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Monday, November 21, 2011

"Boardwalk Empire," Season 2, Episode 9

THOMPSON'S THOMPSON: Steve Buscemi as Enoch Thompson
Set partially in Ireland, the latest episode of “Boardwalk Empire” has the title “Battle of the Century,” which can represent any number of conflicts. Most overtly, it refers to the Jack Dempsey/Georges Carpentier boxing match from July 2, 1921 (just to fix the show’s latest historical date). Even the Irish have opinions on the bout. Given that the “A” plot involves Nucky attempting to strike a deal with the Irish Republican Army, the title could also refer to Ireland’s struggle for independence, which literally spanned most of the 20th century. (But I’ll get to Nucky later.)

Maybe it’s a medical struggle. The strange thing about “Battle of the Century” is that Nucky goes to Belfast, Margaret’s homeland, but his Irish lass stays at home. Nucky probably didn’t want her around on a business trip, but perhaps Margaret chose to stay because Emily’s been feeling poorly lately. This week, one of the servants says “Emily refuses to get out of bed,” but when Margaret looks in, she discovers that her daughter can’t get out of bed. Irony #1: the images on the walls show active children at play.

Irony #2: The scene cuts to Jimmy and the young guns meeting with bootlegger George Reemus, who has access to alcohol for medicinal purposes. “Turns out we got a lot of sick people in this town,” Jimmy quips. “Practically an epidemic,” titters Mickey Doyle, the second-least-healthy looking person in the episode, since he’s wearing a giant neck brace after Jimmy tossed him off the balcony last week. The gangsters agree to pay Reemus $60,000 apiece for alcohol, which seems to be no hardship for Jimmy. So why won’t he pay Manny his $5,000, as Lansky suggests? It seems uncharacteristically dumb and petty on Jimmy’s part.

At Emily’s sickbed, the doctor gives an examination and suggests that Teddy, who shares the bedroom, be removed from the house. “It’s polio, isn’t it?” Margaret asks, aghast. The doctor won’t confirm it, but says she has all the symptoms. They take Emily to the hospital and Margaret watches from another room as her daughter screams “Mommy!” through a spinal tap. It’s every parent’s nightmare. Later, when the hospital staff is listening to the fight on the wireless, Margaret sneaks into Emily’s room and lies down with her.

Concern for Emily could also explain why Margaret skips Nucky’s father’s funeral, which involves a lavish-looking graveside ceremony. (Nucky’s absence will give Eli one more reason to resent his brother.) Agent Lathrop notes the funeral with interest, since Nucky only got permission to leave the country to bury his father in Ireland. Lathrop points this out to Esther, but only after they’ve slept together, which irritates her.

“Are you guys married?” Deputy Halloran asks them when Esther and Lathrop volley questions at him about Eli and Margaret’s dead husband. Halloran: “It’s a tourist town, people come and go.” Lathrop: “But this particular person, he just went.”

At a clean, spacious hotel kitchen, the staff meal for the African-American workers — 10 minutes of gruel — complicates labor/management relations. That dishwasher with the bruised eye looks familiar — why, it’s Perd Hapley Dunn Purnsley, whom we last saw getting his ass kicked in the jail cell for disrespecting Chalky White. Purnsley foments controversy: “Rules say, we ain’t good enough to eat what crackers throw in the trash.” The terrier-like manager orders him to shut up or he’s fired.

It turns out that Purnsley’s actually working for Chalky as an agitator, and Purnsley shows due deference when he visits a knife-sharpening Chalky at his wood shed. “Got off on the wobbly foot, is all,” Purnsley explains of their previous meeting. He adds that the workers are getting riled up and are waiting for the word. “So give it, then,” Chalky says. At the kitchen the next day, Purnsley gets his co-workers to air their grievances — Four years without a raise! — and suggests a general strike. When the manager tries to fire him, the workers throw the plates at his feet, and then pelt him with produce. “Food fight!”

