Boardwalk Empire

has a pedigree that manages to stand out, even on a network known for
assembling the best talent and biggest budgets for its banner shows.
Optioned by Mark Wahlberg and brought to HBO, Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Altantic City
by Nelson Johnson is providing the backbone source material for the
show, which stars Steve Buscemi as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the
Treasurer-turned-gangster of Atlantic City. The big roller behind the
camera is of course Martin Scorsese, who was hooked early as an
Executive Producer and directed the pilot episode. Terrence Winter,
rockstar writer and The Sopranos
veteran, has adapted the dense historical text of the source novel into
a focused look at the Vegas-before-Vegas world of Atlantic City in the
1920s. This Prohibition-era playground is a perfect setting to tell the
story of what happened when America went dry.

Here at CHUD
we’re going to be giving you our reaction to each episode in tag-team
style recaps each Monday after a new episode. You can expect a shifting,
rotating batch of contributors every week, each unloading hot batches
of insight. Boardwalk Empire airs at 9:00 pm EST, Sundays on HBO. Check it out
and follow along with the CHUD staff!

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EPISODE 2: The Ivory Tower

“I’m making a statement!”

RENN
BROWN: With some of the hype and flash of the first episode having died
down, Tim Van Patten (a familiar, respected name among HBO devotees)
settles
Boardwalk
into a familiar rhythm right away. With only its second episode, the
show has given us a much fuller picture of the systems at work in
Atlantic City, started setting up the threads that will lead us to
deadly conflict, and begun piling the weights on our character’s
shoulders. The show is also already accumulating symbolism as well,
including a loaded reference to
The Ivory Tower by Henry James- an unfinished novel known for its nasty look at the corruption of the rich.

Jimmy’s
big line in the pilot was telling Nucky that he couldn’t “be half a
gangster anymore.” With that it seemed the show was setting up a
struggle for Thompson- one where he would tread an increasingly
dangerous line between out and out mobster, and mildly corrupt
statesman. What the second episode tells us though, is that while that
conflict may indeed crop up as Nucky’s alcohol transactions grow
brighter on the radar, Nucky is already all gangster. It’s Jimmy who
really has to learn his place. Nothing in the montage of envelope
exchanges early in the show is new to a fan of gangster shows and
movies, but it gives us a much better look into Nucky’s world, and the
extent to which he runs Atlantic City. The man is full blown gangster,
even if his methods haven’t required as many broken skulls as they soon
will. Jimmy however, is finding that he’s a bit late to the party, a
party to which he wasn’t yet invited anyway. I hope the show can
maintain and mine the tension between Jimmy and Nucky- it seems to bring
out the best in both actors. In fact, Buscemi’s performance as he
coldly gambles away Jimmy’s extra cash demonstrates that it will be
Nucky’s subtle moments that sell him as a dangerous mobster, rather than
his bigger violent scenes.


Other
standout moments: Arnold Rothstein cementing himself as one of the most
fun characters on the show. Audience double take on “Take it easy,
ma.”
Michael Shannon continuing to make Agent Van Alden the scariest
character on the show. The painterly shot of Nucky on the bed while his
hooa bathes. Episode ending on victim number five popping up while Baxter’s pop-up number three’s.

ELISABETH
RAPPE: This was a solid episode, but I’m going to be the contrarian and
say I was slightly let down.  (Slightly, mind you. I’m not
immediately going to hate on it, just tease it a little.)  I’m
not expecting
Boardwalk Empire
to necessarily reinvent the gangster genre, but I felt like there was a
lot of cliche in this episode — from Capone kicking a reporter to
death (hello,
Goodfellas!)
to the mobster telling one of his lackeys a gruesome “Do you get what
I’m sayin'” story, to Gretchen Mol. It would appear Hollywood can’t do a
retro production without Mol, and what a sad commentary. Mol was a
constant “the next IT girl’ for years and now she’s considered to be old
enough to be Michael Pitt’s mom. Here’s what posing with Dennis Rodman
gets you, aspiring starlets.


