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…
Albert Schwartz: For two consecutive appearances, I have like Van Alden’s storylines. This is surprising after he was such dead weight for most of last year, but I think at some point I let go of the idea that he was supposed to be a legitimate antagonist for Nucky and just accepted that he’s this weird Frankenstein trying to grope his way through the most decadent corner of the Jazz Age. He works better as one more member of the ensemble that doesn’t need to constantly be driving the main plot. And while at the time, I thought the murder of his partner was taking him too far, I like that the shadow that casts over even his sympathetic moments. Frankenstein’s monster is very sympathetic in its plight, after all, but wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it wasn’t also capable of drowning a little girl without really understanding why. You genuinely don’t know if Van Alden’s psychoses (which the darkly funny anecdote about the Christmas pageant explained quite about) will lead him to hurt Lucy more while trying to do the “right” thing by her, which makes his simple gesture at the end more poignant and less predictable.
Speaking of Lucy, Paz De La Huerta sucks. Oh, she’s easy on the eyes and the pervy part of me (that’d be the lower 88% of my body mass, for those keeping score) respects how rarely clothed she’s been throughout the series, but the pout and the weird accent things she does just doesn’t feel at all genuine to me. I realize that at some point a director has to have told her “a little more Liv Tyler, but this time she just finished a quaalude smoothie,” but put her in a scene with a guy doing an Eddie Cantor impression and I just don’t believe either of them as real people. None of that made the scene on the stairs any less excruciating, though.
But hey, Richard’s back! And exhibiting his trademark mix of ruthlessness and awkwardness in full force. He doesn’t get a ton of screentime, but it still manages to showcase what makes the character so interesting. Both his unworldly vulnerability, in how he asks after a whore who threw him a pity fuck with the least sympathetic person possible, and his terrifying unflappability, in how clinically he handles the standoff with Nucky’s new enforcer, Slater. He’s no brawler, but he is completely unfazed and mostly seems to hold back from blowing him away because he doesn’t have any orders regarding the guy one way or the other. His experience and injury in the war seems to have completely broken the mechanism that makes men feel fear, which makes him very dangerous indeed. And while I commented earlier that he was with Jimmy and not Nucky, he seems to bristle (in his own inscrutable way) at Capone’s suggestion that he put one in Nucky’s brain, and hesitate to shoot his new enforcer. Could he have more loyalty toward our guy than I anticipated? He did make a connection with Margaret and her son that was more, for lack of a better word, human than even his common ground with Jimmy. Maybe he’s reluctant to do something that would hurt them so directly.
The Episodes Best Moment: Easily Nucky confronting his treacherous surrogate family at Babette’s. As the central figure in such a sprawling program, Nucky naturally has to be a little bit of everything, but it shouldn’t be any surprise at this point that he’s at his most compelling when he’s puts on his gangster shoes. And when he’s facing off with characters he and we have established relationships instead of random thugs like the unfortunate band of brothers from last year, they don’t have to fire a shot or cut a throat to make a scene compelling. Buscemi doesn’t cut the figure of a conventional hardass, what with his delicate, almost feminine profile, but when he stops being the fun guy Lucy remembers and starts to make threats (or promises, as it were) you get the sense that he means it. The Commodore certainly wasn’t getting out of his chair at that moment, no matter how much shoe polish he had rubbed into his temples.
Where Does It Go: I confess to being very uninterested in Margaret’s secret past, despite being unhealthily interested in Kelly MacDonald, but it looks like we’ll be digging deeper into that in the near future. I’m not really clear on the speedbump the Commodore ran into with the belligerent Coast Guard guy, so hopefully we’ll be getting some clarification there. But I’m pretty sure everyone is most excited to see how Chalky takes the fight to the KKK once he is released from jail, which Nucky assures Margaret, and by extension us, will be very soon.
Renn Brown: Boardwalk has now spent another episode letting the fuse on the coming explosion run out, and using that time to focus more specifically on individual storylines. Per usual though, the show covers an incredible amount of ground and lets very small scenes remind us why certain sideline character do what they do (the scene between Eli and Pa Thompson comes to mind). This episode in particular chose to focus on a few characters that are less well-liked or are especially removed from the more exciting action going on in Atlantic city, as Nucky’s current companion Margaret and his discarded lover Lucy get the spotlight.
Lucy is a tough character to watch for me, as there’s just no denying that she’s profoundly irritating. The thing is I appreciate both that the show’s most decidedly formal character and its most debaucherous have been forced into each other’s lives, and that they ultimately backed off from sacrificing one to the alter of the other. I think Paz De La Huerta is selling the part, and the subtle shift from her childishly sexual default mode to her “acting” mode worked for me. Pairing her with Eddie Cantor definitely puts all of the show’s period affectation in one spot, but these are vaudeville types and it makes complete sense. And while the pregnancy entrapment storyline pales in comparison to so much else going on in the show, it’s still a fascinating side-plot that says as much about the setting of the show as the characters. That said, Van Alden and Lucy have been sticking points for so many viewers in the past it remains a gamble to cram them together and shove them so close to front and center.
