'Boardwalk Empire' recap: Putting the pieces in place
The title of the second episode of "Boardwalk Empire," "The Ivory Tower," comes from a novel of the same name by Henry James, which Margaret reads in her hospital bed. The book, unfinished due to James' death but highly praised by critics nonetheless, is a blatant and brutal attack on the wealthy people in the earliest parts of the 20th century who were more interested in accumulating wealth and less interested in helping the others around them. This offended James, and the book is rather scathing toward this sort of behavior. It's not as widely read as James' greatest novels nowadays, largely because it's unfinished, but it contains some of the author's best writing and some of his most politically pointed prose.
It's prescient, then, that "The Ivory Tower" turns up in this episode (and provides its name) because this episode -- like many second episodes before it -- is all about taking a step back and a deep breath before plunging ahead into what's to come. But in the process of taking that step back, the show's producers take a second to reveal more thoroughly just how corrupt Nucky Thompson and everyone in his orbit are and just how much they've worked to put Atlantic City under their total control. There's a montage early in the episode in which Agent Van Alden explains to his boss how everybody in Atlantic City issues payments to Nucky, and it's the sort of thing every mob movie does, but it's useful. Without it, it was hard to know just how far Nucky's influence extended in the pilot. Now, with it, we have a pretty good idea that he's the most important man in the City of Atlantic (as he'd have it), but he's so far below the radar that only Van Alden is terribly interested in bringing him down.
The second episode of any series is a chance to deepen the characters established in the pilot and to pull up some of the supporting players and say more about who they are too. In a pilot, we in the audience accept on faith that all of these characters are going somewhere and that the producers and creator know where they want to take them. But over the next few episodes, we wait to see if that faith will be rewarded. In a show with a huge cast, like "Boardwalk Empire," we have to accept that it will likely take the bulk of the first season to really get to know everybody in the cast. The best way to surmise if a show is going to paint all of its characters with a fine brush is if it gives its main characters some depth in the first couple of episodes. In the pilot, we got a good look at Nucky, Jimmy and Margaret. Now, in Episode 2, we get a better sense of Van Alden and Rothstein, the two men who would dare to depose Nucky, one through legal means and the other through making him choke on a cue ball. (OK, that seems unlikely for how Rothstein will take out Nucky, but it's certainly in his bag of tricks.)
This second episode also seems to be almost entirely about positioning the players on the game board on which the series will take place. The episode lacks some of the visceral kick that distinguished the pilot, but it gives a much clearer sense of where everyone is in relation to each other. If you were completely mystified by who the mustachioed man that got shot at the end of the pilot was, this episode out and out tells you, with Nucky reading about how the death of a Chicago mob king remains a big mystery within the underworld. If you were wondering what kind of nefarious activities Rothstein was up to, well, he tells you that too with his story about how he caused that man to choke on the billiard ball. (This is one of several terrifyingly effective monologues Rothstein gets in the first six episodes, and actor Michael Stuhlbarg is fantastic at finding just the right places to pause the monologues for maximum dramatic effectiveness.)
On the other hand, of course, the episode is going to feel a little less exciting than the pilot, which followed the rhythms of a mob movie, for the most part, and ended in a burst of terrifying violence that both enlivened the proceedings and raised the stakes for what was happening. But series creator Terence Winter trained on "The Sopranos," and that show only had bursts of violence at odd and unexpected times. This irritated the viewers who wanted something that was more like a traditional mob tale, full of bullets and blood, but it was one of the show's strongest suits. The feeling that all of this was just some guy leading a fairly normal American life -- with occasional murders -- made it that much more interesting to question just who Tony Soprano was. The everyday malaise of the show was one of the best things about it.
"Boardwalk Empire," of course, isn't attempting to be about the way we live today. It's trying to be about a bygone era of American history, one that's generally accepted as one of the brighter, more shining hours of our country. How many movies and other stories have there been over the years about the idea of the "Roaring '20s"? "Boardwalk," then, is less about how we live today than it is about how the way we live today has been the way we've lived always. We in the journalism industry try to portray what happens in the world and country as unprecedented and unusual. But nearly everything that happens in the world has happened at one time or another before. The same players just go by different names, and the world rolls on as it has. In another interview, Winter gave before the show debuted, he said that sex, alcohol and jazz were the three things driving organized crime in the '20s. Any resemblance between those three items and sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll is wholly intentional.
Really, the character that benefits most from this episode is Van Alden, who goes from just some prohibition agent to a man who seems right on the edge of snapping. The idea that the cops are just as bad as the criminals is an old one, but in the hands of the right actors, it can work very, very well. Michael Shannon is the right actor, and he makes the scene in which he confronts Nucky or the scene in which he talks to Margaret just the right side of outwardly hostile. Everything comes to a head, however, in that final scene in which he writes a letter to his (previously unrevealed) wife, clutching at Margaret's blue ribbon and entwining it around his fingers. Both Nucky and Van Alden seem very interested in this otherwise ordinary immigrant wife, and the fact that each of them is trying to outsmart the other suggests that she'll play a pivotal role as the show delves into this story line further.
