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!

Previous Episodes:
PilotThe Ivory TowerBroadway Limited
AnastasiaNights in BallygranFamily Limitations
Hold Me In ParadiseBelle FemmeThe Emerald City
Paris Green


Episode 12: “A Return To Normalcy”

“There are consequences to what you do that you can’t buy out of with money.”

Renn Brown: We are at the end of the first season of Boardwalk Empire, and though we have the happy promise of a second run, this final episode brought many of its strands to more of a close than one might have expected.. I’ve been saying that the first season would be stage-setting and most characters would find themselves not at the end of arcs, but at the beginnings of them- exiting on a newly reunited and strengthened Nucky/Margaret coupling seems to confirm this. There is a similarly quiet sort of close to many of the strands, even if they are obviously at a place ripe for more exploitation. Rothstein and Nucky sorted out their differences with cash and favors, rather than blood and war. Capone’s become a man, or is sure trying to act like one. The republicans have won, with Nucky’s pawns all back in place (though not all are showing their true colors). All of these things speak to mature storytelling that brings a character to a new plateau, a satisfying stopping-point, without closing off the character for good. That said, the triumvirate of the Commodore, Eli, and Jimmy makes it clear that Boardwalk has big plans and will make Nucky’s most dangerous enemies the ones closest to him. This is a dynamic that has served some of the best long-form dramas well. How will Jimmy respond to the Commodore’s plot remains to be seen… will he toss in with flesh-and-blood, or eventually see the kindness and caring in Nucky that his mother speaks of? Many questions left yet answered…

What I’m curious to see is if any of the others feel like these plot-strands were wrapped up too nicely. Did the show blow all off it’s Rothstein/Thompson tension by shifting it to a delicate partnership? Has Van Alden been wasted with so much sideline conflict, or is he just that more well-set-up to be a threat next season?

What say you, CHUD staff?

Nick Nunziata: The Rothstein issue was handled aptly, first due to tangential historical authenticity and because the only way the show has a life is if the big adversaries are able to be at bay for stretches of time. Rothstein and his cronies are much bigger fish than Nucky and who wants a show where the protagonist gets squashed? The D’Allessio’s ended up being disposed of rather quickly, which is a shame because they had a lot of character but I understand the need to keep things moving forward. I liked seeing Capone again in his newly mature incarnation but was disappointed he and Jimmy didn’t get a moment together. There was a nice friendship/antagonism there and to not even give them a moment felt like a sin of omission.

I think the Van Alden thing was a big misstep. With the way he ended the previous episode, I expected him to be off his gourd. Instead, even though there were dozens of witnesses, he’s spinning a tale of a heart attack and completely in charge of his destiny. Then there’s the whole “sign from God” element conveniently tied to the completely expected and sappy new curveball about him having an illegitimate child. Yawn.

I liked the episode for what it was but can’t help feeling the balance of what was rushed and what was tied together was poor. This seemed like they had to go down a checklist of things to cross off looking towards the next season.

Joshua Miller: This episode was a mixed bag for me. Overall I had been hoping for more fireworks, yet I cannot say I was necessarily disappointed with what we were given here. Considering what a tease the Rothstein non-showdown ultimately proved to be, I kind of dug it. It felt genuine. Tony Soprano was a violent volcano of a man, so you knew things were going to get explosive with him one way or another – he was an animal masquerading as a civil being. And though Nucky has fessed up to being a murderer (by decree), he is still just a businessman at heart. This played right. There was a quiet sophistication to how things were settled here. Which made the quickie Mobster-101 whacking montage that did away with the D’Allessio Bros disappointing indeed. Definitely with you on that front, Nick. Although Tim Van Patten’s direction of the sequence had an episode highlight – that great close-up of Jimmy putting away his bloody ankle-knife after slittin’ some throat. But despite the Rothstein resolution feeling “right” it was still a bit of an emotional letdown. That said, I am happy there will be more in the future.

“How can you do what you do?”
“We all must decide how much sin we can live with.”

And Margaret finally made that decision. I really liked where things ended up going with Margaret and Nucky too. They managed to make her official transition to the darkside feel almost touching, which I was not expecting. I was also not expecting that conversation between Jimmy and Angela, where Jimmy bares his damaged soul. I like how unpredictable Jimmy is as a character. I believe it was Renn who said in a previous tag team that he is always violent when he should be calm and visa versa. On The Sopranos you always knew Christopher was going to fuck something up somehow. Cause he was a fuck up. He was predictable. Despite what Jimmy did in the pilot, and things we have said about him previously, he isn’t a Fuck Up Character. I like that I really don’t know what Jimmy will do with the Commodore and Eli next season. He is an enigma. 