The Darmody household proves to be a busy place as Jimmy takes a meeting with Manny’s nemesis Waxey Gordon. Jimmy reveals that Manny killed some of Waxey’s men, and Waxey’s goon Alfred says he’s going to take care of an “Unpaid bill at the butcher’s.” In Philadelphia, Manny counts his money on the day off and a customer shows up at his door, begging to buy two chickens. Manny grumbles and opens up his shop, but the customer vanishes and Alfred takes a shot at him, winging his shoulder. Manny punches him THROUGH the glass door, drags him through the subsequent jagged hole, and puts a cleaver in his head. A sign behind him reads FRESH KILLED MEAT. Manny finds an Atlantic City matchbook in Alfred’s pocket.

Meanwhile, Harrow has a bone to pick with Jimmy. “You’re my friend. Then why did you make fun of me?” He refers to Jimmy’s remark last week that Harrow can find a nice girl. Jimmy proves his sincerity later, when they attend the crowded RCA broadcast of the boxing match on Pay-Per-Hear. Some floozies send Jimmy and note, pointing out “Everyone knows who the new king is.” When they start canoodling with him, he points out that Harrow’s with him. One of the gals says, “What the hell. Something to talk about when we’re old,” and starts to make out with Harrow. She’s not exactly a nice girl, but Harrow doesn’t complain.

Anyway, across the pond, Nucky arrives with a casket in tow. “Welcome to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,” the customs agent says, to Owen’s annoyance. At the funeral parlor, McGarrigle — who looks like the world’s tallest, gauntest undertaker — arrives to show his respects, and Nucky reveals the coffin contains not his father, but a dozen Thompson submachine guns. Nucky’s got 3,000 of them back in A.C. What does he want? “Irish whiskey. All I can get.” McGarrigle hems and haws that he has to talk to the others.

At someone’s country house, Nucky demonstrates the gun by riddling a grandfather clock with holes — that that, Old Europe! The other Irish guys, including a scary-looking guy named “Bill,” are highly impressed, but McGarrigle shows up and says that the English want to negotiate, and peace is bad for the arms business. Nucky and Owen have a drink with Fitzgerald, apparently a legitimate Fitzgerald with barrels of unsold booze, Prohibition having wreaked havoc on his foreign sales. That night at dinner, McGarrigle tries to put Nucky off and questions his loyalty to the cause. “Let’s not lie to each other, Mr. McGarrigle. When men like you need to win, you’ll turn to men like me.” When Nucky leaves, McGarrigle asks what Nucky (and presumably Americans in general) fight for. “A great pile of dosh,” Owen says. McGarrigle wants Owen back in Ireland.

The next day McGarrigle sees off Nucky, who’s feeling downbeat. “I was told you’re all optimists over there.” “Not the Irish ones,” Nucky quips. As they drive away from the country house, we can see someone gun McGarrigle down, and Bill, sitting next to Nucky in the car, says he’ll make Nucky’s deal. Nucky looks decidedly uncomfortable at Bill’s methods. Perhaps ideological violence makes him nervous, compared to the business-as-usual killings in America.

At the port, a peeved Nucky asks Owen if he knew what was going to happen to McGarrigle. “Nothing I could say could stop it,” says Owen, who indicates some disillusionment with the cause himself. “I don’t live here any more.” He reads Nucky’s telegrams, one from his lawyer, saying that Nucky’s court date his Aug. 23: “Let the real battle begin.” The other is that Emily has polio. They’re both shocked. All aboard!

When Margaret first comforts Emily, she says “It’s nothing, cuishle.” You may remember that Gaelic phrase’s use in Million Dollar Baby.

Esther: “Does Enoch Thompson strike you as a murderer?” Lathrop: “You might as well be reading the latest Black Mask,” referring to a crime pulp magazine.

Incidentally, it’s great having Esther, a career woman, on the show. I like the way the scene mixes pillow talk with work dynamics, like “Mad Men.”

Maybe the fight for worker’s rights is another battle of the century. Occupy Atlantic City!

If the wireless is such a novelty in 1921, would Emily’s hospital have one?

Nucky sees a roasted potato cart at the Irish port, which seems a little on-the-nose.

True story: My mother had polio and, as a girl, took the treatment at Warm Springs. She recovered well enough to become an active tennis player.

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