But at least Boardwalk Empire
proves it’s willing to raise eyebrows and dabble in creepy,
near-incestuous relationships!  AND it did so while neatly
avoiding one gangster subplot — Jimmy can’t get any at home, so he goes
to his chippy.  


I’m
still intrigued by Margaret’s character, though she veered from one
cliche — battered Irish housewife — right into another — incredibly
well-read parlour maid — while hovering on the precipice of a great
cliche of being either ruined by Nucky or the one woman who could save
him. Will she be the saintly Madonna who Nucky and Nelson Van Alden
adore? Will the fight be over her as much as it is the demon liquor?
Because I could be blind, but I’m pretty sure that was Margaret’s hair
ribbon that Nelson was inhaling so greedily.  Eesh — is she
going to be a metaphor for all Atlantic City as Nelson and Nucky tussle
over her? I hope not.  The show has to be tighter than that.


I
do love the way Michael Shannon is steadily creeping into the frame,
though.  Again, the repressed government agent isn’t anything
new (heat up those water pipes, my love) but I really trust that Shannon
can do something fresh with it.  As Renn said, he’s already
packing more malice than any of the gangsters. The scenes he had with
Buscemi were crackling, and I can’t wait to see them really start to
circle each other.


And
speaking of Buscemi — while I found some things a bit stale in this
episode, his Nucky wasn’t one of them. He’s clever, he’s smarmy, and
he’s oddly charming.   When he took hold of Margaret’s
hands — “with THESE soft hands?” — you knew how he was able to run an
entire town.  I understand why everyone loves him. 
Many gangster stories fail at giving any warmth or humanity to their
crime lords. We’re just told they’re appealing to the masses. 
Nucky’s kindness may be calculated, but it never *feels* calculated, and
that’s so key to understanding how guys like him amass an empire. Sure,
money talks, but you’ve got to convince people why they should hand it
to you. As Jimmy proved, waving a gun around isn’t what makes it happen.


And Jimmy? Might want to count your shots and corpses a little better!

JOSHUA 
MILLER: Initially, I was not sure whether or not I liked Boardwalk’s
intro. Seeing it once again, the scales have tipped. I dig it. A lot,
actually. The period anachronistic electric guitar music is a strange
choice, but its harmony with the imagery is both yummy and effective; I
got a blast of goosebumps this time when that bottle crashes against the
pier and the score explodes accordingly. I think I was too invested the
first time I saw it, picking each and every shot over, not letting it
wash over me as it should. My reaction to the second episode itself was
not as uplifting though.


Nothing
popped hard for me in this episode. That isn’t to say it was not good.
Hell, I could watch this show all day. I was actually shocked when the
episode ended, I couldn’t believe an hour had already gone by. But,
nonetheless, nothing really surprised me here in the way I want to be
surprised by the show (Jimmy’s mom practically dry humping him isn’t the
kind of surprise I’m talking about). The introduction of the necklace
Jimmy gives his mother just so he can shamefully steal it back just so
he can repay Nucky just so he can start resenting Nucky… that kind of
plotting is too clean to get me excited. I could see a lot of the
episode coming a mile away: “That reporter is annoying Capone at the
funeral, I bet we see him again and Capone kicks the shit out of him or
kills him.” I also saw the final surprise with the fifth victim coming
too, although I’m a big fan of awkward handjobs scenes, so I wasn’t left
disappointed. So, all said, I was not narratively wowed by episode two.


Thus far (and two episodes is no where near enough to judge a series) Boardwalk‘s
big win is clearly the characters. I couldn’t agree with Renn more that
Michael Shannon is the scariest part of the show. The creepiness that
oozes from that man is truly impressive, and the effortless way he can
make a scene drip with unease, equally so. Pitt continues to win me
over. For me the big wild card currently is the adorable Margaret
Schroeder (the adorable Kelly Macdonald). Her character I think will
either become very interesting or become the dull spot of every episode.
As far as Nucky is concerned, I hope this episode was simply about
setting up conflict and not a sign of how things are always gonna be,
because I felt like they were forcing a lot of friction on Nucky. In the
pilot he came off as an incredibly smart individual, one who really
knew how to talk to all sorts of different kinds of people. Aside from
his bit with Baxter and Baxter’s girl, this episode was just him making
enemies and pissing people off.


