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 3: Broadway Limited

“What’s ‘motherfucker’ mean…?”

Renn Brown: Another episode from Tim Van Patten (though the first not written by Terrence Winter), and once again this feels paced more like a show deep into its run, rather than one still introducing (what one assumes will be) fairly large characters. The show is delivering the things I want from it though; bigger moments like Agent Van Alden really busting out his right hand of God-inspired ruthlessness, striking imagery like the haunting figure of Chalky’s lynched lackey, and those smaller character scenes like Lucy delighting in rubbing her figure almost literally in the face of Margaret, her perceived rival.

There are a few frustrations brewing though. While Nucky tracking mud into his palace was a nice cap to the episode, this is the first time I felt the main character was shortchanged. I won’t mind Nucky taking a backseat in certain episodes as the show juggles such a large stable of compelling characters, but I need more time with him at the start before that happens. None of the scenes I immediately recall from this episode involve Nucky in anything more than a passive witness role. Also, while Michael Stuhlbarg continues to amaze with his ability to turn a little into a lot, I need Rothstein to break out of the “one menacing scene per episode” routine but quick.

Goddamn I love this show, though. We’re going to have so much fun learning about these people, and playing around in such an under-exploited era of American history.

Elisabeth Rappe:  I have to start with a completely shallow observation — man, do I ever feel underdressed on Sunday nights! Between Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men, I feel like a grade-A slob sitting there in jeans and a tshirt. I feel like I should be completely decked out in layers, pearls, and heels.  It all started with the vacuum cleaner and was downhill from there….

Boardwalk Empire is starting to feel like a game of turn-the-screw.  If you really think about it, not that much has gone on in these three episodes, and yet you can feel the stakes getting higher and higher. Nucky’s muddy footprints were a nice (if obvious — but hey, that might be the best kind) bit of symbolism as to where his new career in bootlegging is going to take him.  As Renn said, I think he was slightly shortchanged in this episode, but I think the expression on his face said enough for an hour.  He already looks a little weary, as if he just wants to go back to the days of payoffs and meaty government gigs.  This is a new world, and while guys like Lucky Luciano are taking to it like ducks, I’m not so sure Nucky likes where it’s going or what it means.

But I may just be romanticizing him due to his soft spot for charity cases.

The Madonna / whore dichotomy continues to rear its head — silently, in the scene between Nucky and Lucy when she asked if he wanted a baby (I could see the spectre not only of his wife, but of dear Margaret Schroeder) and then in the dressing room scene.   Lucy is right. Margaret IS a rival.  I’m not sure she’s aware of it — she may be a well-read parlor maid, but this world of kept women and kinky lingerie was something she was only dimly aware of.  I felt so bad for her, and for the real Kelly MacDonald. There’s moments as an actor or actress when your pay would be dearly earned, and this had to be one of those days.

One thing I love about gangster stories is how easily you fall for the criminals.  I was really rooting for Eli Thompson to smother that guy, and there’s no way I want the terrifying van Alden to win this war.  Give me Nucky and his bootleggers any day over a Bible-thumping are-these-your-intestines federal agent. On the other hand, if Jimmy gets whacked, I’m not sure I’ll care.

And speaking of Jimmy — do we want to place bets that he’s actually Nucky’s son and only Gillian knows the truth?

Jeremy Butler: I promise I’m not trying to be a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian, but I’m losing steam with this no matter how much I want to love it (which is a lot).  One flat episode is fine, expected even, especially when it’s a follow up to such an electric opening, but two in a row?  I dunno…

With the exception of any scene involving Chalky (“What does ‘motherfucker’ mean?” –I giggled) and the dressing room scene (and not for obvious reasons) and a few other bits here and there, a lot here felt wrong.  I agree with Renn that we needed more Nucky, but I also agree that we should spend time with our other major players.  But the time spent could have been used to much better effect.  In my mind the biggest fumble was Van Alden.  That character works so much better when he’s a quiet menace – when you can see an entire metric fuckton of crazy just beneath the surface.  But, and I’m not entirely sure who to blame for this one, it doesn’t work quite as well when it’s ON the surface.  I don’t want to be premature and say it undermined the character, but it made him feel a bit more like a caricature, which certainly didn’t help matters.  And did we need an entire scene devoted to Luciano’s erectile dysfunction – especially when the payoff was so predictable that it was telegraphed from the very moment it started (although, that said – the treatment portion of that scene was painful to watch, so I’ll give them all credit for that)?  These things just didn’t work for me.

Jimmy, however, I’m still on board with.  Pitt is working gangbusters (heh) in this and he’s fast becoming my favorite part of the show (apart from Nucky).  I kept finding myself wondering if Jimmy understood the scope of what he had done and the repercussions it had and after last night you get the impression that it’s finally starting to sink in. There was a lot of good in his farewell scenes with Nucky (that “How do I be President” monologue was aces) and his wife, but not a lot of great.