Then there is Van Alden. Ugh. Ugh, I say to the Van Alden storyline! A heart attack? Fuck off. Boardwalk Empire is better than that. I frankly found that a bit insulting. That pregnancy is a real turd of a twist too. Van Alden is more dangerous to the series itself than he is to Nucky. His presence – as great an actor as Michael Shannon is otherwise – is holding the show back. I really do not know that it can ever rise above a B+ with him around. Looking back at his arc for the season, it was unimaginative and distracting and at times downright hacky. And following up the shark-jumping moment of murdering his partner with absolutely nothing in this finale certainly shows that there was no method to the writers’ madness regarding the character.

Elisabeth Rappe: It was a much quieter finale than I expected.  The stakes had gotten high enough that I expected the show to close in a hail of bullets and gang warfare and instead it was handshakes, ocean views, and whispers. Which, if you remember your Goodfellas, ends up being more menacing than the open threats.

Once again, I really, really REALLY have to applaud Boardwalk for writing such brilliant and complicated female characters.  They are all faced with such a heartbreaking reality, and they’re all trying to make the best of it. Margaret with her bit of rag, whose trembling chin said “My kids won’t go hungry, I know what I can live with.” (Helped, no doubt, by seeing the delusion of Harding’s baby mama believing in her stupid tin ring.) Angela, who had to put away hopes, grit her teeth, and symbolized becoming a New Woman in the most recognizable 1920s way. And Gillian, who is weaving webs that I can’t even begin to see, but I’m pretty sure is deceiving everyone.  Even the maid — allegedly the poisoner — had her own moment of triumph, and I have no doubt something in that Bible will speak more to Nucky than it does Van Alden.

And yeah, I screamed at the TV when Van Alden appeared with that tall tale. What the hell?!  There were witnesses.  Even if the federal agents don’t believe black witnesses (and it’s plausible they wouldn’t), the crude pathology of the time would disprove a heart attack.  This is just bizarre.  I’m beginning to think this is the whole point of Van Alden — that he, not the jangly entertainment of Atlantic City, is the circus sideshow and Nucky’s real threats are from within.  But that’s introducing a level of unreality that really clashes with the show.   Why do we need this kooky character running around on the sidelines? I can’t see how he is going to effectively threaten Nucky, ever. He’s too wrapped up in his madness.

And Jimmy. Goddamn Jimmy.  So we find out the chip on his shoulder — after being fed, cared for offered a college education, seen his wife and child provided for — his big bitch is that dad(dies) never said they loved him. You know, that didn’t hold Nucky back and he’s in the Ritz Carlton. Jimmy might want to borrow a page from that … except oh no, not that, because Nucky’s done him so wrong. Lame. I loathe this guy. I can understand Gillian’s vendetta, but not Jimmy’s.

I told you not to shortchange Eli, though.  Didn’t I say he’d be useful to the right villain who wanted to pick him up?

Renn Brown: Yeah, but it sure looks to me like Nucky’s gift at gauging the value of any particular person, and predicting the return off of his kindness, mercy, or wrath is going to ultimately put him out ahead of whatever clumsy bullshit Eli contributes to the Legion of Hyper-Sensitive Gentleman. The brains of that little trifecta are definitely going to be the Commodore and Jimmy, but damned if they’re not all whiny bastards- the lot of them. Jimmy for the reasons Elisabeth mentions, naturally. Eli though, gets into an argument with Nucky, calls him out on deeply personal mistakes, and expects Nucky to not react? Ignore the fact that Nucky ends up putting him back in his position after protecting him from the whims of the voter, with extra cash to boot. I understand his point about Nucky buying his way out of everything, but Eli has no horse to ride on, much less a high one. The Commodore is just as bad- bitching about Nucky not getting him started again once he got out of prison, literally surrounded by the opulent wealth I have no doubt the treasurer had part in helping him obtain. Nucky, Eli, the Commodore… they’re all riddled with pride and petty grudges. Ultimately it will be Thompson’s ability to maturely set aside the grudges, or at least shrewdly profit from them, that sets him apart. For all his manipulative foresight though, a willingness to lay out a simple, genuine apology would go far.