JEREMY
BUTLER: What a difference a week makes, eh?  That pilot
episode was electric but last night’s sort of left a little to be
desired.  Not that it was bad, mind you, but I didn’t walk away
from it with that same sort of euphoric “WOW” like I did last
week.  And I get it – the pilot is fireworks – it’s the big
announcement.  It needs to be big and loud and do as much as
anything to establish the brand in an hour.  Now is when we
simmer and, yeah – we did a good job of that.  A few of the
already mentioned clockwork beats aside, this was a small, solid little
episode of television.

Where
it seems like I differ from the rest of the crew though is
Nucky.  From my perspective, everything they did to make him
seem like a ruthless big shot only served to make him seem unbearably
small-time.  He’s a guy who’s amassed his wealth and his (now
seemingly) inflated sense of ego by being able to work a room and
manipulate the less intelligent.  The man’s not a gangster at
all – he’s a politician.  He’s got the town of Atlantic City
under his thumb, sure, but everything about Episode 2 showed me a Nucky
Thompson who’s found himself in way over his head – and he knows it.

Rothstein,
Capone, Van Alden, hell, even Jimmy to a degree – all of these people
feel like threats.  Their menace and instabilities are
palpable.  But when Thompson gambles away Jimmy’s money right
in front of him it makes Nucky look childish – he’s a man throwing a
temper tantrum.  When he tells Rothstein that he’d better not
show his face again in Atlantic City I didn’t believe it – it was
awkward and it felt like a man do everything in his power to keep his
composure and save face.  It’s too soon (for me, at least) to
know if this is deliberate or not, but if it isn’t they need to rein
that shit in quick.

NICK
NUNZIATA: Color me surprised. As beautiful and classy as the first
episode was, I liked this one more. The first one felt like a
miniseries, which is cool but tough to maintain but this one felt like a
television show. A good one, like the last one Mr. Van Patten worked
on. It’s less cinematic, but it gives me warm feelings about the show’s
future because while no one holds a candle to Scorsese, this felt like
part of the same world and delivered a nice continuation of the story
without the two feeling like much different animals. I see it as a long
series now, which warms me.


I
loved the ‘Cain and Abel’ comment and the KKK recruitment spiel. I love
that if you close your eyes Michael Shannon is doing Steven Wright’s
voice. I love Shea Whigham’s gentle coercing of Margaret [my least
favorite component of the show].  I love the Commodore’s way of
teaching Nucky about the woman’s vote.


I
think Buscemi feels more genuine this episode. He’s not using profanity
as a blunt instrument as much and it’s good because it’s one area where
the actor isn’t as compelling. Think Ronny Cox in
Total Recall.

The
best character in the show thus far is Arnold Rothstein and seeing
Michael Stuhlbarg here as this quietly menacing killer contrasting with
his work in A Serious Man blows my mind. He’s incredible and does so
much with very little, which would have been even more effective had
Vincent Piazza’s Lucky Luciano been competent. Sadly, the character is
played with one dimension and it hurts the overall impact of a very
solid adversarial relationship.


Though
see seems young for the role of Jimmy mother, Gretchen is a MOLF. I
love the way her character’s introduction played out and wished I hadn’t
read coverage explaining that she was Jimmy’s mother. She’s a nice
asset for the show, because though Jimmy is shaping up to be quite an
interesting character, the more time spent away from his home life the
better.


Great dialogue, much better pacing, and a general feel that the fun’s just beginning has me very excited for Boardwalk Empire.

Also, I hope a future episode features a saddened telephone operator still reeling from being told to jump in a fucking lake.

