‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Two Boats and a Lifeguard’: Uneasy lies the head

Senior Television Writer
11.13.11 125 Comments

A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as I prefer to think of myself as an artichoke…

“I pretend all day, Margaret. Must I pretend with you, too?” -Nucky

“Two Boats and a Lifeguard” was written by Terence Winter (the show’s creator), and directed by Tim Van Patten (its lead director), and that combination usually suggests a premiere, a finale, or some kind of very special episode. And when the hour opened up with Nucky, post-shooting, in some kind of dream state, my initial reaction was, “Oh, this is Nucky’s version of Tony Soprano’s trip to Costa Mesa.”

Instead, the dream sequence ended quickly – though the imagery(*) recurred at the episode’s end – and “Two Boats and a Lifeguard” was most notable for being the episode where Nucky stops being too arrogant and complacent to realize the danger Jimmy has placed him in, and starts fighting back in the way he knows best: through lies.

(*) Because the dream was relatively brief, I didn’t put as much thought into analyzing its imagery as I did the various “Sopranos” dream sequences, but the focus on the baseball glove was notable. Was it an image of the normal, carefree childhood Nucky wishes he had? A more literal thought about something that protects the hand, at the exact moment his has been injured? The comments are wide open for amateur dream analysis, people; go wild.

Now, it’s easy for Nucky to have this big revelation after getting shot – and then after his own father dies (even if he hated the abusive old bastard) – but it was satisfying to see Nucky finally figure out a course of action, one that borrowed a bit of Rothstein’s advice about doing nothing (or, here, seemingly doing nothing) and inspiration from the board game drawing of a clipper ship and the continued presence of Owen Sleater to realize that he can get allies across the Atlantic.

And while Nucky’s busy tricking Jimmy into thinking that he’s conceded defeat, the rest of “Two Boats and a Lifeguard” was also about lies: both the ones we tell others and the ones we tell ourselves.

Nucky and Eli, in their first meeting since their bloody fight in Nucky’s house, both have to face the lies they’ve told themselves about their father and each other, and that the world has told about all of them. It’s entirely possible that neither man is entirely wrong about the old man – that Nucky bore the brunt of the abuse, while Eli’s childhood was less painful – but any household situation like that is a messy one where the only absolute, knowable truth is that bad things happened. However much Nucky claims to not care about his father, he tenderly goes to tie the old man’s boot in the casket, and he breaks down weeping – though that could be as much about the pain he suffered (and that shaped him into the man he is today) as it is any affection for his dad. And the loss of his father finally gives him the impetus to cut out the “Uncle Nucky” business and ask Margaret’s kids to call him “Dad,” which at least Teddy seems eager to do. He’s not their father – he had their biological father murdered, and he and Margaret aren’t even married, let alone Nucky having adopted the kids – but he’s their father figure, and that’s something.

Jimmy, meanwhile, finally has to have a candid discussion of his work life with Angela, and though he tells her about the reason for the hit on Nucky (even copping to Gillian’s role in it), he’s still lying to himself about the state of their relationship. And he seems a little too quick to believe Nucky’s admission of defeat, when he should know better than anyone how smart and tenacious Nucky is. He wants to enjoy a night at Babette’s as the unquestioned lord of all Atlantic City, but he’s got Eli (correctly) pointing out that they haven’t heard the last of Nucky, and he’s got Manny Horvitz still hanging around, waiting for his $5,000 to be returned, and finally Jimmy does what I think most of us would do if we had to spend time around Mickey Doyle, and throws the cackling idiot over a balcony.(**)

(**) I’d like to think this is the last we’ll see of Mickey – far and away my least favorite “Boardwalk” character, albeit a fairly minor one – but I doubt it.

And while Jimmy’s celebrating the apparent consolidation of power, Angela finally decides to be true to herself again and enjoy the company of a woman for an evening. Angela, like a lot of the supporting cast, gets shuffled off-stage a lot, but it’s always interesting to see how much more peaceful and happy and alive she is when she’s with women than when she’s with Jimmy. Their marriage is a lie on several levels at once, and it’s only when she gets out from under that lie that she gets to be a person again.

In the home stretch now, with four episodes to go. Now that Nucky’s fighting back, I imagine things are going to get very interesting, no?

Some other thoughts:

• Winter has said one of the reasons he changed the main character’s last name is to gain license to change the story. If this were a show about Nucky Johnson, I would laugh off the idea of him being out of power for long, given what I know about the real man. And while I doubt our Nucky will be on the sidelines for an extended period, it’s at least possible.

• Rothstein, on the other hand, is someone whose biography we can look up, along with that of Meyer and Lucky, but whatever real life has in store for those three, it was nice to see that AR, like Nucky, isn’t ready to be put out to pasture yet. The moment where he smelled the manure coming from his underlings’ latest story was marvelous.

• This has been a rough couple of weeks for characters on cable dramas to suffer hand injuries (including Owen’s Irish friend last week), and it seems a nice touch that Nucky has temporarily lost the ability to shake hands, when that’s been such a key symbolic part of his style for so long.

• Okay, so what are we to make of Van Alden this week? He gets an immigrant nanny to do all the work at a ridiculous wage ($18 bucks a month only comes out to a little over $200 these days when you factor in inflation) and doesn’t seem interested in Abigail all that much. And after making a big show of paying the lunch tab, he seemingly lets Agent Sawicki talk him out of his usual self-righteous following of the law to the letter, and he’s still apparently skimming money and hiding it in his bedroom.

• Wherever Nelson’s heart lies, we continue to get evidence that Esther Randolph is a smart, formidable opponent for Nucky, and I liked how you could just barely see a flicker of respect on his face before he remembered to be annoyed at having to deal with someone nearly as clever as himself.

• Chekhov’s gun crates: is there any way those 3000 surplus Tommy guns in the armory cellar don’t factor into the Nucky/Jimmy war by season’s end?

• Two characters we haven’t seen in a few weeks finally pop up again, as the Commodore is with the rest of the braintrust when Nucky visits to lay down his sword (and is the only one who thinks to express sympathy over the death of Nucky’s father, which may just be a sign that the Commodore realizes how close he is to the end), while Chalky stops by the Ritz long enough for Nucky to suggest he stage that workers strike he threatened back in the premiere. I look forward to seeing how that ties into Nucky’s plans with the IRA, but mainly I’m just glad to have Chalky back.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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