‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘The Ivory Tower’: Mama’s boy

09.26.10 9 years ago 82 Comments

A review of the second episode of “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I turn on the vacuum sweeper…

“And the world turns.” -Nucky

Nucky Thompson is a hard man to get close to, though several characters in this episode keep trying to do so. Jimmy wants back in after the rift he created with the Canadian Club heist. Agent Van Alden wants very much to find out how a county official lives like a pharaoh. And Margaret Schroeder seems eager to put the memory of her murdered husband and miscarried child behind her if the kind and generous (and wealthy) Mr. Thompson were to ask her to do more than vote Republican.

But of course Nucky is showing a different face to each of them, as Steve Buscemi’s effortless performance demonstrates the many roles a man in Nucky’s position must play.

With Jimmy, he’s a cold mob boss, forcing his one-time protege to cough up an additional three grand he doesn’t have. And when Jimmy finally produces it (in part by stealing back the jewelry he just bought his mother), Nucky immediately bets and loses it all in front of him. It’s a cruel lesson, but an effective one. Jimmy wants to be a big-time gangster, but Nucky operates on a scale Jimmy can’t comprehend. To Jimmy, that money was everything; to Nucky, it was nothing.

With Van Alden, Nucky is a smooth politician, fending off the G-man’s every question with various lines of prepared bull – like the notion that Mrs. Schroeder’s late husband Hans could have been responsible for the massacre in the woods – and though Van Alden believes not one word of it, Nucky shows no chinks in his armor.

And with Margaret, he’s someone far more tender and vulnerable, but only so much. Her life with Hans was so awful that she seems eager for his attentions (note how disappointed she is when the “Mr. Thompson” at her hospital bed is Eli, not Nucky). And something in Margaret strikes a chord in Nucky in a way that Lucy, for all her eagerness in bed, can’t. But Nucky feels guilt over the role he played in Margaret’s miscarriage, and with Hans as the fall guy for the massacre, he can’t afford to get too close to her. But you can see, right before he answers her question about what he wants from her, that he wants her just as much as she wants him.

When you have a pilot as expensive as last week’s episode was, and when you get a noted feature director to helm it, there’s always the fear that episode two will be a disappointment. But Tim Van Patten very much carried on the Scorsese style, give or take a few of the pilot’s little flourishes. (The episode didn’t open and close with an iris the way the pilot did, for instance.) Big Jim’s Chicago funeral had the visual sweep of many of the pilot’s bigger sequences, the shot of Van Alden lighting his match at Margaret’s house looked very much like a Scorsese shot, and the sequence where Van Alden tells his boss how Nucky’s business works was very evocative of Henry Hill doing the same for the “Goodfellas” audience.

So the show still has the visual flair Scorsese brought. It still has that incredible cast, and Terry Winter giving those actors great material to play (and not having to lay out quite as complicated a story this week), and it has a world with storytelling possibilities as limitless as Nucky’s power seems at this moment.

No let-up. At all.

Some other thoughts:

• I may have to start a regular This Week in Van Alden Creepiness feature, though here I’m not sure I’d be able to choose between the moment where he tells the clearly bruised and battered Margaret that he’s sure Hans was a fine and decent man, or Van Alden writing a letter to his wife lacking any degree of warmth or affection. I’ve only ever seen Michael Shannon play weirdos (even the guy in “World Trade Center” was unsettling in his military focus), but he’s fabulous at it.

• The episode tries to give us a deeper understanding of Jimmy, too, and in keeping with that we get to meet Gretchen Mol as Gillian, who at first seems like a mistress he’s gone to after Tommy interrupts Angela’s attempt to make love “the French way,” but who is revealed to be Jimmy’s mom. (She obviously had him very young.)

• It takes Arnold Rothstein a long time to get through to Nucky, but in the interim, Michael Stuhlbarg gets to deliver a wonderfully menacing little speech to Frankie Yale (the guy who whacked Big Jim) about the cue balls. “The moral of this story is if I’d cause a stranger to choke to death for my own amusement, what do you think I’ll do to you if you don’t tell me who paid you to kill Colisimo?” (Reminds me a bit of a famous scene from Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” where a gangster slashes his girlfriend’s face to prove a similar point to Marlowe about how dangerous he is.)

• Al Capone, on the other hand, isn’t so much with the intimidating speeches, instead taking the direct approach towards showing his displeasure with the reporter who wants a statement about Big Jim’s murder.

• The Ku Klux Klan are seen passing out fliers on the boardwalk. The show takes place only a few years after the release of D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” rekindled interest in the KKK among certain virulent portions of society.

• Meanwhile, the Commodore reveals that his own prejudices extend to disdain for women, as he makes his argument against women’s sufferage by shaming his uneducated maid with a question about the League of Nations that he knows she can’t possibly answer.

• Nucky tries to help his friend George (who later stumbles across the not-quite-dead guy from the woods massacre) by telling his blonde companion about his plans for a big Atlantic City beauty pageant. The year after season one takes place (when season two, which HBO recently ordered, will presumably be set) would bring the Atlantic City Pageant, which would a year after that morph into Miss America. I haven’t been able to find anything connecting the real Nucky Johnson to the pageant’s founding, but I haven’t looked very hard.

• Eli is Nucky’s enforcer, but we see when Nucky complains about the disposal of Schroeder’s body  that Eli doesn’t appreciate being lectured by his older brother.

• The screeners HBO sent out back in July didn’t have the main title sequence attached, so the first time I saw it was last week, and I have to admit that I don’t love it. The music (“Straight Up and Down” by The Brian Jonestown Massacre) is anachronistic, which might be okay if the rest of the series were more stylized and didn’t lean so heavily on the period music, and the overall tone doesn’t really feel like the show that follows.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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