RENN
BROWN: I realize the (semi) detractors aren’t really dismissing the
show, but it’s a shame to see enthusiasm seemingly cool so quickly once
the bombast of the first episode has passed. Van Patten does slide
Boardwalk
into the more traditional HBO-style pace and mood, but as Nick pointed
out, that’s what’s going to make the show sustainable as a long-form
drama. We’re getting meatier scenes from these characters and the
beginnings of the slow-burn tension that this kind of show can exploit
so effectively. Nucky is heading towards a very interesting place, and I
don’t see how he’s been diminished with the revelation that he is
systematically soaking Atlantic City for all it’s worth, and under the
radar to boot. And perhaps tossing away the three grand an insubordinate
underling bent over backwards to scrape together is childish, but
ultimately all gangsters are children, acting on their base impulses
with an additional willingness to be violent and fuck others. The wager
was also a clear signal though, one that demonstrated to Jimmy exactly
what level of playing field he was trying to barge into. Thompson is
going to be a different kind of gangster than we’ve seen before I think,
but I doubt he’ll hesitate to maintain his position at any cost.


In
any event, beyond just watching Thompson finally have to defend his
empire with blood-spilling, I’m excited to watch a network of mobsters
and feds battle it out in an age before electronic bugging, DNA
evidence, telephone logs, and credit card records–a time when taking a
photograph was an event, and sure to be noticed. I suspect we’ll get to
witness an audacity, a purity to the criminal activity that hasn’t been
cataloged on screen as much as the modern, surveillance-laden mobster
life. Two episodes in and I current be happier with
Boardwalk Empire –unless they were able to add an extra hour each week. 

JOSHUA MILLER: Fear not, my enthusiasm for the series itself has not cooled. Even if the show never gets better than this, Boardwalk will still be one of the best dramas on TV currently (though one I like less than Breaking Bad or Mad Men).
But my enthusiasm for this specific episode was indeed lower than the
pilot. I think partially what contributed to my reaction was all the
reviews I’d read stating that the show really kicked into gear in the
2nd and 3rd episodes (a reaction Nick seems to share). But nothing felt
“kicked” here. Settled into gear, yes, but no kicking. Not for me at
least. I remain optimistic though that the series will rise above a just
a collection of awesome character moments and gangster cliches (as
Rappe notes), and that episode 2 was simply a reboot of narrative
energy, coming after the hefty pilot.


Also,
Nick reminded me of that Dabney Coleman scene, which was sublime.
Coleman’s tantrum-esque way of ringing that bell gave miles of
information about the character of the Commodore right there – entitled,
ornery, yet with the patience only age can bring.


ELISABETH 
RAPPE:  I’d argue my enthusiasm hasn’t cooled. I’m still eager
to see what happens next.  I just hope they don’t go down some
obvious paths with the characters. It’s true that we got some meatier
scenes, but I wouldn’t call “self-educated maid” and “repressed
government agent” the most innovative character work I’d seen. 
I’m trusting the actors to actually do more with their characters than
the writers at this point — if anyone but Michael Shannon was playing
Nelson, would you be clamoring for more? Just something to nitpick….


And with that I’m done!

JEREMY
G. BUTLER: I’ll continue the “still enthusiastic” sentiments – as I
said, there’s a nice simmer here and, two episodes in, that’s exactly
where we should be.  I still stand by my thoughts on who Nucky
seems to be turning out to be, but I’ll be the first to say that it’s an
interesting direction for the character.  If this is something
that’s being done deliberately then everybody involved is handling it
wonderfully – especially Buscemi – who I thought sold those trace
amounts of vulnerability wonderfully.

But yeah – next Sunday can’t get here soon enough.

NICK
NUNZIATA: I’m loving it. I can’t wait to see smaller characters grow to
further allow Buscemi to not have to carry the show. It’s best as an
ensemble, and all of the groundwork is being laid out for that ensemble
to flourish. Plus, Al Capone’s little moments here are worth their
weight in gold. The big moments are working, and the little moments are
working, and the best yet:


This show is nothing how I imagined it’d be and I’m loving it even more than I thought.


What do you think of the second episode? Let us know on the CHUD Message Boards.