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Monday, October 24, 2011

"Boardwalk Empire," Season 2, Ep. 5

O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? Shea Wigham as Eli Thompson
Would you care for some savage bloodletting with your Prohibition-era political power plays? “Boardwalk Empire” ramps up the violence on an episode with the deceptively whimsical title “Gimcrack & Bunkum.” The show even offers more coincidental mirroring of AMC’s high-profile gore effects, the previous “half-faced” trend followed by skulls being graphically smashed in. “Boardwalk’s” busted cranium at least proves less disgusting than the stove-in skull on “The Walking Dead’s” season premiere last week.

We open upon a Memorial Day ceremony, which Nucky marks with a public speech and surprise ambush. Rather than read out the names of fallen veterans to be memorialized, he introduces WWI veteran Jimmy to make remarks. Jimmy takes the stage, nonplussed and hand shaking, but he rises to the occasion with self-effacing boilerplate about the value of freedom. Given that Jimmy grew up seeing Nucky work crowds, his effectiveness should be no surprise.

But one veteran is a no-show: Richard Harrow. The soundtrack plays a song about the rose that grows in no-man’s-land as Harrow looks at his scrapbook in his garret apartment. The book now includes the portrait Angela drew, as well as a collage that seems to show a woman with a vampire at her neck. In a neat serious of economical shots, Harrow wraps up an apple and slice of bread, straps on his knife and leaves with his rifle.

Jimmy meets with the Atlantic City power brokers, each more geezery than the last. Uncle Junior has muttonchops that make him look like a Lhasa Apso. Wheelchair-bound zillionaire Joshua Parkhurst gets particularly exercised over the fact that the group’s $70,000 investment apparently went up in flames with the warehouse explosion. When Jimmy neglects to show the proper deference, Parkhurt wallops him across the brow with the metal end of his cane, drawing blood. Jimmy storms out. Later, Gillian cleans his wound and informs her son that such an insult cannot stand.

Harrow hitchhikes to the woods and goes for a walk worthy of an Ernest Hemingway or Jack London short story. He sees a pheasant but doesn’t shoot at it, dispelling the assumption that he’s on a hunting trip. He sits. He eats apple slices. He loosens his tie. He takes off his mask. He stretches out on the ground. He looks up at the trees. He raises the barrel of his rifle to his mouth. (Will Harrow commit suicide? Jack Huston only just made the opening credits!) He reaches for the trigger… and a dog distracts him by taking his mask and running off with it. “Hey, I need that mask!” Harrow calls, chasing after the dog, potential tragedy turning to farce.

Nucky returns from an annoying golf match with the attorney general, and Margaret informs him that Eli’s in their conservatory. Freaked out that the conspiracy’s falling apart, Eli blubbers an apology. Nucky demands that Eli provide some useful information, and his brother spills the news about the Commodore’s stroke and the rebellious geezers. Nucky seems on the verge of taking Eli back, but then snarls a demand that Eli get on his knees and kiss his shoe. In a show where Nucky keeps up appearances and plays the long game, it’s great to see Buscemi lose it in a flurry of abuse. He shoves and taunts Eli until we get a full-on Cain-and-Abel brawl, complete with flowerpots to the head. Margaret stops it with a shotgun to Eli’s head. Eli withdraws, Nucky reveals that the gun wasn’t loaded and Margaret laments, “Is this to be our life?”

A hunter (Bill Camp) finds Richard and invites him to share a campfire with an old-timer and the sneaky dog. They return his mask, offer him some “varmints,” which turns out to be squirrel or “tree rat.” Glenmore seems to realize Harrow was suicidal. He mentions that the dog is “a fighter” and Harrow wonders what the dog is fighting for. But we all know they’re not talking about the dog.

The Attorney General introduces Nucky to his case’s baby-faced prosecutor and they lay out how the case will be put under U.S. jurisdiction and then dismissed. They won’t give Nucky a guarantee, but they do expect him to provide entertainment Atlantic City-style. Nucky and Kessler work in his office while the D.C. lawyers whore it up in the next room. Nucky clearly getting tired of being the pimp for the nation’s powerful.

Eli hunkers down in his garage, boozing it up and building something with his son. One of the ward bosses shows up and badgers Eli about the rumor of the Commodore’s apoplexy. Eli completely lacks Nucky’s abilities to lie or manipulate others, and the ward boss sees through his reassurances. What follows proves the adage about shit running downhill: Nucky humiliates Eli, so Eli lashes out at someone less powerful, and accidentally tears the boss’s neck with a wrench. Eli resorts to finishing him off in grisly fashion and makes sure his son doesn’t return. He gets his deputy to help him ditch the body.

An unearthly moan interrupts the stillness in Nucky’s house. Margaret checks on children, who are OK, and we learn that her youngest, hottest servant was getting busy with Owen Sleater. The servant provides the week’s requisite nudity and mentions Margaret’s mysterious phone call to her New York family. What will Sleater do with the information?

Harrow shows up at Jimmy’s house in dead of night, his soul-searching building up to a question: “Would you fight for me?” Jimmy adamantly replies, “Of course I would, right down to the last bullet.” Satisfied Harrow. Cut to Hollinghurt admiring a Sioux Indian Breech Cloth, fondly remembers from Indian massacres. You think that won’t protect him from a bullet, either, but Harrow doesn’t show off his sniping skills. He and Jimmy walk in, Hollinghurst asks who Harrow is. “A soldier,” Harrow replies, and they commence to scalping Hollinghurst. Scalping! But is Harrow really Jimmy’s proud soldier, or Jimmy’s unthinking dog?

The episode ends as Eli digs a middle-of-nowhere grave in his car headlights, a la Blood Simple. Given that Jimmy scalped Hollinghurt and Eli killed a ward boss, will the rest of the conspirators fall in line behind them, or flee to Nucky in terror?

“Gimcrack & Bunkum” would be a great name of a comedy sketch about mismatched police officers. I totally don't get the title in the context of this episode.

My wife pointed out that in the opening shot, you can see what appears to be the Hotel That Looks Like An Elephant in the distance.

Last week, I forgot to mention the fun moment of Kessler singing at the party. Kessler deserves more funny scenes — maybe they could treat him like a put-upon stooge, like Jerry from “Parks and Recreation.”

The Memorial Day veterans in union uniforms look like those Tea Partiers who like to play Revolutionary War dress-up.

I’m trying to think of best fictional mother to compare Gillian to: Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate, maybe? Jimmy Cagney’s ma in White Heat?

“You’re an easily bamboozled individual.” “Aw, lay off your pontificating.” Ugh! Sometimes the show tries way to hard to make its antiquated dialogue sound whimsical.

On the other hand, I do love the doomed ward boss’s line to Eli: “What are you doing? You’re moving toward me!”

Glenmore looks like one of “Deadwood’s” roughnecks, but is actually character actor Bill Camp, who gave a great, unsung performance in last year’s Tamara Drewe.

Jimmy mentions Philadelphia mob in passing, but this week we see none of them or any of the New York boys. Probably next week.

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