‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Gimcrack & Bunkum’: A walk in the woods

Senior Television Writer
10.23.11 107 Comments

 A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I kill Mary Pickford…

“Would you fight for me?” -Richard
“Of course I would. Right down to the last bullet.” -Jimmy

Among the large and colorful cast of characters on display in “Boardwalk Empire,” why are so many of us drawn to Richard Harrow? He didn’t turn up until the second half of the first season, appears irregularly even now that Jack Huston is a full-time castmember, and isn’t as central to the action as Nucky, Jimmy and Margaret. Is it the eery, lifelike mask that does it? Is it how much Huston is able to say even with half his face hidden and his voice a monotone croak? Is it easier to pity the monster than to feel empathy for the slick politician-cum-gangster or the handsome, charismatic soldier? (*)

(*) Not that we don’t feel empathy for either Nucky or Jimmy. We do, and we appreciate the performances by Buscemi and Pitt. I’ve just found it to be a fairly common phenomenon that “Boardwalk Empire” fans seem to light up when Richard’s name is mentioned.

Or is it, simply, that as much as Huston is able to convey with his great performance, and as often as Richard tries to tell a Jimmy or an Angela what’s going on inside his head, neither they nor we ever feel like we really know him, or can? Is it just the mystery of who and what Richard Harrow has become that’s so damn compelling?

I don’t know how much is Huston, how much is the mask, etc., but I know that my engagement level on “Boardwalk” goes up several notches whenever Richard’s around – and that it’s no coincidence that this relatively Richard-heavy episode is the strongest of season 2 to date, even as it has lots of great material involving the central trio and Eli.

Why does Richard decide that today is a good day to die? We don’t entirely know. He had that apparent breakthrough with Angela last week, but that may have just made things worse, either by reminding him of the disconnect he feels with his sister or because he now has a connection with the wife of the best friend he idolizes. It may just be that he woke up today feeling more despair, and more envy for the kinds of normal people he keeps in his scrapbook, than the day before. Or it may be the Memorial Day holiday raising his general levels of anxiety and self-loathing. Whatever his motivation, he heads into the woods, and is only saved from himself by a stray dog and a pair of friendly, wise hobos who have an idea what a man with a face like that might be doing alone in these woods with a shotgun. Their words are enough to talk him off the ledge for the day, and his visit to Jimmy’s house reminds him of the one human connection in his life that seems unbreakable. And for the man in the tin mask, that’s enough for today. That Richard can only feel fully human in the company of a man who continually asks him to participate in monstrous acts of violence – this week, it’s the perverse scalping of the elderly Injun-fighter who made the mistake of striking Jimmy – doesn’t speak well to his overall condition, but it’s what he needs right now, and the way the character has been crafted by Huston and the writers and directors (in this case, Howard Korder and Tim Van Patten), it’s strangely, sadly pleasing to see him buck up and look forward to going to work with Jimmy. (The scene quoted above features tremendous work from both Huston and Pitt.)

Richard doesn’t get an escape from his troubles, and neither does Eli. Where Jimmy’s in too deep with this war, even after the Commodore’s stroke, Eli thinks he has blood on his side and can get back in with Nucky. And where this would probably be a smart play for Nucky – even after he appears to have outwitted the Commodore’s plan to put him away for election fraud – Nucky reveals himself to be more than a calculator with legs, and violently refuses Eli’s apology. That fight is a tremendous scene, not because of any fancy choreography – Nucky’s not a fighter by nature and overestimates his ability to stand toe-to-toe with his cop kid brother – but because of the rage emanating from both men (and so well played by Buscemi and Shea Wigham) and then the terror on Margaret’s face when she uses Nucky’s (unloaded) shotgun to break up the ruckus. When Margaret asks Nucky after the fact, “Is this to be our life?,” she seems to be speaking for all the characters on “Boardwalk Empire” whose current circumstances aren’t what they signed up for.

So Nucky denies Eli a life raft from the sinking of the S.S. Commodore, and Eli responds by getting drunk and then inadvertently killing fellow turncoat George by hitting him too hard in the windpipe. And his solution to this unexpected mess is to make it even messier: to bash George’s face in until he’s so unrecognizable that his equally-crooked deputy won’t even think twice about helping him move the body.

Jimmy, on the other hand, isn’t trying to escape the path he’s on. The Commodore may be incapacitated, but Jimmy set out on a course and he’s going to stay with it, especially with his mother Lady MacBeth’ing him all the way along. Scalping cranky Mr. Parkhurst for a slightly rougher-than-normal 1921 equivalent of “Get off my lawn!” is just as foolish a business decision as Nucky trying to beat up Eli rather than taking him back – Jimmy needs backers, after all, especially since the old men are skeptical of him without the Commodore – but he’s prideful enough on his own, and he has Gillian to appeal to his worst instincts.

On the other hand, he has the advantage of being continually underestimated. Parkhurst sure doesn’t expect retribution for trying to put a young punk in his place, and Nucky doesn’t expect Jimmy to be able to speak eloquently to the Memorial Day crowd when put on the spot. He may be down a few key allies, but when he’s focused, and has Richard Harrow by his side, he can get an awful lot done.

Some other thoughts:

• For those wondering about the title, Webster defines gimcrack as “a showy object of little use or value” (i.e., Parkhurst’s trophies of his younger days) and bunkum as “insincere and foolish talk” (much of what’s said by Eli, Nucky, Daugherty and pretty much every male character other than Richard and his new hobo friends). They are also both awesome-sounding words that I wish were still in the vernacular. (Also, certain listings services are for some reason calling the episode “Gershwin & Bunkum,” but HBO tells me “Gimcrack” it is.)

• I don’t want to know how production made all those skinned squirrel carcasses, but they looked very real and very gross.

• Whatever Margaret’s feelings for Owen Sleater may be, she’s going to have to get in line behind Katy, who’s having a fine old time with Nucky’s new henchman. And Margaret clearly doesn’t like what she’s hearing.

• It’s hard out here for a pimp: I love Nucky’s displeasure at having to entertain his various allies as they roll in and out of Atlantic City.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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