Boardwalk Empireis back, and so are we! Returning for season 2 of HBO’s Atlantic City spectacle, a new batch of the CHUD’s brightest will recap each episode with our reactions, thoughts, and expectations for what is ahead. Join us each week as we follow the most opulent show on TV…
So why did I dig it anyway? Because the characters it did focus on in Nucky, Margaret, Chalky and Jimmy happen to be the strongest played by the strongest performers on the show, and we got an all-too rare taste of Stuhlbarg’s Arnold Rothstein to boot. And of course the production design and cinematography were still absolutely stellar in the way that has become a matter of course, so even if Jimmy’s action hero swagger struck a wrong note with the tone of the show, it was shot magnificently. I doubt I will remember this as a highlight episode of Boardwallk‘s run in the future (although Chalky’s bit will surely stand out), but then this is a show that is polished and engaging even on it’s “off” weeks. And the show doesn’t get much credit for that; critics of the professional and armchair variety are much more likely to talk about how the show is notconsistently transcendent than how impressive it is to make a show this big and have every episode come off as a solid “B” or better.
And I get why that is. This show has a pedigree that nothing in the history of the medium can match. It has the shadows of Scorcesse, The Sopranos, and the HBO brand all looming over it, a colossal budget and an epic scope that can be very hard to live up to week in and week out. It’s the Yankees of scripted television. It usually takes a little bit of scrappiness to inspire really fervent devotion, and of the many descriptors you can apply to this show, “scrappy” just isn’t one of them.
Which is to say that this episode struck me the way the series as a whole seems to strike many. “Merely” very good, which can still be vaguely frustrating when a show with every advantage doesn’t seem to be making full use of them at all times.
Best Moment of the Episode: Everybody’s probably going to go with Chalky handing out a beat down without standing up, but I’m going to go with Nucky’s muted, painful phone call with his brother. Buscemi proving once again that he’s more than just a pretty face.
Where Does It Go: Like I mentioned, I feel like we spent the whole episode focusing on Nucky’s emotional reaction to the coup attempt (he doesn’t like it, being gist), without getting any idea how he intends to fight back. I imagine Capone will show up to deliver some more bad news next week, and things with the Klan will only get messier once Chalky is out of jail.
I hope they don’t “pull a Furio” with the Irish guy, since I don’t really buy that Margaret is the type to step out, even if she knows Nucky is doing his own dallying with the showgirls. Her affair with Nucky was motivated by the security and position he could provide more than carnal or romantic longing, so they have some work to do to convince me that she would jeopardize the former for a little brief touch of the latter.
As painful as the phone call was, I still think Nucky will eventually take Eli, and Jimmy for that matter, back into the fold once he is on top again. Although I can see him making them bleed for the privilege. The Commodore, though, he’s toast, and although Coleman is good in the role, it can’t happen soon enough.
It will be interesting next week to see if I can take Uncle Junior seriously in any non-Sopranos context. Those mutton chops aren’t going to make things any easier. They will, however, make them more awesome.
Renn Brown: Episode two of Boardwalk Empire was the rare episode that allowed itself to be driven by an imperative to pull of two full arcs with characters, Nucky and Chalky, that start off the episode in the same place, a jail cell. The cinematic sophistication of the show is sharply demonstrated by how well the two primary narratives are both told despite being so different in nature. While Nucky, per usual, wheels and deals around town and across two different offices as he gets his shit back together post-arrest, an equally (or perhaps more) compelling story was told in the confines of the aforementioned jail cell. But even beyond that we spend time in New York and get our first scene with Rothstein of the season (with Stuhlbarg being as excellent as ever) and some killer violence with Jimmy. Margaret took the kind of shrewd action of self-preservation that we’ve seen coming from her. In fact, the show simultaneously solidifies her deep investment with Nucky while foreshadowing possible dalliance.
Mike Flynn: Whereas last week felt like a strong prologue, this week was fattier and seems to drag its feet for the sake of letting something grander make its impact in a later episode. There’s also a few new characters that created an unnecessary enigma, and I sadly can’t really endorse this episode.
Don’t get me wrong, we get some wonderful performances from Buscemi and company this week, and he continues to redefine Nucky Thompson as not a Capone or Tony Soprano-esque figure, but a crime boss who’s shrewd and has a refreshing nobility and class. Succinct to say, Leone would be happy to know the spirit of Once Upon a Time in America is living on.
This week also continued to provide us with more Chalky as he brooded in his jail cell and, luckily, the welcome return of Michael Stuhlbarg as Rothstein, who’s as wily and intimidating as ever. However, the focus on internal character development is what befalls the episode, and I’m heartbroken to say that this was a tedious episode for me to get through: not because of aesthetic or writing-related issues, but the fact that while it is important to advance the characters, it does so by leaving a large number of equally interesting characters on the chopping block. Furthermore, the episode felt stretched out and never-ending, and unusually so.