Meanwhile, we get to spend more quality time with Jimmy as well, as the guy blows all of his money from the robbery on gifts for the important people in his life, only to have Nucky let him know that Nucky's share was $3,000 short. Since Jimmy's on thin ice with Nucky as it is, he doesn't bother to question the math and, instead, goes to repossess the gift he gave to his mother, the better to sell it back. The scenes at Jimmy's home continue to have a surprisingly gentle domesticity to them, and any fear viewers might have had that the stripper that Jimmy went to visit, who promptly jumped into his arms and kissed him on the lips, was some sort of mistress were immediately alleviated when the show revealed that she was his mother (also, ew). (Also shocking: She's played by Gretchen Mol, who seems way too young to have a son as old as Jimmy, but that's obviously the point.) Part of the fun of this show is going to be untwisting just what makes Jimmy tick and just where he and Nucky's talents complement and butt up against each other. In his frantic attempts to set right what went wrong in the woods in the pilot, we begin to get the sense of how much he'll do to appease his boss.
There's a general sense in this episode that everything is just slightly smaller scale than the pilot. And that's certainly fine. When you have a pilot that was most likely the most expensive in television history, the subsequent episodes are going to have to pull back a bit to keep things on budget. There are fewer big crowd scenes, fewer scenes with the characters wandering the boardwalk and fewer scenes with operatic violence. There are also fewer big music montages (though I imagine there's less cost to buy some of the music that plays in this series). Yet the show manages to hang on to the epic sweep it had in the pilot, and it doesn't feel like a step back so much as a retrenching. These are the battle lines the series is going to be fought on. The series wants to make sure we understand just where everybody is situated before plunging over the top.
Some other thoughts:
- HBO sent me six episodes on screeners, but in customary HBO fashion, they didn't include the main titles for the show. Now, I've seen them (and you can too!), but I'm not terribly sure I like them. They remind me of the awful, awful "Nurse Jackie" credits, with all of the random cuts to alcohol washing in on the beach and then close-ups of Steve Buscemi's face. Oh well. Can't win 'em all.
- The story of Nucky's friend trying to get fresh with the girl from Baltimore that he treated to an elaborate weekend and completely failing seems to encapsulate some of what the series is going for with its treatment of women. Women are on the verge of earning the right to vote, but they're still not taken very seriously by any of the men in their lives, even if they're capable of resisting or outsmarting those men. Witness how the Commodore dismisses his maid not because she's African American (as it first seems he will) but because she's a woman.
- On the other hand, I do hope that the series gives us some moments with the African American characters where they're not around white people. "Deadwood," a show that is easy to compare this show to, had many, many African American characters, but it was careful to show audiences that the way they behaved around white people -- deferential and sort of slow -- was vastly different from how they behaved around each other -- with wit and spark. That show understood that any time one group of people is oppressing another, the oppressed peoples will seethe away in quiet resentment. The African American characters on "Boardwalk" don't give off that sense yet (though with Michael K. Williams in the main credits as a famed bootlegger, I have to assume we'll get to see some of this in the very near future).
- So we're reasonably certain that Nucky's infatuated with Margaret, but is the interest reciprocal? She sure seemed dismayed when the Mr. Thompson who came to see her was Nucky's brother.
- And how are we feeling about the treatment of Al Capone as a feisty young punk who speaks with his fists, taking out a reporter who asks him for a statement in the death of Big Jim Colosimo and smashing his face in? Gruesome stuff.
- A few of you were curious as to my thoughts on Steve Buscemi playing a criminal mastermind. I buy it, honestly, but I have the benefit of seeing a few more episodes than you guys. I'd say give him a shot if you don't quite think he works just yet.
- There was some doubt from folks last week that an Irish immigrant would have the last name "Schroeder," but Margaret confirms her Irishness tonight. Guess she married a Norwegian or something.
- I'm sure you've heard this already, but the ratings for the premiere were very, very good by HBO standards. They wouldn't have been a drop in the bucket for a CBS or even a Fox, but for HBO, they were good enough to lead to an immediate Season 2 pickup. But how many of those people do you think will stick around for Episode 2?
- If you have any thoughts on the show or questions about what's going on (believe me, I know there are a million plot lines flying around), feel free to leave a message down in comments, at my e-mail address or on my Twitter account.
- "But the chauffeur has to have a cap!"
-- Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)
Photo: Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) may officially be with Lucy (Paz de la Huerta), but his heart is clearly with another woman.