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'Boardwalk Empire' recap: The song remains the same

November 14, 2010 | 10:00 pm

The various institutions on "Boardwalk Empire" — from the government to Nucky's crime ring to the federal investigators looking into that crime ring — are often depicted in the series as machines. The parts of those machines may all be people, but the act of being in the machine, of fulfilling a certain role within it, means that just about anyone with a certain set of skills will work equally well as a cog in the system as anyone else with that set of skills. Sure, improvements can be made. Chalky was likely a better rum runner for Nucky's purposes than Doyle was, and no one can quite improve on Jimmy as Nucky's right-hand man. But the overwhelming sense of "Belle Femme" is that the more things change, the more things stay the same. You can promise the people change, and you can give it to them via a new face at a certain place in the organization, but as long as the same people control the purse strings, little is going to get done.

Of all of the things "Boardwalk Empire" has dabbled in thematically, it's this particular point that's going to have the most modern-day resonance for a lot of people. You can put new people in office, and you can change the people at the top, but on some level, the people with the money will always have the biggest voice. So long as the people further down in the organization are kept squabbling about the things that don't really matter, then the people further up can continue to consolidate their wealth and power. Of course, in the world of "Boardwalk Empire," we know that this consolidation created an economic model so unsustainable that it would utterly topple in just nine years' time. But that toppling may as well be on the moon for these characters. They see no end to their power, and why should they? They're in the process of getting much more of it.

"Belle Femme" is an episode that marks a key turning point for the three major characters of the show. Jimmy returns home, ready to resume his place as head of his ad hoc family and Nucky's right-hand man, only to be almost immediately arrested. Nucky is finally forced to admit the criminality of much of what he does, but he also finds out that the forces aligned against him are more dangerous than he's been giving them credit for. And if Margaret was scarred by finding out just how much her boyfriend's influence stretches into every corner of Atlantic City life last week, she doesn't really show it this week, as she realizes how much of an advantage Nucky's position could be to her. "Belle Femme" crystallizes the choices these people have to make between the right thing and the easy thing, and in nearly every case, the characters — even the law-abiding ones! — choose the easy thing, the better to not inconvenience themselves.

"Belle Femme" is also an episode that takes a little while to get going, but one that packs some impressive twists once it does. For one thing, Van Alden's partner would seem to be on the take for Nucky (unless he's deliberately sabotaging Van Alden's case), as he kills Van Alden's star witness and makes it look like a self-defense shooting when the two stop to pee while the witness is being transported to Manhattan to be safe in federal jail. Another great twist comes at episode's end, as Nucky is distracted out on the boardwalk and nearly shot by one of the D'Alessios, only saved by his butler, who shoves the man, that his bullet might hit an innocent woman out for an evening stroll. It's a little too cute as symbolism (we already know the innocent tend to be the ones most hurt by these kinds of corruption, thanks), but it's a powerful moment nonetheless. Nucky has been playing as though he can get into this game without getting blood on his hands — when Jimmy asks if he even wants the youngest of the D'Alessios killed, he blanches — but he's rapidly realizing how little that's the case.

In the back half of its first season, "Boardwalk Empire" is slowly revealing that it just might be a mob drama only secondarily to being a political drama. The show has become less and less about mob maneuvering and more about how that maneuvering parallels the political brinksmanship that Nucky and his friends deal with on a day-to-day basis in their day jobs. When Nucky helps swing the Republican convention to Warren Harding, the show seems to argue that it's no less of a bad thing to do than to consolidate his criminal power by escalating his war with the D'Alessios. The show sees Nucky's need to keep everything under control as all of a piece. Whatever he has to do to make sure that he's the one steering the ship is what he'll do, whether that means replacing the current mayor with one who's essentially the same mayor with a new paint job or replacing his own brother at sheriff. Nucky needs to make sure every variable is accounted for in his little empire, and it's that need for control, that desire to buy favors, that drives both everything he does and keeps any real change from coming. The people in his circle are just interchangeable bodies with new masks.

But Jimmy and Margaret are figuring out how to navigate this system. Until Jimmy gets locked up in jail and can't go out to track down the D'Alessios, that is. (Presumably, Jimmy's manhunt will be a big part of the final three episodes.) The long con that Jimmy and his mom were running on Lucky, the one that might have resulted in Lucky's death had Van Alden not burst into the building at that moment, was another nice moment of a twist piled on top of a twist. (Though technically, I suppose, Mom didn't have to be in on it from the first. It's just as likely that Jimmy found out what was going on and recruited her to his side.) Margaret, meanwhile, shows a vindictive side we didn't really know she had when she plays the owner of the Belle Femme to get herself a dress that's just under $500 and gets Nucky to ease up just a bit on the payments the owner is required to make to the city. She's got guts, that Mrs. Schroeder, and she's easily the most unpredictable thing on this show. Maybe it's Kelly MacDonald seeming like such a sweet, winning person, but I never expect Margaret to take the turns toward bad that she does. But when she does, the show becomes riveting.

Other thoughts

  • Angela continues to get stuck in situations she doesn't want to be in, as her girlfriend's husband tries to get both women into bed with him. Fortunately, Jimmy comes home at just the right moment, but now he's hungry for lovin' and not ready to take no as an answer. (She acquiesces, eventually, but it's not a pretty sight.) And when the photographer and his wife realize there's no chance with her, the photographer lets Angela know frankly what he thinks of her art. Ouch.
  • I enjoyed the entertainer performing at the meal where Nucky invites the new guy onto the mayoral ticket. The '20s were truly a great time for women with loud voices.
  • Rothstein is finally getting hooked into the main narrative again, as he gets involved with Doyle and the D'Alessios but has them all sign paperwork that will keep them on the straight and narrow. He doesn't seem thrilled to be doing business with them, but that's the cost of dealing in the unsavory, I guess.
  • I rather miss Chalky. This feels like a lot of episodes he's sat out. I hope he comes back in the final three in a big way.
  • Harding's mistress certainly seems deluded about her place in things. Sweetie, if he trundles you off to Atlantic City to hide you, he probably doesn't really love you.

Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Margaret (Kelly MacDonald) discovers there are certain advantages to dating Nucky (Steve Buscemi). Credit: HBO.

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