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'Boardwalk Empire' recap: Here come the payoffs

November 28, 2010 | 10:00 pm

Commodore It's taken a while (some would say too long), but "Boardwalk Empire" finally sent its characters careening off into potential devastation with this, the next-to-last episode of its first season. Stuff that's been boiling away all season long came to a head, and major secrets were revealed, both to the characters and the audience.

The list of terrific scenes and setpieces is lengthy, and although there's one major casualty with the death of a character audiences have gotten to know quite well, it's a character few would have predicted would die, much less in the manner in which he did. All in all, "Paris Green" should make anyone who worried none of this was going to add up but stuck with the show anyway feel as though they're in good hands. It's a swift-moving, fascinating episode of television, one that reveals a picture the show's been constructing all along. It's not my favorite episode of the season (I tend to prefer the more character-heavy hours such as "Home"), but it's bound to keep me buzzing right up until the finale airs.

"Paris Green" is full of moments that have been a long time coming, some since the days of the pilot. In particular, we get to see Nucky make a break with both Margaret and Eli, two issues that have been hanging over the show for weeks now. If the first half of this first season was an old-fashioned, boy-meets-girl love story about two unlikely lovers who found each other after a series of unlikely circumstances (including the boy having the girl's husband killed), the second half has been about Margaret's growing disenchantment with the situation she finds herself in. In many ways, Margaret is the true face of where the world of "Boardwalk" is headed. She's the face of a country that gradually will take power from the networks of powerful men who control the levers of society and distribute it more evenly among more people. And yet she finds herself sharing the bed of one of those powerful men, even as she's acutely aware of where his power comes from.

So she launches into an angry tirade against Nucky. He thinks it's because his friend's lady friend, Annabelle, came on to him. And, yeah, she's upset about that, but she's also upset about all of the compromises she's made to be his girlfriend and live in the lap of luxury. To be fair, both parties get in some good digs here (including Nucky taking her to task for acting upset about how she gets her nice things for a moment or two, before giving in to how nice it all feels), but ultimately Margaret raises the issue neither of them has talked about, suggesting that perhaps Nucky had her husband killed to get closer to her. It's true, but she doesn't know it. She just suspects. At the same time, Nucky doesn't deny it either, a move his brother castigates him for later. The next day, Margaret is gone, having left a few items with Richard Harrow to take to the neighbors. She wants nothing to do with Nucky any more or so it would seem.

Meanwhile, Jimmy's about to undergo a breakup of his own, though he has no idea that's the case. He's too wrapped up in taking care of his dying father, the Commodore, a man he doesn't seem exceptionally close to and with good reason. (The Commodore requested Nucky procure Jimmy's mother for him when she was but 13. Yikes.) Still, he's doing it for his mother and, possibly, for the possibility that when the Commodore dies, all of this will be Jimmy's. The Commodore even suggests as much, wondering why the city he built out of swamps into a great empire is now in the hands of Nucky and not his son and heir. Jimmy, so closed off he doesn't even seem that moved by his father's dead dog lying in a casket, just shrugs this off, but it's clear the man's words sting on some level. As it turns out, someone's poisoning the Commodore with arsenic (Paris Green variety), but a large dose hasn't been enough to kill the irascible old man, a situation that leads to any number of questions. All of this taken care of, Jimmy heads home ...

... where we know that he'll discover a goodbye letter from Angela, who's headed off to Paris with her son and her girlfriend. The arrangements have been made between Angela and Mary (the girlfriend), and all that remains is to pack a couple of bags and get ready to go to Europe. But when Angela and Tommy arrive at the photography studio to embark on their voyage, there's no one there, just the landlord sweeping out the place. Mary and her husband sneaked out the night before, possibly headed to Paris, and the devastation on Angela's face is more moving than pretty much anything else in this storyline. She heads back home with Tommy, where Jimmy is and has, presumably, read her letter. But instead of reacting in anger, he does nothing, just returning to the patterns the little family has had in the past.

Finally, there's Van Alden, who continues to try to figure out just what his partner, Sebso, did when the star witness was shot a few weeks ago. Van Alden knows something is wrong here, continually pointing out the flaws in Sebso's story, but it doesn't seem as though anyone cares about any of this or about how Sebso has those nice, new wingtip shoes. Sebso, as we learn, is on the take from Nucky, rather than some other player, and Nucky turns over the location of some bootleggers, the better for Sebso to make a bust and regain his partner's trust. Instead, the location Nucky describes is occupied by a large group of Baptists, who are in the process of full-immersion baptism. (Apparently, they're always there, too, as Van Alden and Sebso make two visits to the group.)

On the second visit, Van Alden asks if he can baptize Sebso, who's actually Jewish and doesn't seem keen on the idea but eventually goes along with it. In a long, terrifying scene (among the most horrifying in the show's run), Van Alden tries to break Sebso with a series of long dunks beneath the surface of the river, dunks that get longer and longer until Sebso drowns. Van Alden screams in righteous fury, then emerges from the river, gun held high, daring any one of the witnesses to say anything about what they've seen. In some ways, I wonder if the show has done enough to distinguish Van Alden from the many other unstable lawmen in this genre over the years, but man, the writers have done a great job of finding ways to make him seem out of his head.

If you've stuck with "Boardwalk Empire" all this way, then this is the episode that rewards you for your faith, that lets you know that this is a show that can do the big payoffs when it needs to. And, what's more, it seems like all of this is mere foreshadowing for what's coming next week (when, among other things, it seems like Harrow will strike back at the D'Alessios). It's important that a series with an epic sweep like this nails the payoffs. If it can do that, we'll forgive any number of narrative digressions. And in "Paris Green," "Boardwalk Empire" suggests that it very much knows this fact and it's more than happy to give us our dessert.

Some other thoughts:

--Rothstein continues to be confined to the edges of the storyline, and we don't see Chalky at all. Honestly,  I don't know if we'd notice how far out of the loop these characters were if they were cast with unknown actors, rather than Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael K. Williams, two actors who've distinguished themselves in other projects.

--According to Nucky, the Daughters of the American Revolution appeared from the ground like pumpkins back around the Revolutionary War. He's joking, but it's still good to know.

-- We finally get to see Harry Houdini's brother Hardeen perform his act. It's about as disappointing as you'd expect, though he spends most of his private show for Nucky and company offering up offhand remarks of great thematic importance.

--Nucky seems concerned about how much time the Republicans spend joking around in their club, compared with the Democrats, who are working hard for every vote. Relax, Nuck! I've read Wikipedia, and I know how this all turns out for Warren G. Harding and friends.

--I don't have a screener for the finale, and it seems unlikely HBO will send one out. Next week's piece, accordingly, may go up a little late.

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

Photo: The Commodore (Dabney Coleman) is a monster of a man, but he's still Jimmy's dad. So when he gets sick, Jimmy's gotta do something, right? Credit: HBO

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