On a separate note, I find it funny that Buscemi is on the happy end of a “taking a jail sentence for the team” arrangement, considering he was on the shittier end of the same kind of deal in The Sopranos. And speaking of which- Joshua, I disagree a little bit about the distinction made between that show and Boardwalk Empire. The Sopranos defaulted to a “return to normalcy” conclusion from time to time, and had a tradition of building up violent tension, promising war, and then having Soprano shrewdly deal his way out of it, even pridelessly apologizing to avoid costly conflict. While my encyclopedic recall is a little rusty, I think it’s safe to say many of his dealings with NY ended in just that way. Boardwalk took a pretty traditional, homage-filled path to wrap up its first season plot, including the requisite montage of murder, inter-cut with a powerful scene of ceremony (or in this case, speechifying). Instead of a christening we have a master stroke political move, and instead of the heads of the other families, we have the D’Allessio douches getting wacked. And as characteristically brutal as Harrow’s hit was, and as loaded as Jimmy’s knife sheathing was, I just LOVED Capone’s little contribution to that sequence.

I agree with Elisabeth that Margaret was handled well, with her motives being subtly but powerfully laid out. What remains to be seen is if her “I’ll never go hungry again” move is more for her children, or for her own satisfying lifestyle. I think Kelly MacDonald did her character a big favor by playing Nucky’s confession scene so well- she was moved, but not so drawn in by the emotions of the moment that she ignored reality. I never thought she wouldn’t end up at Nucky’s side, but the finality with which she left that room was enough to make me wonder if she really would be gone for awhile.

Finally I want acknowledge the understandable complaints levied at Van Alden’s story. I’ve enjoyed the character and still do, but I’d agree that they needed to take him at least one step further to reach a satisfactory stopping point. I’m a little baffled why the death he causes is interpreted to be so impossible to cover up, considering the dozen other murders we’ve witnessed and promptly ignored. He’s a federal agent who gets the benefit of the doubt, and there’s no reason to think Van Alden’s word wouldn’t settle the matter (considering Sebso himself was exonerated off of a much more suspect story).

The pregnancy angle doesn’t really excite me, but it’s a better way of keeping Lucy around than having her play stool pigeon (I wouldn’t believe for a second that Nucky let her be witness to anything of importance). It’s definitely a development that I hope bears interesting fruit, or it is going to be a wash. More than anything, I wanted a sign of my own- a sign that Van Alden would be after Nucky again. Van Alden is a character that interests me independently, but to be a part of this show he needs to get wrapped up in the action again. It’s definitely been too long.

Elisabeth Rappe: Renn, You make a good distinction between the Sad Sack Club and Nucky. I don’t think it’s an accident that the writers have laid Nucky’s pain bare in so many episodes, and shown him to be a man who used it to fire his success. Nucky is a stronger man because of the hell he’s been through. Or it might be more accurate to say that it’s NOT a weakness. He burned down his childhood home and that was that.

I’m even more curious as to what role Gillian is going to play in the losers club. She seems to know of it but I think complacency might be a cool cover for what side she will join. Shes never going to betray Jimmy, but I have a hard time believing she resents Nucky more than the Commodore. Frankly she doesn’t seem to have a chip on her shoulder at all. But if Boardwalk Empire has underlined one historical point again and again, it’s that women don’t have that luxury.

Joshua Miller: Renn… I wasn’t bothered by the relative realism – one way or the other – regarding Van Alden’s cover-up of Sebso’s murder, so much as I was bothered by the way the show jettisoned the momentum of the murder itself; a plot-point I was not a huge fan of to begin with. The fact that there was zero tension, even from Van Alden’s superior, regarding what happened, merely served as shitty icing on an otherwise shitty cake. I disagree that it is comparably plausible that Van Alden could cover-up Sebso’s murder as fluidly as the other cover-ups we’ve seen, considering the witnesses and general illogicality of Sebso’s heart attack, but that is moot. If Van Alden’s story had gone in a more interesting direction here, I easily could have overlooked that with only a passing “isn’t that convenient” comment. Our complaints aren’t stemming from a plausibility nitpick, but a disregard for story engagement. At least mine aren’t.

Though what you say about The Sopranos is true. I was not meaning to draw quite the line between Tony and Nukcy as I apparently did. What I was trying to convey was that on the Sopranos I was often disappointed when things would end in talking, versus bloodshed, because I was emotionally connected to Tony (horrible monster that he was), and he always seemed like a trained bear when he had to deal with things quietly – his intellect and leadership skills in a constant struggle with his base instincts to just throttle those who angered or crossed him. With Nucky it felt like less of a biting-his-tongue moment to make peace with Rothstein- if that makes any more sense.