That’s actually true of the entire episode – a few moments of great here and there, a few more moments of good, but overall it was a pretty middling effort.  That said though, I like the possibilities that Jimmy’s going to Chicago opens up, so I’m still on board and have a positive outlook on where we’re going.

And to address Elisabeth’s question – yeah, I definitely got the impression that Thompson was Jimmy’s Dear Old Dad, but if they go that route (and I kind of hope they don’t) it’s something that should probably be revealed early so that we can see the drama that it creates unfold over the course of the season, as opposed to a Big Revelatory Moment in the last few episodes.

Also – and this is kind of tangential, I’m missing Marty’s direction.  The way he shot Atlantic City gave a life to it that only Marty can give – to the point where buildings and places felt like characters themselves.  Say what you will about shots of Nucky peering into storefront windows, but part of the electricity of the pilot was the living, breathing element of the city.  We need more of that.

Nick Nunziata: This was definitely a connector episode, and the least effective one so far. Part of the problem is that it was so inwardly focused with the stuff regarding Margaret’s new gig and the creepy and surprisingly unsexy moments and machinations of Paz de la Huerta’s Lucy Danziger that the best aspects of the show were given the short shrift. A lot of very expected moments in here, from Jimmy’s rage at the photographer to the “who’s Jimmy’s daddy?” thread during the C.G.M.S. (Customary Gretchen Mol Scene), but nothing that really made an impact. The absence of Dabney Coleman’s Commodore also was felt.

The best stuff involved crime.

This is a crime show after all, and when Nucky’s digging himself into a deeper hole or running the bootlegging empire (the great little moments with Michael K. Williams helped) is what makes it click. This episode didn’t click. Worse yet, it didn’t feel visionary.

And the mystery about Jimmy’s involvement with the woodland holdup was a big letdown. Between the emergence of the man who survived and his confession in the dentist’s office simply happened too quickly to justify the subplot. The balancing of subplots on a show like this is vital and this episode lacked the grace it needed. Here’s hoping this is a bump in the road. Too many potentially great things on the horizon.

That said, Ignatius and Pius D’Allessio could make for really cool adversaries. They’re creepy as hell.

Renn Brown: It would be a lie to say this episode had me on the edge of my seat, but as I mentioned above, it simply feels like a show that skipped past the first season pacing and went straight for the more subdued presentation of a show that knows well where it’s going. Unfortunately, they struck this tone very quickly while there is still a ton of set-up going on and before we’ve dug deep enough with these people to enjoy really meaty character work. The episode was indeed scatterbrained, but has yet to let up in terms of classy, sophisticated filmmaking and top-notch acting. I have a feeling that the pay-off on these slow-burn plots (which have only been burning three episodes!) are going to explode into classic television.

We can look back at Deadwood, The Sopranos, The Wire, and see the big picture and remember our cumulative emotional attachment, even applying that when we rewatch them now. But with a new show, with this much expectation, we have to remember to take it episode by episode and chew on the density of the material rather than the flashiness of it. That depth is already there, we just need a better footing from which to enjoy it. The show still needs to give us that footing.

Elisabeth Rappe: This episode was definitely a slow burner. I think there’s a temptation among the writers and directors to spend a little too much time setting up this era. A ton of this episode felt like it was some kind of DVD extra on the medical practices of the 1920s — Lucky Luciano being treated for his STD, the extended scene in the dentists office, even the idea of two agents dumping a patient into the back of their car without thinking of blood loss or infection. I always appreciate little details, but there seemed to be too much of a wink to how barbaric the modern audience would find it.  Same with the stuff about the vacuum and the “motherfucker” line. They want to immerse you, but they also want to loudly call your attention to the details, and that’s annoying.

Overall, I did like the episode though. I really think it’s going to lead to some major payoffs with the characters and the plot, but there’s definitely room for improvement, and it could use a little snap for this “mid-arc” moments.

Jeremy Butler: I haven’t given up hope just yet – I feel like once Jimmy gets to Chicago all Hell is going to break loose and that the last half of this season is going to be so explosive as to make us forget the qualms we’ve had with these first few episodes.  The “Next Week On…” segment certainly helped to fuel that sentiment.  This wasn’t a BAD episode, per se, but I think it’s fair to say that we definitely need to go up from here.

Nick Nunziata: I have no fears for the future and feel that when it’s all said and done this is going to be a glorious season, but this episode is the first in which I felt ahead of the story at every turn and wasn’t able to enjoy the dialogue or action on its own. It’s a misstep but nothing to be troubled about. I look forward to more Nucky, more scheming, and for Jimmy’s arrival in Chicago to have dividends and less time spent with the minutiae about lesser characters.