Margaret on the other hand is a little more entwined with the main storyline, but is starting to get her own independent development as she digs deeper into Nucky’s life. I’m not sure how much deeper the show will dig into her past, but what has already transpired speaks volumes and bolsters much of her action throughout the show already. Knowing that she left on ill terms with her loved ones, and being faced with the reality that they’ve completely written her out of the family is tough, and I can see that driving her more active partnership with Nucky for some time to come. I’m glad they’re pushing this plot before mucking things up with any temptations from Slater at least.
And then there are the more key strokes of the story, as Jimmy grows increasingly conflicted, the Commodore more bold, and Nucky is pushed ever deeper into a corner. While there was only one explosive scene towards the end, the writers have gone to great pains to even out the conflict and take what would have otherwise been easy deus ex machinas for later (Nucky’s presidential connections) and cut them out of the picture, at least for the moment. This fight between Nucky and the Commodore is about to get ugly, public, and will surely wound even the victor. I know on whom I’m laying my bets, but I would be surprised to see the show go in an unexpected direction for a large part of the season.
The Episodes Best Moment: It’s hard not to single out the dinner scene at Babbette’s, especially the tension between Jimmy and Nuck. “Meet his eyes, boy.” That said, I love the very subtle moment between Slater and Harrow as they both draw guns on each other and the energy of the tussle instantly deflates as the weight of the guns sink in. It’s rare that people in film standoffs actually look appropriately nervous.
Where Does It Go: Frankly, it’s hard for me to even begin to think beyond the next episode. Next week’s previews promise big moves between the two crews, as well as the extra dash of Chalky and Rothstein that I’m always looking for. I imagine there will be nastiness from both ends and a potential road to victory will present itself to Nucky. I would expect to call a winner for at least another episode or three, but I know where I’ll be this coming Sunday…
MMorse: This was not a scintillating hour of television.
Most of this episode felt more like a slog than a ride of any kind, excepting some nice moments scattered throughout. Always good to see Chris McDonald. Hopefully we’ll see more of him. It appears that Charming Irish Guy (aka Owen) will have more to do than simply hang around threatening to seduce Margaret, and I like the idea that his skill involves getting people to stop doing whatever it is that Nucky wants them to stop doing. The reappearance of Two-Face (aka Richard) made for some good scenes as well, especially the stand-off with Owen. It’s easy to see why you folks seem to like Richard so much. He’s an inherently interesting figure, visually and emotionally. And Capone livened up the proceedings whenever he was in the frame.
But for the most part, I’m lukewarm on the episode as a whole, and Paz de la Huerta’s scenes in particular. Look, I don’t know the woman and I haven’t watched her turn in the first season, but maaaaaaaaaaan, her character is terrrrrrrrrrible. I guess I can agree with Renn that she’s “selling the part,” if that means she’s selling narrative inertia, irritation and annoyance. Each time she appeared she destroyed whatever momentum or interest the episode had begun to build. What’s the point of this character? Who gives a shit? Not me, that’s for sure (I did chuckle as she lit a smoke and accepted a tall drink of liquor while sporting a very-pregnant belly). I disagree that this is a fascinating side-plot. It’s more of a dramatic dead end. In real life I would race to prevent a woman from trying to kill herself/her unborn child via the tried-and-true method of tossing herself down a flight of stairs, but when it comes to this particular fictional woman I found myself hoping she’d go for it and decrease the surplus population*.
Boardwalk Empire has enough Father/Son issues to fuel any number of Cat Stevens songs, but there’s a curious lack of oomph to those issues as they’re presented here in “A Dangerous Maid.” Yes, Jimmy is tugged between his biological father and his surrogate father. Yes, Capone is dealing with the recent death of his father. Yes, Eli is shown caring for his and Nucky’s father, and their father seems to think that Eli needs to take care of Nucky, since Nucky doesn’t know what he’s doing (a fair charge, based on what I’ve seen so far), or, possibly, that Nucky needs to take care of Eli, since Eli doesn’t know what he’s doing (also a fair charge, and I do like that you can read the scene either way depending on how out of it you think their Old Man is). Yes, Van Alden is the father to an illegitimate child, one that represents the disconnect between the Justice he strives for and the weakness he’s displayed. Very little of this landed with me emotionally. None of it felt particularly interesting, either emotionally or intellectually.
I love the idea of Van Alden as a “weird Frankenstein trying to grope his way through the most decadent corner of the Jazz Age.” So let’s SEE that, and not squander the character in a side-plot that feels sealed off from everything and everyone else. I love the idea of a political coup against Nucky. Let’s see more of THAT. Let’s not waste time on baby-daddies and secret Irish pasts (sorry Margaret). I appreciate a slow burn, but for it to work you need a steady string of small sparks. “A Dangerous Maid” came up short, fizzling more than it burned.
The Episodes Best Moment: Babbette’s. Other than that, there wasn’t a lot to choose from. Maybe Capone’s visitations? The actor playing him has an easy magnetism, and he makes Capone a compelling character that can go from gregarious grin to glowering glare in no time at all. Let’s spend more time with characters like him, and far, far less with characters who seem like they’ve been drinking Quaalude smoothies (nice one, Schwartz).
Where does it go: Hopefully toward a more entertaining hour of television. Sorry to be so negative, but I gotta call ‘em like I see ‘em.