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Monday, November 8, 2010

"Boardwalk Empire," Season 1, Episode 8

UNCOMFORTABLE SILENCE: Michael Pitt and Steve Buscemi
  • Photo: Abbot Genser/HBO
  • UNCOMFORTABLE SILENCE: Michael Pitt and Steve Buscemi
The latest “Boardwalk Empire,” titled “Hold Me in Paradise,” contains the show’s most improbably touching moment so far. This unlikely emotional sequence requires a little context.

With Nucky in Chicago for the Republican National Convention, Atlantic City’s underhanded shenanigans have practically closed up shop. Eli nominally takes Nucky’s place by sitting at his desk and wearing a suit (like a Dale Carnegie-reading would-be executive), but everyone knows Nucky makes the real decisions, and doesn’t bother to ask Eli. With one exception: a ward boss who requests a day off (his polio-stricken daughter is getting leg braces), and Eli ends up taking one of his cash pick-ups himself. Later, Eli stops by a casino to get the money, only to find out the hard way that the Italians are robbing the place (as Luciano instructed them previously). Eli ends up gut-shot and writhing on the floor, his wife dozing in the car in an image of an unreliable partnership.

In Chicago, Nucky plays delegate and power broker, and seems more hung up than usual on the trappings of luxury, insisting that he claim the hotel’s best suite. Angry about the loss of road money, he gets revenge on Senator Edge by pledging New Jersey’s delegates to relative unknown presidential candidate, Warren G. Harding. He also picks up some gossip about Harding: his wife believes in fortunetellers, including one who claims that her husband will die in office. Harding also writes erotic poems to the mother of his love child. (Atlanta theater-goers may remember these tidbits from Dad’s Garage's satirical look at the Harding administration, Poker Night at the White House, from 2008). As part of Nucky’s backroom deal, he offers to put Harding’s mistress up in Atlantic City. We’ll see how Margaret feels about that later.

When Nucky learns that his brother has been shot, the first thing he does is call Margaret and ask her to secure his ledger and other papers. Primarily, Nucky wants to cover his ass in case incriminating material falls into the wrong hands. Given Nucky’s priorities and the “rules” of “Boardwalk Empire,” it’s like a grand romantic gesture. It’s as if, with Eli out of commission, Margaret is the only person Nucky trusts in his entire hometown. He may have plenty of employees and underbosses, but he can’t rely in the incompetents, and can’t trust the ambitious ones, who could double cross him. So does Nucky respect Margaret’s intelligence, and respects her as being capable of securing his secrets? Or maybe he doesn’t respect her, and just assume she’ll do what he says, without taking the initiative to snoop? Either way, he puts his fate in her hands.

Margaret’s response to the incident requires some context, too. Early in the episode, she has tea at the Ritz with her “concubine” friend when she gets an urgent visit from her French former boss: Lucy’s trying to make a big purchase, but Nucky’s cut off her line of credit. Lucy inevitably makes a horrible scene, which culminates when she says, “You think you know him? …Then you’re the dumbest Dora I ever met.” Margaret slaps her and storms out.

Later, after taking Nucky’s call, Margaret goes to get the ledger in the middle of the night. Scary winds blow outside as she sits at Nucky’s desk, and his phone makes a nerve-rattling ring, but no one’s on the other line. At the episode’s end, day has broken and Margaret’s still sitting at the desk. Perhaps with Lucy’s words echoing her head, he opens the ledger and discovers the details of Nucky’s illegal empire. Does that mean Nucky’s trust is misplaced? Or could Margaret be his best ally?

The shooting of Eli also prompts Nucky to reconcile with Jimmy, whom he meets (coincidentally?) while investigating Harding. Nucky gives Jimmy a pretty cold shoulder, but after the shooting, offers Jimmy something of an apology. With Atlantic City apparently in the midst of a mob war, Nucky needs someone he can trust as much as Jimmy (despite the fact that if it weren’t for Jimmy and Al’s initial robbery, there might not be a mob war). For his part, Jimmy sees Al and his fellow gangsters playing cards and speaking in Italian, and realizes he’ll always be an outsider. He also calls Gillian and asks her what she knows about Luciano: Jimmy may not know about their relationship, but he may suspect him of engineering the heist.

Finally, Van Alden has a subplot that, shockingly, reveals that this pious upholder of the laws of God and man has been intercepting Jimmy’s cash-filled letters to Angela. Van Alden’s wife (who looks like the woman from the painting “American Gothic”) is infertile and wants a new surgical procedure to address it: “If the Lord had intended us to die of appendicitis, he wouldn’t have given us the means to cure it.” For a minute, it seems that Van Alden will accede to wife’s wishes and steal Jimmy’s money for the operation. Instead, he sends it all to Angela and callously tells his wife to trust in the Lord. What a bad spouse.

Questions
How will Margaret respond to her discovery about Nucky’s criminal holdings? They can’t come as much of a surprise to her.
How will Nucky take care of Van Alden, who has witnesses willing to testify against Jimmy?
Will the subplot of Rothstein and the White Sox scandal go anywhere? Mind you, it makes me want to watch Eight Men Out again.

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