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'Boardwalk Empire' recap: Making a mark

October 3, 2010 | 10:00 pm

Macdonald The wolves are already closing in on "Boardwalk Empire," and it's only the third episode. Nucky Thompson and Jimmy Darmody's scheming in the pilot continues to reveal the loose ends that will be their undoing and both men — but particularly Jimmy — are backed into even tighter corners. The sign of a confident TV show in the early going is when the series feels safe in blowing up the storyline and doing stuff that would usually be done closer to a season finale. In this episode, it's that survivor of the shipment hijacking in the pilot, who stumbled out of the woods at the end of the last episode. As the episode begins, it seems like Nucky and his brother will take care of this unfortunately living witness, but complications, as they do, ensue, and much of the episode spins out from there.

For one thing, I love that this episode reminds us of just how long it would take to smother someone with a pillow. When Eli tries to take out the witness by shooing the doctors out of the room and hoping the witness' roommate will stay asleep, it's a darkly funny sequence. What he's doing is terrible, but he obviously didn't consider that killing a man via pillow suffocation takes a lot of time and tends to be noisy. Soon enough, the man, though injured, is struggling, and Eli is trying to make it out as if he's interrogating the man while the roommate asks if everything's OK. And then Nelson Van Alden is striding down the hallway, and Eli loses any chance he has at eliminating the witness, because Van Alden is going to take the guy and drive him up to New York. On the way, of course, the guy continues to ail, so Van Alden pulls over at a dentist (proving that dentistry is at least one thing that is immensely preferable now when compared to the 1920s) and gets what he can out of him by plunging his hand deep into the gaping stomach wound. The message is clear: Nucky and Eli know what they have to do, but they're often unable to get it done. Van Alden, though ostensibly on the side of "good," is relentless.

"Broadway Limited" is another episode seemingly designed to bulk up the supporting players. We get nice moments with Chalky White, Lucy Danziger and Jimmy's mom. But unlike last week's episode, we also got a better sense of the lead players, as Jimmy and Nucky tried to fight back against the forces threatening to hem them in and Margaret accepted a new job that Nucky had gotten her. The character who got the most new stuff to play, though, was Van Alden, who proved that even if he's yet another nutball in Michael Shannon's long line of nuts, Shannon is going to make him terrifying and unsettling in a new way all the same. The scene where he tortures the witness to get the information he needs — that someone named Jimmy was involved in the heist — is a variation on a scene you've seen a million times before, but it's still absolutely, gobsmackingly terrifying. Just as terrifying is when Van Alden goes home to his wife and sits at his table, chewing mechanically, looking like a coiled spring, ready to explode with force and energy. (Also funny: Van Alden offering up a very Christian prayer for the now-dead witness in the dentist's chair, with someone asking him, "Isn't he Jewish?")

Increasingly, I think, "Boardwalk Empire" is turning into a show about the kind of mark that you leave on the world while you live in it. The final scene is of Nucky walking back toward the elevator up to his rooms from outside in the rain. He's just dealt with festering racial resentments given a new outlet in prohibition, as someone lynches one of Chalky's African-American employees and Nucky says he doesn't need a race war right now and comes up with a less likely cover story. (The look on Chalky's face suggests that no matter what deal he makes with Nucky to buy his silence, the race war, at least from Chalky's perspective, is already here.) Nucky walks back from this encounter across the lobby of the building where he lives, and as he stands in the elevator, looking back, he can see the muddy, wet tracks of his shoes, marking up the floor. Nucky may, at this point in the series, be small potatoes outside of Atlantic City, but he still has the ability to mar a pristine surface. 

But, again, it's Jimmy whose mark is most striking in this episode, particularly because his mark is his very absence. When he was away in the war, everything changed. Even his mother (who talks with Nucky about how he was supposed to keep Jimmy from making bad decisions) can see that. And as Jimmy looks at the photos of his fiancee and son from his time away, he can see the happiness in her eyes. He suspects she was sleeping with the photographer when he sees how comfortable his son is around the man, but the real fear he has, deep down, is likely that his fiancee is happier without him around, particularly as the surly, dark person he's become. At one time, they talked about books. Now, he just gets mad that she doesn't like the vacuum sweeper and runs off to Chicago, leaving her to drag the Christmas tree out all by herself. When Nucky suggests that Jimmy get out of town because he'll be safer there (as he will be, what with both Van Alden and Rothstein after him now), he's again saying that everyone is better off with Jimmy quite literally out of the picture.

And then there's Margaret, who seems to leave a mark on everyone she comes in contact with just by being decent. And yet who gets her the job that she slowly learns the ropes of throughout the episode? Nucky. It's tempting to read that final shot of the muddy footprints across the bare surface as a suggestion that Nucky's going to leave his mark on Margaret, but she seems remarkably resourceful and, dare I say plucky, figuring out ways to maintain her essential self while taking Nucky's misbegotten money, which he intends as charity, perhaps to make up for the own lack of family in his life. (When Lucy tells him that he's lucky he never had children, his face is deeply, deeply sad.)

Where is all of this going? It's still difficult to say. "Boardwalk Empire" is at once moving more quickly and more deliberately than I thought it would, and though every episode is enormously entertaining, we're still in that portion of a TV show's run where predicting what happens next is almost more interesting than watching what's on screen. A large portion of every episode still seems to be taken up by the characters re-deploying and drawing up lines of battle, but that's not a bad thing, all the same. The more complex the situations the characters find themselves in, the more potential there is for explosive drama as the season draws to a close. At present, there are at least five or six groups who have as their goal to take down Nucky, Jimmy or both, and watching how the two evade (or don't evade) those groups' grasp is going to make for enthralling television.

Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Margaret (Kelly MacDonald) gets a new job in Sunday night's "Boardwalk Empire," though she seems a bit abashed to be receiving anyone's charity. Credit: HBO.

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