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'Boardwalk Empire' recap: All together now

October 17, 2010 | 10:00 pm

One of the bigger issues "Boardwalk Empire" skeptics have had with the show is that there are something like six or seven storylines in any given episode, but they're not really tied together by anything other than the historical fact of Prohibition and, well, that they're all on the same show. For me, this has been sort of a plus. I assume all involved will slowly tug these strands of the storyline together in a way that pays off handsomely in the last three or four episodes. But then I watched similarly structured shows — like "Deadwood" and "The Wire" — first-run rather than on DVD, so I remember the early frustration viewers had with that storytelling model as well. And yet even I have wondered whether the story has one or two too many elements.

I wouldn't say that my concerns have been wholly alleviated by "Nights in Ballygran," the show's fifth episode, but it went a long way toward beginning the process of knitting these people together. Sure, it's still not immediately clear what Arnold Rothstein has to do with anything outside of being a charismatic villain (whom we drop in on this week in a "Here's what's up with Rothstein" scene that doesn't have an immediate reason to exist other than that fact), and Jimmy's sojourn to Chicago feels like a completely different series — a good one, just not the same one that Nucky and pals are in back in Atlantic City. But in Atlantic City, the show has found a way to tie together such disparate characters and story strands as Margaret Schroeder, the Temperance League, Van Alden and Nucky's scheming. Better, it's found a way to tie those items together physically and not just through thematics: It's done so through Margaret herself.

The question of what happens when Margaret realizes just how deeply the bad things her new crush is up to run has hung over the series since it started. Margaret and Nucky have a mutual infatuation, but Margaret is a member of the Temperance League, while Nucky's the guy making sure the alcohol keeps flowing freely into Atlantic City. In another world, this would be the setup for some weird historical romantic comedy, but in this world, it's a central conflict keeping Nucky and Margaret apart, even though they obviously want to hook up. (Also still hanging out there: Margaret doesn't know that Nucky ordered her husband's death, though she may have some hint that that was the case.) So when Nucky fails to do much to stop the beer deliveries happening at the garage right by Margaret's house — and notice how her concern about this is motivated less from a personal stand on the issue and more because her kids could see (and it keeps her up at nights — she turns to Van Alden, one of those characters who's been dancing around the periphery of the show.

It's hard to overstate just how exciting it is to see Margaret stride into the post office where Van Alden is setting up shop. As mentioned, until now, it's felt like "Boardwalk Empire" — good as it's been — has been like a collection of smaller shows and scenes that don't always add up to a bigger one. Van Alden is the star of one of those shows, as are Margaret and Nucky, but when Van Alden drops in on either of the two others, it feels like a scene out of his show, the show where the vigilant (and just a little creepy) fed tracks down the cocky rum runners with only gumption and the grace of God on his side. Margaret stomping into his office is such a thrilling moment because it unites the two series and then pulls both characters over into Nucky's show. It's not like these shows were wholly disparate or anything, but now all of these characters feel united in the same storyline. (The Margaret-goes-to-see-Van-Alden scene is also good for how it gives Michael Shannon a chance to deliver a great monologue about the hopelessness of stopping the flow of alcohol.)

From there, it's on to the St. Patrick's Day celebration, where Van Alden uses Margaret's information to arrest Mr. Neery. His desire to make this arrest is obviously spurred on by his desire to get back at Nucky, but the setpiece at the celebration — which includes Eli's marvelously awkward speech about how the Irish should have kicked the English out of Ireland — is one of the series' best, with a keen understanding of how these people relate to one another and how they also let one another down. As Neery is tossed into the back of Van Alden's vehicle, the Temperance League looking on and singing one of its hymns, it finally feels like all of these people are starring in the same series, like the plot is beginning to heat up after a long series of episodes where characters were put into place for what was to come. (This sequence is also notable for how it ties in seemingly minor plot points from before, like that brief shot of the self-described midget dressed as a leprechaun tumbling to the ground as the crush of larger men tries to get out of the building.) The building is locked down. Margaret and Van Alden get what they want. And then Nucky comes to Margaret in the middle of the night and pulls her into a passionate kiss.

But here's the big concern: The other major plotline in the episode has involved seeing just how Nucky figures out how to give people what they want but only so much that they'll stop bothering him. This is illustrated nicely with the scene where he negotiates with the midget spokesman over whether he's going to give him and his fellow performers a raise. They don't like the way they're pushed around at St. Patrick's Day. Nucky sees it as show business (another example of how people like Nucky barely even saw the different and disadvantaged around them, a nice theme the show has been working into the background). Similarly, Nucky stops his brother's speech, the better to keep the peace. Is his kiss of Margaret just another way of giving someone what they want so they'll get out of his way? Or is he really as smitten as he seemed last episode? That complicated wrinkle is the most interesting facet of "Boardwalk Empire," and it's where I hope the show continues to tell stories.

Other thoughts:

  • There are other plotlines. They aren't quite as interesting, though I really liked Jimmy's monologue to Pearl (or should I say "Tally," which ... that was a name?!). On the other hand, Pearl/Tally shooting herself in the head, while executed well, felt just a bit predictable. I'm ready for Jimmy to head back toward Atlantic City and start kicking people in the face. And please don't give him an opium addiction. That's a little too Christopher from "The Sopranos" for a character that already trends that way.
  • I was more involved in Jimmy's mother and girlfriend discussing whether the girlfriend should just move on with her life, which gave us insight into the relationship between Jimmy and his mom and just why he's the way he is.
  • Was that Loudon Wainwright singing "Carrickfergus" at the end? It sounded like him to me, but my screeners don't always give this information.

Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)

Photo: Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) has to charm the head of the Temperance League (Dana Ivey, center) to keep the peace with Margaret (Kelly MacDonald). Credit: HBO.

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