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'Boardwalk Empire' recap: Iconic characters and memorable images

October 31, 2010 | 10:00 pm

Huston After seven episodes, "Boardwalk Empire" has finally found its first iconic character. I don't mean to say that the other characters on the show are bad, not at all. I like the way that Nucky's intelligence causes him to overestimate his ability to keep the hounds at bay. I like how Jimmy constantly finds himself in over his head and then finds a way to claw out. I like Margaret's spirit and the way she seems unlikely to let Nucky treat her like dirt. I like the way the show gives little spotlight moments to all of its supporting players and monologues to most of its leads. This is a series that believes in the slow character build, but all of the people on it grow more fascinating by the week. I'm glad for all of that.

And yet, there have been few characters that are instantly recognizable as belonging to "Boardwalk Empire" and solely the world of that show, the way that Omar became the guy who broke out on "The Wire" or the way that Al Swearengen defined "Deadwood." Now, however, in Richard Harrow the show has found that guy. Played by Jack Huston with a gruff demeanor and a voice filled with a perpetual growl, Richard is a man who was injured so grievously in World War I that he covers half of his face with a mask painted to look like him, though the effect is to make him seem more unearthly than normal. There's a point where director Allen Coulter focuses on the mask half of Richard's face, rather than the half still present, and it's subtly creepy and subtly somehow WRONG.

Yet the show spends its time establishing Richard as more than some sort of injured freak. His conversations with Jimmy, where the two work out their tortured past in the war, are moving. Indeed, Jimmy first meets him in line to have a psychological test to determine just how much the war messed these men up. The show continues to define Jimmy as a man who's trying to cover up the violence of the war by making a little violence back home, and now he finally has a worthy partner in this endeavor. Richard proves to be just as much of an ace marksman as he was overseas, taking out Pearl's slasher from across the street (even shooting through a water pitcher) after Jimmy has a long talk with the man. (Jimmy's monologue here about the soldier caught in barbed wire is another fine piece of writing.) There are lots of good characters on "Boardwalk Empire," but Richard is the first who seems inextricably of this show, the sort you wouldn't have turn up on any other show.

Back in Atlantic City, the action may feel a little more slow-moving to many, but I was impressed and moved by the story of Nucky confronting his still-lingering feelings of resentment toward his father. Father issues are all over the place on TV, so I've groaned when the show tried to bring up Nucky's issues with his dad. But this episode made something of a virtue of this approach, as Nucky's dad has a nasty fall in his house and has to be hospitalized. When that happens, Nucky and Eli take it upon themselves to clean up the place, the better to give it to an associate of Nucky's who has a young family and will presumably fill the house with happier memories than those Nucky has. But as the house is steadily repaired, it becomes more and more the home Nucky remembers from the bad recollections of his youth, the times when his father was the monster of his memory and not the feeble old man who yells to little effect from his wheelchair. It doesn't matter what his physical state is -- he's still the main bully in Nucky's life.

One of the things I notice about a lot of TV heroes (or villains) is that they can often be boiled down to a single image or two, a single moment where the show seems to freeze that person in an instant and makes them constantly memorable to us. Think of Tony Soprano overlooking the river in his long coat or John Locke smiling at a small boy with an orange in his mouth. These are images that distill both characters down to all of their conflicting impulses and take up permanent residence in the memory. "Boardwalk Empire" has been lacking that sort of image for Nucky, but it finds one as this hour winds to its conclusion. Nucky, having borne the last bit of abuse from his father, chases everyone from the house, including Margaret's young son, who's tagged along for the ride. The hour has slowly built up the memories surrounding the property for Nucky -- in particular, a story about how he once had a baseball glove stolen, then had to fight the boys who took it at his father's bidding, is horrifying -- so when he stands, framed in the doorway, then strikes his match against the frame, tossing it into the center of the room where the gasoline he sprinkled catches fire, it doesn't feel as though it comes out of nowhere. Plus, that shot of him watching the fire consume the room, then the whole house, is one of those perfect moments to encompass all that is Nucky Thompson.

I realize some disagree, but I increasingly feel like "Boardwalk Empire" gets better with every episode, and "Home" may have been my favorite episode yet. Both Nucky's story line and the saga of Richard Harrow felt less like the show playing along by the usual mob movie rules and more like the series forging its own identity and building its own world, and all of the other stuff around the edges was just as good. Not every TV show moves at the same pace. Some of them can take a little while to get everything up and running, but I'd say that at this point of "Boardwalk Empire's" run, the series is building up a nice head of steam. Where all of this ends up is anybody's guess, but I'm more than ready for the final five episodes of the season.

Some other thoughts:

  • -- Not a lot of space to talk about some of the other plot developments this week, but I think that Meyer Lansky approaching both Chalky (under an assumed name) and Lucky about assorted business arrangements is going to be a pretty big thread moving forward.
  • -- This episode was co-written by an unusual name, Paul Simms, the man who created one of the all-time-great underrated sitcoms, "Newsradio." Simms hasn't had a series on the air since "Newsradio" left, but he's occasionally worked on HBO shows, including "Flight of the Conchords." This is his first big step into drama, and I hope he's working on the show from now on. The other writer is Tim Van Patten, who's a great TV director but only has one prior script credit (for the "Pine Barrens" episode of "The Sopranos").
  • -- I've seen a lot of people predicting that Angela would be revealed to be having a lesbian affair with assorted women in the show's orbit, and it turns out those folks were right, as we see her making out with the photographer's wife, talking about how they should run away together.
  • -- Little moments that may prove key: Van Alden now has a witness to the massacre in the woods from all the way back in the pilot.
  • -- I thought this episode was brilliantly directed. Coulter really captured the visual flourish of  Martin Scorsese's pilot but added a number of his own nice touches. That scene of Nucky standing before the inferno, as mentioned, is one of the great TV images.

-- Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Is it too late for me to go as Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) this Halloween? Credit: HBO

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