Elisabeth Rappe: I’m going to make a plausibility AND a character nitpick with Van Alden. I think the sheer scenario that was set up — Van Alden repeatedly returning to the scene of baptism — begs you to say “There’s just no way!” Poor Sebso even took his shoes off (a moment of underlined dialogue, no less!) so the show set up a lot of loopholes to shrug off so glibly. I think if, as Joshua pointed out, there had been some blowback or tension from his superior I could have accepted all those gaps in police procedure. Then again, I guess we are meant to believe they don’t draw good connections with evidence if Sebso’s “he had to pee and then I shot him!” tale was swallowed so readily. But even then…it’s Van Alden! He’s ALREADY a problem child for the Feds so it would be a major red flag.

Renn Brown: I can tell it’s my own willingness to accept Sebso’s murder as a symbol/important event for Van Alden, rather than a full plotline that is creating the disconnect. It doesn’t really ring falsely to me that Van Alden can come back from the woods with a dead body and a story and it be accepted. They don’t have a CSI crew to send out there, they’re not going to canvass for any random Baptismal prayer groups that might have been witnesses, and it’s unlikely they’d be autopsying the body. I should never have to develop the show’s logic for it of course, but it didn’t create a logical speed-bump for me personally. Again though, I wish they had taken one more step with the character- I can see Sebso’s murder haunting him eventually, Lucy is obviously an immediate issue, but I wanted them so badly to circle him around to the main story.

I’m very intrigued by where they are going to take Jimmy and Angela’s story, especially with how quickly they tend to turn relationships upside down (though I feel like that may calm down a bit next season). When Angela showed up with that haircut, I physically winced and vocally groaned. That doo is a stone-cold dismissal of Jimmy and his feelings for her, and as much as Elisabeth has come to hate Jimmy, I feel similarly hateful towards Angela. I thought we might see at least a brief period of an earnest attempt at the relationship, but apparently one shitty, manipulative postcard is enough to set her off and make such a nasty statement to someone to whom she’d just promised a genuine attempt at a fresh start. Ouch. My interpretation could be way off, but I can’t help but think she knew exactly how much Jimmy’s face would fall when he saw all of that beautiful hair gone.

To wrap it up… things I want to (and feel the show needs to) see more of next season:

More bootlegging- I don’t need every episode to give me a history lesson, but the presence of the alcohol needs to be increased dramatically. We’re going to miss out on a wonderful opportunity if we don’t get to see some of the more ground-level details of building the illicit-alcohol infrastructure. I think we’re still a ways out from the glory days of Prohibition mob activity, but when that strikes, we need to see what’s behind it all.

Van Alden squared off with Nucky again- thoroughly explained in our discussion, but suffice to say Van Alden’s got to get back into the center of the storm. I understand skipping over busting that whiskey-still, but that would have been a good way of making him feel like a threat again, plus making the department’s goodwill towards him more vividly believable. Also, keep him crazy. I love the over dramatic slap he gave that officer- that sort of unhinged behavior keeps him interesting, and lets the show flirt with the unexpected, the fantastic and the bizarre (which most of these brilliant shows have managed to do through dream imagery, or supernatural touches, etc).

Keep up the pace where it counts- I’m find with Margaret and Nucky leveling out to some degree, but I’ve loved the show’s pace and tendency to flip plot-threads on themselves very quickly. It’s indicative of a wealth of material, and an understanding of where these characters are going to go. The second season should keep up that pattern.

Continue building up a core- There’s never going to be a full family unit for us to fall back on in Boardwalk Empire, but if we can really understand more of these characters and become convinced of what their ultimate motivations are, and where their strongest allegiances lie, then we’ll have a better foundation for a long-term series, and nice grounding from which surprises and shocks will be more potent.

Rothstein- exploit this character. Please. In such a small amount of screentime he has become an exceptionally captivating villain/uneasy partner. With such a wide web to weave, I know there’s little chance of the show over-doing him, so again I say: use him.

Finally, don’t forget what we came for- Buscemi, the mob, bootlegging, Chalky… don’t forget to keep the fun elements front and center, and in clear focus. Tangents and depth are amazing, but the gravity that keeps everything revolving together must be the fun elements that brought us into orbit from the very beginning.

This 12 hour narrative of Boardwalk Empire, while not out-of-the-gate perfect, is a strong contender for the most well produced and exceptionally constructed piece of filmmaking this year, in any medium. I haven’t consistently looked forward to a night of television so eagerly for a very long time, and I can’t wait to see where the show goes. There’s a level of quality and confidence that’s already been achieved that has taken even some of HBO’s landmark shows a good bit longer to find. I hope it keeps trending upwards.

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