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'Boardwalk Empire' recap: Struggling against history

November 7, 2010 | 10:25 pm

Nuckyjimmy The pieces are drawing closer and closer together on "Boardwalk Empire," and now it's to the point where a casual moment in one storyline can have a ripple effect on another way over in another storyline. Consider: Nelson Van Alden has been intercepting the checks Jimmy sends home from Chicago to Angela, that she might care for herself and the child the two share. Since Angela's not getting that money, she's grown embittered toward Jimmy, and she's looking for a new way to make a little extra cash. (Jimmy's mother suggests becoming the period's equivalent of an Avon lady.) But if she were able to make that extra cash, then she just might run off to New York to live the Bohemian life with her lover, Mary. So when Van Alden drops that sum of cash in the mail to Angela, seemingly spurred by his wife's desire to have a corrective procedure that will allow her to have a child (which Van Alden is opposed to, since he believes God will give them a child when He's good and ready), it dangles, like an idea of what Angela COULD do.

What we know is that Jimmy is coming back. We don't actually see him get on the train back to Atlantic City, but when Nucky dangles an offer that's too good to refuse in front of his nose, we know he's going to be headed back. He doesn't really fit in Chicago, best shown in a scene where he says nothing, but stands outside the Italian mobsters he's fallen in with, watching as they trade insults in Italian. He's accepted by them (particularly by his friend Al Capone), but he'll never be one of them. Much as he might hate to admit it, much as he hates the way the man ran him out of town, his place will ultimately be at the side of Nucky when the chips are down. Being in Chicago hasn't changed him so much as it has shaped things that were already present in him, making him the ruthless man Nucky will need at his side in his own mob war. So, we expect, he'll jump on the train to Atlantic City (with Richard Harrow in tow, I hope), and when he gets back, everything will explode.

Or maybe it won't. Maybe things won't get a chance to explode because Margaret will have turned on Nucky. Because here's something else that happens in this episode: Eli gets shot in the midst of a casino heist. He's there to collect the payment for Nucky (who's away in Chicago at the Republican National Convention), and he gets ambushed by the Italians who've been making so much trouble for Nucky's operation. While he's in the hospital, Nucky has to make sure that his ledger is protected, so he sends Margaret to go get it and keep it at her place. But the temptation of seeing just what it is her new boyfriend is up to ends up being too great, so she flips the pages open at episode's end to see a bunch of stuff she can't unsee. Nucky, whom she first saw at that Temperance League meeting in the pilot, is the guy who's in charge of bringing liquor into Atlantic City. And with that, all her illusions of the man she's in love with will have to disappear, and she'll be left with the question every mob girlfriend in every mob movie ever has had: Do I stay in comfort, or do I go because it's the right thing to do?

In a way, "Boardwalk Empire" is about evolution. There have been complaints against the series for being slow moving, but that may be because evolution is a slow-moving process. Dinosaurs don't become birds in a day, and a person like Nucky doesn't become a ruthless mobster in a day either. He gets pushed in that direction by circumstance, and the events since the pilot have been relentlessly making sure he heads toward that, whether he wants to or not. The pace of the show can feel glacial because the process of what the show's depicting is glacial. Nucky's still at the place where he thinks everybody can be bought, but with the shooting of his brother, he's begun to realize that some men who would depose him cannot be reasoned with. And those men are going to have to be met with equal violence and equal fire. That's where the man he sent away for being too much of a liability comes back into play, and that's why Jimmy's on his way back (we assume).

It's fun to watch a show like this begin to grandly play cards it's been holding since the very beginning, and in that regard, "Hold Me in Paradise" is a very good episode. I preferred last week's slightly, if only because I enjoy the character-driven hours just a bit more, but "Boardwalk" is at the point where it needs to begin making good on its promises of not just telling us a good series of stories about mobsters and others in their orbit but also a grand story about the foundations of organized crime in the 1920s. This plot-heavy hour begins the process of that, even as it shows us how Nucky's political skills help turn the tide at the Republican convention, that Warren Harding might garner the nomination. History now tells us that Harding was one of the most corrupt presidents in U.S. history, offering cushy government jobs to many of the people who supported him at the convention. And yet that's not really so different from what Nucky does every single day with people in Atlantic City. It's just more acceptable because the office is more acceptable. History condemns Harding as a failed president, but it condemns the basis for Nucky's character as a very evil man.

There's this sense of history and fate passing their judgment throughout "Paradise." Harding's wife is convinced that her husband will die in office because of what a fortune teller told her (again, the theme of soothsaying comes to the fore). The series keeps returning to Rothstein's preparations for the Black Sox scandal trial, even though they, at present, don't seem to have anything to do with the rest of the show. And, of course, we know where the antipathy between the Irish and Italians in both Chicago and Atlantic City is headed. In some ways, all of the characters in "Boardwalk Empire" are ignoring what's right in front of their faces, until there's simply no way to stop doing so. Margaret must have known where most of Nucky's money came from, but she chose to play dumb because it was more fun that way. Nucky must have known that there were very few ways his current game could end without bloodshed, but chose to consolidate power anyway. And Jimmy must have known he would be drawn back to Atlantic City at one point or another. Yet there's an attempt to race away from what both they and we know must happen. We know Harding will die in office; we know the bloodshed that is coming; we know who Al Capone becomes. At the same time, we watch, transfixed, because we see these people trying to escape the trap we know they're doomed to remain snared in.

Some other thoughts:

  • --For a very interesting alternate take on the death of Harding, the novel "Carter Beats the Devil" (optioned to become a miniseries or series by AMC at one point) is highly recommended.
  • --Jimmy's really rolling in the dough in Chicago. If he chose to stay with Al and the gang there, I wouldn't blame him.
  • --Incidentally, those were the first scenes between Nucky and Jimmy since episode two or three (I think three, from reading my old reviews). It's amazing that the show would make the relationship between the two so central to the pilot, then separate them for so long.

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

Photo: It took a while, but Jimmy (Michael Pitt, left) and Nucky (Steve Buscemi) are together again. (Credit: HBO)

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