Review: ‘Boardwalk Empire’ – ‘Marriage and Hunting’

A review of tonight’s “Boardwalk Empire” coming up just as soon as Mr. Roebuck apologizes to me personally…

“My name isn’t Mueller. I’m not legally married to my wife. I used to believe in God. But now I don’t believe in anything at all.” -Van Alden

“Marriage and Hunting” is an hour full of low moments for several familiar “Boardwalk” faces. Van Alden is busy being emasculated by Sigrid and two different sets of wiseguys, and he blows two different chances to assassinate Dean O’Banion, though another gang performs the service for him. Arnold Rothstein is broke, thanks to his gambling habit and the trickeration of Margaret’s stockbroker boss. (It turns out Rothstein wasn’t running a scam on the guy, just trying to anonymously invest his ill-gotten gains.) Chalky’s fixation on Daughter Maitland leads him to risk his family and his livelihood – and and, maybe down the road, his life. It’s a tough hour full of angry men doing self-destructive things, and you can understand why, by the end of it, Nucky might be so damn tired of it all that he just wants to run away and hang out with Sally in the wilds of Tampa.

This is the first we’ve seen of Van Alden in about a month, but the writers and Michael Shannon quickly make up for lost time. There have been periods over the last two seasons where it’s felt like Terry Winter and company didn’t want to lose Shannon, even though they’d written Van Alden into a corner, and so they invented this new character he could play, tenuously linked to the old one. Shannon’s great, so I haven’t minded much, but it’s been a while since George Mueller reminded me of the intimidating religious zealot cop we met at the beginning of the series. Every now and then there would be an outburst, like his assault on the iron salesman – who turned up here to foil Van Alden’s first attempted hit on O’Banion, and who died for the trouble (and for reminding Van Alden of one of the more mortifying periods of his own existence) – but mostly, circumstance had turned him into a meek man trying to keep his head down so no one would notice him. His final scene with O’Banion – before history overrode fiction and a trio of gunmen (in real life, working for local wiseguy Angelo Genna) came into the flower shop to kill him – revealed the simmering, resentful Van Alden lurking underneath the Mueller mask, and gave us some insight into how he’s genuinely changed, as opposed to how he acts to stay hidden. He’s done being a punching bag – much to the delight of Sigrid, who seems to prefer this more commanding husband(*) to the timid one she bossed around – and it’ll be interesting to see how he copes with the volatility and bullying of Al Capone (who always looks so tiny next to him) going forward.

(*) Any historical evidence that wiseguys or other thugs liked to make it rain with cash even back in the 20s? Or is this a case of “Boardwalk” applying a 21st century move to the Jazz Age?

Van Alden at least seems to be in a good place by episode’s end, even if he wasn’t the one to take out O’Banion. Chalky is in full self-destruction mode, blind to how much his wife and children are aware of what he’s doing, of how difficult a frontal assault on a man like Narcisse might be, and of how much he’s jeopardizing his partnership with Nucky. Though Narcisse isn’t entirely in his right mind after Daughter’s betrayal. Not only does he turn her face into pulp (damaging a valuable asset to his operation), but he insists on sitting with Nucky in the front row of the Cotton Club, which should be his right but is not at this moment in time; if Chalky hadn’t come in to make a big scene (calling back to earlier Chalky/Narcisse discussions about Chalky running a club he’s not allowed to sit in), I suspect one of the white customers would have done so within moments. Dynamite work from Michael Kenneth Williams and Jeffrey Wright throughout; at this point, I’m resigned to losing at least one of them by season’s end, but I sure hope it’s not both.

There’s been a jungle motif to a lot of scenes throughout this arc about Narcisse, Chalky and the Onyx Club, which fits the style of the time: black performers were considered exotic, and black acts aimed at white audiences tried their best to play that up, as happens with the dancing girls who futilely try to distract the audience from Chalky’s tantrum. But we also see Owney Madden admiring a spear in Narcisse’s office, and the final scene with Nucky and Sally on the phone plays up the wild, tropical environs of Tampa at the time; Sally’s basically sleeping out in the kind of jungle where it only makes sense to cradle a shotgun in bed.

I don’t know if the creative team meant to draw a line from this one part of the story to another, but if Nucky is understandably eager to escape all the headaches of his current operation, we’re reminded in the final shot that this new destination would have its own major hassles.

Some other thoughts:

* It took about a year longer than I might have once expected, but Richard finally seeks a job from  Nucky – who knows very well how useful it would be to have a man like this on the payroll. More important at the moment – and far more heart-warming – is Julia and Richard’s decision to get married, both to help win the custody fight and because they do genuinely like each other. Julia proposing to Richard was a nice touch, not just because Richard is so inherently shy, but because it fits the show’s pattern of featuring female characters who are far bolder than the norm for the period.

* I really appreciated the way director Ed Bianchi staged the moment where Narcisse first strikes Daughter, where it’s shot in so close that we can appreciate the motion and understand what’s been done without being given yet another shot of a man beating on a woman. It got the point across without feeling trite or exploitative.

* Nine episodes into the season, we get our first real sign that Roy is, indeed, too good to be true, as we catch a snippet of a shady phone call he doesn’t want Gillian to know about. Is he just running a long con on her? If so, what assets does Gillian even have to give up? Nobody wants the Commodore’s house?

* Also, Gillian’s confession to Roy was interesting, not only because it’s the second time this season where a character was that open about their biography (the first was Nucky with Sally when he talked about missing his politician days), but because it’s as close to the truth as Gillian’s probably capable of getting at this point, both in terms of legality and her self-perception. There are some things about her relationship with Jimmy that she will speak of to no man, ever.

* Let children be children: Gillian is raped by the Commodore at 13, and it shapes the entire rest of her life, for good and (mostly) for ill. Arnold Rothstein wins 32 bucks playing craps as a 9-year-old, and it does the same.

* Last week, I expressed interest in a Daughter Maitland album, and several of you pointed out that the second “Boardwalk Empire” soundtrack album has a couple of songs sung by Margot Bingham as Daughter. That’s something, at least.

* I hope Nucky scolding Chalky about not getting too distracted by a mistress was meant to be ironic. His obsession with Billie Kent did, after all, keep his attention away from business for a large chunk of last season, while Gyp Rosetti was busy making moves on his entire operation.

* No Agent Tolliver this week, but it seems clear Eli is on the team, given his attempts to get intelligence out of Nucky.

* While other members of the cast have gotten more to do as more prominent characters have bumped of, Mickey Doyle has stayed pretty much in place, though I appreciate that Paul Sparks and the writers have toned him down from a cartoon into a more human-scale irritant. Nucky’s discussion of how many people would be eager to help him cash in the life insurance policy was among the funnier bits Buscemi has gotten to play in what’s usually a much more straight-laced role.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at