All in all, let’s hope it is what it is: a warmup.
The Episode’s Best Moment: I find infinite amusement in the fact that the Commodore is dying his hair and mustache. Instead of a well-disguised Dabney Coleman, he’s now Dabney Coleman as well all know and love him!
Where Does It Go: Hopefully, we’ll be getting some definitive fightin’ words from Nucky and Chalky. And I can’t be the only one getting antsy about William Forsythe’s debut on the show.
MMorse: I enjoyed the slower, talkier pace of “Ourselves, Alone,” enough that it wasn’t ‘til I started writing that I realized Van Alden, Two-Face, and a number of other characters weren’t present at all in this episode. When you have this many characters fighting for screen time it’s difficult to compellingly advance all their stories in the space of an hour. Boardwalk wisely doesn’t try.
Sinn Fein’s appearance here gives the episode its title, and the mistranslation of the group’s name serves to summarize the state of the episode’s characters, all of whom are arguably alone in one way or another as they work to improve their circumstances. It’s not an accident that “David Copperfield” features so prominently in Chalky’s scenes. Copperfield is a novel of social inequality and “self-cultivation,” a portrait of one man’s self-actualization in an episode titled after Sinn Fein’s idea that men must help themselves. “Ourselves, alone” offers up several such portraits. In a sense, we’re watching several different David Copperfields here, and this is all-but-underlined by the way the book’s illustration (titled “I fall into captivity”) perfectly matches Chalky’s incarceration.
That “Coen Brothers feeling” pops up again in the Commodore’s scenes, which sporadically give off the feel of a prequel to the Hudsucker Proxy. Moments like Dabney Coleman hefting an elephant tusk over his head, or guiding Eli in to meet “the men who made this city” have a semi-surreal edge that’s unexpected and kind of awesome.
Of all the storylines, Chalky’s was most interesting to me – but not because of that (terrific) beat-down scene. Instead, I’m fascinated by the contrast between the life that Chalky leads and the life that he wants his son to lead, dramatized nicely in the gift of a book that Chalky cannot read. The social inequality that has lead to Chalky becoming the man he is has put him in a position to try and correct that inequality, if only for his son. If Boardwalk Empire dropped Nucky altogether to focus on White I don’t think I’d complain at all. That said, Buscemi’s Nucky is compelling in his own right and watching him get backed into a corner by a growing number of adversarial interests has me looking forward to watching him try to fight his way out.
I don’t know much about Margaret yet, but I like what I’m learning. She endeared herself to me during the dinner scene with Sinn Fein, and won me over completely by the end of the episode as she instructs Nucky on his own affairs. I don’t love the idea of a young Irish charmer hanging around, using naughty cow jokes to tempt her. I’m hoping there’s more to that guy and his storyline – a will-Margaret-be-tempted storyline is just so…easy. So obvious. So potentially boring. Jimmy’s story also held my interest. I knew I recognized the actor playing Rothstein, but I hadn’t realized it was the same guy from A Serious Man. He’s great – elegant and intimidating, and his conversation with Jimmy lead to my favorite exchange of the episode:
Jimmy: “Do you have kids, Mr. Rothstein?”
Rothstein: “No, but I’m told they often say unexpected and amusing things.”
Rothstein dismisses Jimmy without accepting his offer, and that decision sends him into a partnership with rising criminals Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano. Bringing heroin into Atlantic City promises nothing but trouble for the city’s residents, but it also has terrific promise in terms of the narrative. Bootleggers versus drug-runners? Yes, please.
As I think about the episode I keep coming back to the elegant way in which its title, and the theme of Copperfield-like self-cultivation, arises over and again giving it all a weight that it might not otherwise have. Near the episode’s end, the “men who built this city” greet Eli with a Latin toast: “Propinate Nobis Similbusque.” That translates, roughly, as “Here’s to us and those like us.” Or, if you like, “to ourselves, alone.”
The Episode’s Best Moment: Technically it’s more than a moment, but I’m going with Chalky pretending to be able to read, patiently working his way through a novel he can’t understand, as Dunn Purnsley cluelessly ridicules him.
Where Does It Go: Thanks to the “Hebrew gentleman” that Chalky’s enlisted, I expect we’ll see him out of jail soon enough – and I expect that his considerable local influence will be key to Nucky retaining his power. Eli seems like he’ll be going the way of the Dodo, now that he’s revealed himself to Nucky as a traitor. The Commodore will hopefully take his cues from Superman Returns, and proceed to lift heavier and heavier objects until he’s levitating over New Jersey with the Boardwalk held above his head. Margaret will probably struggle with an attraction to Charming Irish Guy, and I will probably sigh my way through that storyline, wistful for the Margaret we see here. As for Nucky himself? I expect he’ll spend the rest of the season fighting his way out of that corner. Which is just fine by me.