Monday, October 25, 2010

"Boardwalk Empire," Season 1, Episode 6

Posted By on Mon, Oct 25, 2010 at 7:56 AM

YOU REALLY CAN CALL ME AL: Stephen Graham as Al Capone
  • Image courtesy of HBO
  • YOU REALLY CAN CALL ME AL: Stephen Graham as Al Capone
The rap on “Boardwalk Empire” seems to hold that the writing hews too closely to the conventions of the gangster genre. That wasn’t the case last week, which presented a romance in the guise of a Prohibition-era power struggle between Nucky Thompson and Margaret Schroeder, with plenty of juicy subtext and redirected passions.

On this week’s opening sequence, the shot of Nucky’s moneyman getting cold-cocked in slow-motion looked gorgeous, but also very much like something Martin Scorsese would have shot. Plus, Chicago subplot draws more heavily from the mob movie playbook. Jimmy and Al crave vengeance against Sheridan’s gang for mutilating Jimmy’s prostitute girlfriend, but Chicago boss Torio has lost patience with the ambitious young troublemakers and wants to make peace over who controls Greektown. The three give up their guns to parlay with Sheridan, leading to a tense scene in which the discovery of Jimmy’s skull-crusher knife almost gets the Atlantic City native killed.

The gangsters make a treaty, but afterwards, the usual coat-check girl has been replaced by one of Torio’s prostitutes, who slips Al and Jimmy firearms, so it’s bang-bang and bye-bye Sheridan. (Jimmy may have even planned for his knife to be found in the meeting, to distract Sheridan and his men.) And it turns out that Torio was in on the doublecross, as planned by Jimmy. It feels like a cheap move on the writers’ part, to have had Torio change his mind between scenes, off camera, to mislead the audience and build up to the surprise ambush.

If the squibs-and-pinstripes shootout feels familiar, this week “Boardwalk Empire” finds more complexities in Al Capone’s character. Jimmy has a mean at Chez Capone, where his Italian mother bickers with his Irish wife and Jimmy discovers (if Al didn’t already know) that his son has a hearing disability. Sometimes the child even holds his hands to his father’s throat while he sings: “He feels it, but doesn’t know what it is,” Al says, which could also apply to the tender feelings and pangs of conscience that occasionally afflict “Boardwalk Empire’s” tough guys.

Given that Al’s prank from a few episodes ago injured Jimmy’s eardrum, his son’s deafness seems like an Old Testament punishment for Al’s behavior. Jimmy also jokingly implies, in public, that Al never served in the lost battalion, and Al proves to be exactly the kind of guy who can dish out mocking insults, but can’t take them. Al brings Jimmy a peace offering in the form of a pair of steaks, but the days of this friendship might be numbered. Stephen Graham gives his best performance as Al to date, showing a man who grapples with insecurities through more than the violent outbursts of Joe Pesci movie thugs.

Meanwhile, Margaret and Nucky have began an affair, causing Margaret to question her status. First she visits the Temperance League’s Mrs. McGarry and tells her that she’s made an arrangement with a man. Mrs. McGarry asks if it’s “financial, domestic, sexual?” and Margaret answers, “Yes.” Despite her puritanical demeanor, Mrs. McGarry withholds judgment on Margaret and encourages her to decide for herself.

When Van Alden goes looking for her, Margaret’s former neighbor and baby sitter has a harsher assessment: “She’s a whore,” she tells Van Alden, practically seething with jealousy at the fact that Nucky whisked her away from the impoverished row-houses. That line receives an echo later in the episode, when Margaret meets one of her new neighbors, a sweet young thing who welcomes Margaret to her peer group: “You know, the concubines,” she declares matter-of-factly.

The claws really come out, though, when Margaret and Nucky’s mistress Lucy have another confrontation at La Belle Femme’s dressing room. Lucy has no intention of buying an undergarment, but merely wants another chance to humiliate Margaret. Margaret refuses to be cowed this time, they acknowledge that they’re fighting over a man and Margaret recounts a tale of a performing rooster from the old country. “What’s the point?” Lucy wants to know, a heavy-lidded, insolent expression on her face. “That maybe your cunny isn’t quite the draw you think it is,” Margaret replies. Can I get an “Oh, snap!”?

Despite Margaret’s bravado in that scene and the splendors of their new digs, her status with Nucky is far from clear. They make a loving couple and share a funny, flirtatious moment when Margaret speaks like an American: “It’s 3:30, bear-cat, get a wiggle on.” Nucky plans to take Margaret out for a night on the town with Hardeen (“Houdini’s brother — but he’s just a good”), but Nucky’s drawn-out political dealing causes him to stand Margaret up. While Margaret sits at home alone, Nucky consorts with the city’s loveliest prostitute, who plucks at ukulele and warbles about a Japanese sandman. “I try to be good. I really do,” Nucky confesses, a sentiment which wouldn’t comfort Margaret very much.

But if things don’t work out with Nucky, Margaret might have a shot at Van Alden, who apparently carries a torch for her the size of the great Chicago fire. Near the end, Alden looks at Margaret’s immigration card, strips to the waist and flagellates himself with his belt. Surrounded by darkness, Michael Shannon stares at the camera and seems like the perfect image of madness. Mob stories tend to be ambivalent about law enforcement officers, but on “Boardwalk Empire,” the Fed remains the scariest and most dangerous character.


So why is Van Alden so hung up on Margaret, anyway? Does his obsession rely on a trigger we don’t know about?

How long will Jimmy stay in Chicago? Al doesn’t exactly seem like a stable business partner.

When will the New York mobsters make a move? Luciano and Rothstein make intriguing adversaries, and they’re bound to come off the sidelines soon.

Last week, I wondered if the season would end with Nucky marrying Margaret. This week, I wonder if it’ll end with Margaret turning on Nucky and giving a complete confession to Van Alden.

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