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'Boardwalk Empire' recap: Who's real and who's fakin' it.

October 10, 2010 | 11:04 pm

Omar The fourth episode of “Boardwalk Empire” – possibly the young show’s best episode yet – reveals that the series is something completely unexpected: It’s a love story. Sure, the trappings of a gangster tale are all present, and the overriding narrative is about how Nucky Thompson consolidates his power and becomes the top crime lord in Atlantic City. But the soul of the series is an essentially romantic one. This is a story about a man and a woman who have no real reason to run into each other but then find a kind of intoxicating fascination in each other. Nucky and Margaret aren’t one of the all-time TV couples just yet, but in this episode, they fall in love right up there with the rest of them. They’ve been dancing around each other for this whole season, but now is the point where they finally begin to realize what has them in its grips.

The centerpiece of the episode is Nucky’s birthday party, where Margaret shows up to help Lucy into a more appropriate dress after she pops out of a cake, scantily clad. The presence of the two in the same room leads to a series of small scenes where Margaret challenges the senator and Nucky on their position on women’s suffrage (offering up the suggestion that the temperance movement is a kind of payback from women for not having the right to vote), then dances around with Nucky in a way that causes passers-by to gaze on in affection. The chemistry between Steve Buscemi and Kelly MacDonald has been obvious throughout the season so far, but here, it finally ignites into something that could end up carrying the whole series. When Nucky looks at Lucy popping out of the cake, he’s looking just past her, toward Margaret, up on the balcony. There’s the girl he’s with; there’s the girl he wants. It’s an old, old story, but “Boardwalk Empire” makes it seem charming.

One thing that increasingly makes me uneasy about “Boardwalk Empire” is its treatment of women. Margaret’s a fascinating character, but she seems almost too little to combat the fact that pretty much every woman on the show is a gold digger or a prostitute. Every so often, the show gives us a glimpse into one of their lives that makes us reconsider how hard it would have been for a woman in this period (like the look we get into the life of Pearl in tonight’s episode), but there’s a sense that the show isn’t able to look past the objectification most of its main characters visit on the women in their lives. Paz de la Huerta seems to be having a great time playing Lucy, but the character is too often reduced to a dumb girl stereotype. Obviously, there are eight episodes left in the season, and the treatment of Margaret is enough to make it certain that these writers can write for women. I just hope they start expanding some of the other female characters soon.

But the weird treatment of women is ultimately a pretty minor complaint for “Anastasia,” an episode where everybody worries that they might be revealed as a fraud, rather than royalty. The title comes from Anna Anderson, a woman who claimed to be the heir to the throne of Russia, the last surviving Romanov, Anastasia. Anderson was eventually revealed to be a fraud (and conclusively proved to be one by DNA evidence much later on), but the legacy of the lost princess, who holds in her blood the key to a kingdom, is such a potent one that most people wanted to believe Anderson really was Anastasia anyway. If the story’s good enough, you can talk people into almost anything.
Most of the characters tonight find themselves trying to start their stories or embellish on the ones that already exist for themselves. Margaret briefly lets herself believe she could be on the arm of a rich and powerful man. Nucky wants to have it all, despite all evidence suggesting that’s impossible. Jimmy escapes to Chicago, hoping to remove himself from his past but finds that the past isn’t so easily forgotten when his crimes visit him and assert themselves on a girl he’s come to care for somewhat. All of the characters in “Boardwalk Empire” are striving to be someone they’re not, and that leads them to be unhappy much of the time. They always want more than they have. Half of life is having enough confidence in yourself to fake your way through just about anything, but many of the characters here have yet to learn that lesson.

That probably can’t be said of Chalky White, who gets the other centerpiece sequence of the episode, with a lengthy monologue delivered to a local Klan official about when his father was known as the best carpenter in the county, for a brief moment. Michael K. Williams delivers the monologue so nonchalantly, building with such precise fury to the end of the story – where Chalky’s dad is lynched by the very white men he was building cabinets for – that the fact that it takes up an astonishing amount of screen time barely registers. This is one of the finest acting moments in the show so far, and Williams never pushes it too far. When he unfolds the bundle of his father’s tools and identifies them as such, it’s cold and chilling, but it’s not overtly threatening. Plenty of actors would have gone in that direction, and Williams’ restraint is what makes this sequence work as well as it does.

Throughout “Anastasia,” there’s a sense that all of the pieces the show has put into play over the course of the first three episodes are beginning to come together. We don’t know enough yet to pull absolutely every piece into place, but we’re beginning to get a sense of who these people are and how the season is going to pull them together. That’s vital for a series like “Boardwalk Empire,” where individual episodes often play out more like a collection of scenes than a coherent storyline. If the show gives us a sense of where it’s going, that can help us sit back and enjoy the ride. We don’t have to know every turn on the way. We just have to know that we get to Chicago eventually.

Some other thoughts:

  • --It’s not exactly the biggest stretch in the world to portray Al Capone as the show is portraying him, but that doesn’t mean the portrayal of him as a jerk who does crazy things like fire a pistol into the pillow next to Jimmy’s head isn’t fun.
  • --Pearl is played by Emily Meade. I spent plenty of time trying to figure out who Meade was before realizing that I haven’t ever seen her in anything. Anyway, I liked her, and I hope she comes back.
  • --Oh, another female character who’s worth something: Jimmy’s girlfriend/mother of his child. Again, she’s not a great character just yet, but she’s one that the show doesn’t reduce to a chintzy stereotype.
  • --Here’s a terrifically funny scene: The cops break up a Klan meeting, then ask who’s in charge. Most of the people in attendance point to the man standing up front at a podium, declaiming about the awfulness of other races. He’s wearing a purple robe! How difficult could this be?
  • --Early contender for best side character of the season: Nucky’s butler.

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

Photo: Michael K. Williams is already famous for one antihero role as Omar on "The Wire." Will he make it two-for-two as Chalky White on "Boardwalk Empire"? (Credit: HBO)

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