Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘A Man, A Plan’

A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as we live among the Indians…

“Tell me you’re different from him.” -Margaret

I’m not entirely sure that the palindrome Agent Sawicki trots out in Nucky’s office – “A man! A plan! A canal! Panama!” – was all that well-known (or known at all) in the mid-20s. (What little research I’ve done suggests it was invented by Leigh Mercer and first published in 1948.) But the idea of a phrase that means the exact same thing backwards and forwards feels right at home in a series full of duplicitous men, who make the same promises to multiple people in multiple directions, leaving each of them wondering which version is real and which is setting them up for ruin.

In “A Man, A Plan” alone, we have Gaston Bullock Means cleverly getting both Nucky and Harry to pay him a $40,000 fee to take out Jess Smith (and is rewarded for his cleverness with Jess saving him the trouble by killing himself in a way that Means can no doubt take credit for) and Lansky and Luciano taking the heroin deal to Joe Masseria when Rothstein turns it down. And most importantly, we have Owen and Margaret each pledging their devotion to their respective partners even as they’re plotting to leave Atlantic City with each other.

Or are they?

That’s the question Margaret spends much of “A Man, A Plan” wrestling with, and one she’ll never get an answer to, because Meyer and Lucky gave Masseria enough advance warning that he was prepared for Owen’s assassination attempt. We think Owen was going to go with Margaret, particularly in light of the news that she’s pregnant with his child, but we also got to see him with Katey, and he seemed just as convincing in casually proposing marriage to her as he did in all his promises to Margaret. I don’t see any value in Owen deliberately misleading the boss’s estranged wife, but at the same time, we don’t know him nearly as well as we knew Jimmy, and Margaret doesn’t even get to see all that we do. Is Owen really being honest with her, or is she the one being strung along when the sentence reverses on itself?

Because Owen has never been one of the show’s more fleshed-out characters, his death matters less than what it means for Margaret, whose full-on hysterics(*) at the sight of him in the crate should leave no doubt in Nucky’s mind what his bodyguard and wife were up to, especially if she remains pregnant.(**) Owen was Margaret’s best chance to escape this life and this man she’s come to hate and fear. Now she’s stuck, and though Nucky is sympathetic to her in the moment, we know what a petty, prideful man he can be, and I don’t see their relationship getting warmer in the wake of this.

(*) Okay, barring whatever happens over the next two weeks, it looks like last week’s episode will be Steve Buscemi’s Emmy submission, while tonight’s sure should be Kelly Macdonald’s. Not only does it do a good job of telling a self-contained Margaret story that will resonate with viewers even if they haven’t seen other “Boardwalk” episodes, but the way she plays Margaret’s reaction to Owen’s corpse is fantastic. There is acting hysterical, and then there is being hysterical; most actors can do the former on camera but not convincingly pull off the latter, while Macdonald went for broke in a way that didn’t make me feel like she was acting. (Even though, obviously, she was, unless they shot poor Charlie Cox to get a full method performance out of her.)

(**) Margaret’s pre-natal class (which the bishop orders disbanded this week) has seemed like one of the season’s less essential subplots, but now I wonder if it was all leading us to the moment where Margaret has to ask Dr. Mason to give her an abortion.

When we got to the episode-ending flashback, I worried at first we were just going to see the same scene all over again, like “Boardwalk Empire” underlining a point that we all clearly remembered from earlier. Instead, there’s more to the scene than beforeand in a way that gives much deeper meaning to an episode that’s otherwise a bit of a “let’s move the chess pieces” outing – as we find out Margaret is pregnant (though it was pretty strongly implied in the earlier scene with  Mason), hear Owen’s quiet yet proud reaction to this news, and witness the last interaction these two will ever have. Like the palindrome, we go in reverse, but this time the meaning isn’t the same at all. In the past, Margaret is happy, looking forward to a new life in the wide-open spaces of America. In the present, she is grief-stricken and trapped on the Atlantic City boardwalk. She had a man. She had a plan. Now? She has Nucky, and all that comes with him.

Some other thoughts:

* First, as you noticed, this review got done in advance, after all, as HBO and the “Boardwalk” creative team reversed course on the screeners. I should be able to keep up this schedule for the rest of the season, though we’ll see if the Thanksgiving holiday (and whenever I get the next DVD) disrupts things.

* “Boardwalk Empire” isn’t exactly “The Wire,” and yet I can’t help but start waiting for the other shoe to drop whenever a character I like has too long a run of good fortune. Even factoring in the fight with Sagorsky, things are going too well for Richard and Julia, and I fear something or someone bad (Gillian, most likely) is going to screw everything up. And Richard’s mask remains one of the all-time great accessories, here being the side of his face we can see as Julia kisses him, leaving us to read all kinds of emotion that isn’t there among the paint.

* Speaking of waiting for the other shoe to drop, that’s pretty much all you do when you work for Gyp Rosetti – though in his case, the shoe may be a shovel, a bullet, high tide, or any other manner of gruesome death that results from saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. On the one hand, I feel like we’ve seen this particular beat before. On the other, Gyp telling his sidekick that “You owe me” because he beat his cousin to death rather than letting him drown felt pretty chilling, even given what we know of Gyp’s insanity.

* It’s a testament to both Michael Shannon and the writers that I’ve come to sympathize with Van Alden as much as I have this season, here taking pleasure in our glimpse of him as a successful bootlegger, then feeling sorry for him when he winds up on the wrong end of Al Capone’s fork. It’s funny to think how far both Nelson and Al have come since the series’ pilot, when Van Alden was the powerful G-man keeping tabs on Torrio during the summit with Nucky, while Al was just Torrio’s lowly driver. Now Capone is the powerful man, and Van Alden is somehow caught in the middle of the Capone/O’Banion war.

* As was strongly hinted last week, Chalky has a plan (but not a canal) for the location where Babbette’s used to sit, and I imagine next season we’ll see a new Harlem-style nightclub as a prominent setting.

* It can not be repeated enough what a pleasure it is to watch Stephen Root play so slippery and composed a character as Gaston Bullock Means.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at