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Monday, October 3, 2011

"Boardwalk Empire," Season 2, Episode 2

I COULD DINE ON THE LOT OF YOU: Kelly Macdonald
“Boardwalk Empire” isn’t HBO’s first pricey period piece drama about a lawless American city. The eponymous mining town of “Deadwood” wallowed in vice even more shamelessly than “Boardwalk Empire’s” Atlantic City, and won a more devoted following of critics and fans, despite the ornate density of the dialogue. I draw the comparison because “Deadwood’s” characters seemed so propelled by their needs and wants, from villains like Al Swearengen, Cy Tolliver and George Hearst to the flawed heroes Calamity Jane and Sheriff Seth Bullock. Where rapacious appetites drove the “Deadwood” cast, their “Boardwalk Empire” counterparts are more like, “Yeah, I could eat,” with Nucky and Jimmy and particularly seldom seeming as passionate.

Margaret provides an exception, however, and in the episode “Ourselves Alone” proves to be a surprisingly effective player at the game of thrones (to switch HBO show references in mid-review). The compelling episode begins by conveying Margaret’s new social station as she now has three female servants who greet her in the morning with “Good morning, ma’am.” She reads the headline, “Treasurer Thompson Arrested,” but scarcely bats an eye and asks “What’s the prediction? … For the weather?” Her kids give her a Valentine and she makes plans for the night’s dinner, but she’s not just going to be stiff-upper-lipping it.

“You understand you’re in a precarious position,” Nucky tells Chalky, although, given that they’re both in jail, Nucky’s position seems no less precarious. Although Chalky’s seldom seemed to be party of Nucky’s inner circle, together the pair hash out which of Nucky’s alderman is most likely to have squealed. Chalky points out that the bigger question is, “Who put him up to it?”

In New York, Jimmy Darmody kisses up to Al Rothstein — and glares daggers at Luciano — as a prelude to cutting Nucky out. Rothstein: “I appreciate you coming. I applaud your audacity. And I give you my word that your offer remains in this room.” Which is a nice way of giving Jimmy the high-hat. Luciano, however, invites Jimmy to Meyer Lansky’s poker game later.

Nucky meets with his lawyer while shaving — judging from the Pawnee-style civic mural in the background, they’re still at the courthouse. The lawyer gives the skinny on Nucky’s legal adversaries, including “Confidential Witness 1 and Confidential Witness 2,” and the charges against him. On the steps of the courthouse, Nucky tries to crack jokes but the reporters badger him about election-rigging. Nucky remains defiant as the reporters ask “How dirty is this town, Nuck?” “Is there an honest man in Atlantic City?”

Rather than use the next scene to answer that dangling question, the episode cuts to a close-up of… the Commodore’s stuffed bear. The Commodore comes on a little too strong to prove he’s still a playa: he’s dyed his hair (“He fell into the shoe polish?”) and free-lifts a big tusk. “When you come face to face with destiny, do you want to be the bear, or do you want to be the one holding the shotgun?” Let’s assume that it’s the Commodore, not the screenwriter, who’s trying too hard. At least Dabney Coleman demonstrates a “Deadwood”-worthy level of ferocity.

At the jailhouse, the guards put Chalky in a cell with the other prisoners of color, including a swaggering tough named Dunn Purnsley (Erik LaRay Harvey), a name that inevitably makes me think of Perd Hapley. Purnsley unloads an almost hilariously vile load of insults on Chalky (and, in absentia, Chalky’s wife), pegging him as an assimilated, white collar businessman. Purnsley behaves like the alpha male in the lion cage while Chalky accepts his abuse with equanimity and reads David Copperfield (or, it is implied, only pretends to read it). Then Chalky, proving that leadership and solidarity are stronger than brute force, reveals that the cell’s other prisoners all owe him a debt, and they promptly beat Purnsley to a pulpsley.

At the Thompson domicile, Margaret stops her son from using a hammer as a tomahawk (continuing last week’s motif of the boy’s budding fascination with violence?) and meets a new character: “John MacGarrigle’s man” Owen Slater (Charlie Cox), whose charming manners belie a violent-sounding relationship to the Irish Republican Army. Slater, an ex-livestock inspector turned Sinn Fein security officer, helps straighten Margaret’s rug, which sounds kind of dirty — is there chemistry between them? Foreshadowing?

“Don’t I have a treasurer’s office somewhere?” Nucky wonders, revealing how long he’s been working out of the hotel. He uses his long-vacant office as a temporary base, where the mayor shows up as one of Nucky’s only allies. Speaking of which, the alderman discuss the shifting power structure at a boardwalk storeroom, surrounded by such props as a miniature Big Ben and a doll house (which, paradoxically, makes them appear more petty by comparison). They all throw in with the Commodore except for Fleming.

Jimmy visits with Luciano and Lansky (Anatol Yusef), who express interest in Jimmy’s proposal to cut out Nucky. Lansky keeps Luciano and Jimmy from fighting over Gillian and offer a proposal: “We buy liquor from you, you buy something from us.” “We’re thinking of getting into heroin.” They’re as impatient with Rothstein as Jimmy is with Nucky. (It’s a little like that 1991 movie Mobsters, which starred Christian Slater and Patrick Dempsey as Luciano and Lansky, respectively.) Later, the representatives of a local “Mustache Pete” gangster threaten Lansky, and Jimmy does his new pals a solid by slashing the gunsels by a statue of temperance, of all things.

Nucky returns to his now-trashed hotel room, where Nucky’s hidden money stash is now empty. Fleming tattles on the other aldermen, and Eli calls to gloat. Nucky gives his brother a chance to recant, but Eli replies “Nobody takes power, somebody gives it to them. Look around, big brother. What have you got?” (The holidays are going to be awkward.) Eli meets the power brokers, including Uncle Junior with that crazy facial hair.

“The whole of this country seems beset by licentiousness and turpitude,” declares MacGarrigle, the Sinn Fein stuffed shirt, who makes Margaret feel defensive about her Irishness. Nucky shows up late to the dinner and, afterwards, writes a big check despite his, uh, precarious situation. After they leave, Nucky broods by the fire, and Margaret reveals that she has his secret ledger and his $20,000 from his money stash. “You must concentrate, and not give over to emotions… This must be burned, and future dealings committed to memory,” she tells him as she drops his ledger in the fireplace. Margaret Schroeder has become Skyler White!

Notes

I was a little confused by the business with Chalky and his book: was he pretending to read, or pretending that he couldn’t read?

No Richard Harrow or Nelson Van Alden this week, but I liked Lansky’s weird Benny, who seems to have Tourette’s Syndrome. I wonder if he’s based on anyone historical? Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, maybe?

With his hair and mustache dyed, Dabney Coleman looks like J. Jonah Jameson.

Michael K. Williams wears the best bowties next to "Doctor Who’s" Matt Smith.

I thought that Victor Verhaeghe, who plays Fleming, the only alderman loyal to Nucky, was the same guy who played the “Mad Men” comedian Jimmy Barrett, but it’s a different guy. I believe Chalky said that Fleming “couldn’t lead a pig to market with a bucket of apples.”

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