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'Boardwalk Empire' recap: Inventing the mob story

October 25, 2010 |  6:47 am

Boardwalkempire18 One of the things that's really working for me on "Boardwalk Empire" is the fact that the show is so fearless about showing people in their most private of moments. Aside from a couple of big mob moments in Sunday night's episode, "Family Limitation" spent most of its time showing us these people in small meetings between two or three of them. We got to see them around the dinner table with family or in the arms of their lovers post-coitus. I think a lot of the viewers who decry the show for being too slow-moving or too predictable are lamenting this very fact: The show isn't constant twists and turns and mob violence. I think there may have been an expectation from some corners that the show was going to be big and bloody and absolutely unpredictable, but Terence Winter has always been a mob-movie classicist.

His episodes of "The Sopranos" were always among that show's most intriguingly off-kilter. Certainly David Chase was the primary creative force behind that series, but many of the episodes that featured the biggest mob moments were written by Winter. He had a fondness for portraying classic moments you've seen a million times before in a mob movie and placing them in a slightly new context. Think of the elimination of an FBI informant in Season 5's "Long Term Parking" or the increasingly disastrous attempts to wipe up a big mess in Season 3's "Pine Barrens." Winter loves the basic template of the mob movie -– a template we're all familiar with -– but he also loves to take it apart and see what makes it tick. "Family Limitation" isn't the best episode of the series so far, but it's the one that best focuses on this particular skill of Winter's. (This episode's script is credited to Howard Korder, yet since Winter is the David Chase of this series, he'll get much of the credit for the series' general direction.)

This is the episode in which we start to see Winter's take on some of these classic motifs, only this time, we're seeing them as they first existed, not as a response to other mob entertainments. Let me explain: "The Sopranos" took place in the shadow of "Goodfellas" and the "Godfather" films. The characters there were highly influenced not just by mobsters that came before them but by fictional mobsters they aspired to be like. The characters in "Boardwalk Empire" don't really have a similar frame of reference. They're making up the rules as they go along, and if that means that they re beginning the process of setting these classic story lines in place -- well, so much the better for us. It's this element that some of those disappointed in "Boardwalk" are responding to, I think. "The Sopranos" was a post-modern mob show, in which everybody was sort of aware they'd come in at the end of an era. "Boardwalk," however, is a pre-modern mob show, in which everybody is building the beginning of that era.

Take, for instance, Jimmy striking back at the Irish mob, the better to help clean up a mess his friend Al made. It's a pretty classic mob ambush scene, but it's shot through with a visceral sense of excitement. The Chicago portions of the show have been fairly slow-moving up until this point. There have been some excellent moments -– I really liked the character of Pearl, for instance -– but the overwhelming sense has been of things sort of crawling along toward a pre-determined conclusion, in which hot-headed Jimmy’s hot-headedness gets him sent packing back to Atlantic City. Instead, Sunday night's episode shows how Jimmy, like his former boss, Nucky, possesses the talent to make his own way out of a problematic situation. Your employers have a problem with a rival mob? Jimmy knows just the way to shoot his way out of that situation. Again, it's an ambush you've seen before, but in terms of what it tells us about the Jimmy character and how intelligent he is, it's thrilling.

Meanwhile, back in Atlantic City, there are plenty of other stories going on, but most continue to be of the "marshaling forces" variety. Nucky continues to misread the situation with the Atlantic City version of the Italian mob (our sympathies here lying with the Irish), thinking that Lucky Luciano is behind it when he doesn't even have his eye on the fact that his problem stems from Mickey Doyle's friends from Philadelphia. He's also, apparently, a good Catholic boy who wants to do the right thing in regards to his lady friends, but he keeps succumbing to his own baser instincts. In that regard, he's again painted as the mirror image of Agent Van Alden, a man who flagellates himself after looking over information about his latest obsession, Margaret Schroeder. (Well, both men are taken with her, but Van Alden seems unlikely to do anything about it.)

Over in Margaret-land, meanwhile, Nucky has moved her and the kids into a nice, big house, where he apparently expects them to sit around and wait for him, a ready-made family that he doesn't really have to work for. And although we get to see the thrill of Nucky's and Margaret's early relationship -– and, also, the terrifying aspects, what with Margaret, er, cleaning herself with Lysol after one of their encounters (ouch!) -– we also get to see how he's bound to let her down, when he breaks their date to see Houdini's brother (just as good!) to frolic with a prostitute. Margaret's intelligence seems a bit inconsistent from week to week here. She is smart enough to tell off Lucy in highly entertaining fashion, but she is apparently shocked that this man would stand her up? I realize everyone believes in the perfection of their own love, but this seems like something she should have seen coming.

Unlike the last two episodes, "Family Limitation" lacks a clear, unifying theme at its center, but it's still a very good episode. And in those quiet moments the show lets us see, we begin to get a sense of who these people are in their most private moments. The cast is still too large for one episode to easily accommodate everyone -– among the characters we don't see this week are Chalky and Angela -– and there's still a sense that some of the characters are floating along in their own series -– Rothstein being a good example. But the overall impression "Boardwalk Empire" leaves after its first half-season is that of a show moving confidently toward a picture we can't fully see just yet. Whenever it gets there, I'm more and more certain it's going to be thrilling.

Some other thoughts:

-- This is the last episode I have on screener. Things may end up being pretty late from here on out, though I'll see if HBO can send some more over.

-- I'm actually not a huge fan of the whole flagellation scene. I get that it happened and continues to happen. I get that some men saw it as a good way to tamp down their sexual desires, but it's the sort of thing that's just never differently portrayed. Any time you try to picture a flagellation scene, it looks pretty much like this one.

-- A really nice scene: Al and Jimmy have a talk about their lives after getting into a barely-veiled series of insults toward each other. I also liked the little detail of Al's son being deaf and Jimmy realizing it.

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

Photo: Al Capone (Stephen Graham) has less of an exciting home life than you'd imagine. Credit: HBO


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