianism in the Roaring Twenties – maybe even a woman who’s the wife of an up-and-coming gangster – but this show is too crowded to give that story room to breathe. With Angela dead, we not only have another tough blow for Jimmy to deal with (which will give Michael Pitt a lot of good material to play), but Gillian no longer has an obstacle for her unhealthy affections for Jimmy, which might force Jimmy to finally recognize what’s going on here – and, combined, those two things might make him think about abdicating the throne.

Will the season end with Jimmy and Nucky realizing that making peace is the only way to get their worlds to make sense again? Will Margaret’s guilt over what she believes to be a divine punishment for Emily send her away from her plush lifestyle?

It’s a lot for Terence Winter and company to wrap up in only two more episodes – unless the plan was for several of these stories (the prosecution of Nucky seems the most likely) to carry over into next year. But based on the strength of these last several episodes, I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.

Some other thoughts:

* Interesting to see that Chalky is now looking to Dunn Purnsley as almost a number two. I imagine at some point the writers realized Chalky needed a recognizable sidekick in the way that Jimmy has Richard, Nucky has Owen, etc., but that’s quite a rise through the ranks of the White organization, given how their relationship started.

* Loved the formality and politeness of the note that accompanied Rose Van Alden’s divorce petition: “Please attend to this as soon as your activities allow.” If Nelson wasn’t such a hypocritical whackjob, I would say that those two are so perfect for each other that they should find a way to work it out.

* It seems a bit late in the season for Meyer’s heroin distribution plan to take off, so I’m assuming this will be a major story arc for season 3.

* Two hilarious, filthy one-liners from the two previous men to run Atlantic City: 1)Nucky responds to his old attorney’s suggestion of a medical hardship request by pointing to his wounded hand and snarling, “This wouldn’t even keep me from jacking off!” (angry, sarcastic Buscemi is my favorite Buscemi). 2)The Commodore struggles very hard to make himself heard in the meeting with all the Atlantic City bosses, and you expect it’s going to be some brilliant bit of wisdom escaping his ruined body, but instead it’s him insulting Jimmy by asking, “Why don’t you just show him your cock?” (UPDATE: Or, more likely, “cunt.”)

* Margaret is worried that Teddy has inherited his father’s cruelty, but I suspect it’s more that he’s been paying close attention to Nucky – his interest in fire having come from seeing Nucky burn down his childhood home – and we know that Mr. Thompson is perhaps not the best role model for a young boy.

* Because the show films in New York, it’s able to tap into the well of local theater actors you don’t usually see on TV (at least, not outside the “Law & Order” franchise). Tonight brought back two of them: David Aaron Baker as Nucky’s new attorney Bill Fallon (who represented Rothstein in his Black Sox trouble last season) and Michael Cumpsty as Father Brennan, who presents himself as a righteous man but isn’t above enjoying a glass of wine when no one’s looking.

* Am I the only one who keeps waiting for Babette to have a significant amount of dialogue, never mind an actual subplot? Her wardrobe choice (tuxedo and tails a decade before Marlene Dietrich) is so attention-getting that I have to assume Winter wants us to notice her each time she appears, yet she remains for now a largely silent background character.

* Once again, let me remind you that HBO isn’t sending the last two episodes out in advance, which means those final reviews likely won’t get done until sometime the next day.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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