Episode 4: “Anastasia”

Grade: A-

In an existential trip down the boardwalk, Atlantic City’s (and now Chicago’s) movers and shakers are faced with their own identity crises, and like Derek Zoolander gazing at his reflection in a puddle, they all ask, “Who am I?”  Once that question is addressed, they channel Switchfoot, wondering, “Am I who I want to be?”

Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) seems to have it all.  He’s rich beyond his wildest dreams and has control over virtually all of Atlantic City, and as we saw tonight, the state of New Jersey.  Yet, at his surprise birthday party (that he planned himself), with a gorgeous woman popping out of a giant cake for his personal amusement, his gaze is fixed on the lowly immigrant shop girl.  In that masterfully choreographed shot, Nucky silently acknowledges who he is and who he wants to be.

Senator Edge tells Nucky, “You can’t expect to have everything,” and as the card accompanying Nucky’s gift of booze confirmed, having everything is exactly what he is after.  He wants the glitz and glamour of his current life – the power, the money, the women.  But in Margaret, he sees a life he never experienced and desperately wants.  Nucky carries a gentlemanly demeanor around Margaret and unlike the other people in his life, he treats her with respect; respect she earned by matching wits in a discussion of women’s suffrage after Lucy’s response gave credence to its opponents.

If things had been different, Nucky could see himself settling down with Margaret and living a quiet life based on love instead of power.  But Nucky already has power, along with money and fame, and he will sacrifice none of it.  As the card indicated, Nucky will try to have it all – to have Margaret along with his current lifestyle – and his quest for everything will most likely be his downfall.

Meanwhile, Margaret (Kelly Macdonald) briefly hoped she could be a princess, like she perceives Lucy to be.  The newspaper article about an average girl who may actually be Grand Dutchess Anastasia of Russia inspired these dreams, but they were crushed after she learned it was a hoax.  Margaret wants to be Lucy, and after seeing her arm-in-arm with Nucky, she steals a sexy (at least for the 1920’s) piece of lingerie in her first step toward making herself who she wants to be; because girls like Lucy become princesses, not average girls like herself (though she is ironically unaware that Nucky may be secretly wanting to change those qualifications).

Also, Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams) pulled out a precursor to Dexter’s torturous tool bag and went to town on a Klansman who, as it turned out, had nothing to do with the lynching of his associate.  While I would’ve been satisfied watching an hour of Michael Kenneth Williams monologues, the Klansman actually gave the audience impetus for self-reflection, as his speech on “coons” coming north and taking white men’s jobs sounded eerily familiar to modern political discourse.  The phrasing was obviously a play on the immigration debate, framing those in favor of stricter laws as comparable to the Ku Klux Klan, a metaphor ripe for enragement if only they weren’t watching Fox News instead.

In Chicago, Jimmy wasted no time finding a new female companion – the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold.  But thanks to Al Capone’s hot-headedness, Jimmy now finds himself as the calming voice of reason with a guilty conscience on account of Pearl’s mangled face.  As Jimmy struggled with whether he wants to be the rational crook or a take-no-prisoners gangster, I couldn’t take my eyes off Stephen Graham’s performance as Al Capone.  He reminded me of a mini Tony Soprano, even matching James Gandolfini’s cadence and mannerism, but not to the point of mimicry.  Graham is making the most of his limited screen time and his delivery of “It happened to me, but I’m still beautiful,” was the line of the night.  Given that Capone is a supporting character, I’m curious as to how much Boardwalk Empire will show of his rise to infamy.

Overall, this was a great hour on the boardwalk.  “Anastasia” did a masterful job of integrating plot and character development and illustrated the main characters’ inner demons, many times without them saying a word.  Like The Sopranos and Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire is all about the subtext, where what characters don’t say is more important than what they do.  It requires careful viewing and will hopefully continue to reward those who invest the effort.

Additional Thoughts:

  • The episode lacked the tension of imminent conflict due to no Van Alden.  Thankfully, the preview for next week was loaded with Michael Shannon’s indignant face.
  • Lucy references sex with Nucky instead of a scene depicting it.  Thank you, HBO.
  • Al Capone’s wake up prank for Jimmy was worse than anything Bam Margera ever did to his dad on Jackass.
  • I’m trying not to see Michael Kenneth Williams as Omar Little – an increasingly difficult task.  Omar is one of the most iconic characters in TV history (at least for those who’ve seen The Wire), and as Curb Your Enthusiasm illustrated in the episode where Jason Alexander can’t live down being George Costanza: great characters never die.
(From left to right) Not Omar, Omar

  • Nucky is surprisingly progressive for his time.  He supports women’s suffrage, treats black people as human beings and employs a gay German assistant.  They haven’t yet revealed Eddie is gay – I’m predicting they will because they’ll need to add a few allegories for the modern gay marriage controversy.
  • We haven’t seen too much of Mickey, but as a man scorned trying to topple Nucky’s empire, the botched execution of Chalky isn’t likely to be his only move.
  • What kind of mother hooks up with a guy she knows is after her son?
  • I’ve added the word “Nucky” to my spell-check dictionary.
  • Heather

    LOVE the review and LOVE this show. This episode was pivotal as far as character development goes.

    I think Gillian is using her biggest asset – her looks – to lure Lucky Mrs. Robinson style in an effort to figure out his game with her son. I wouldn’t underestimate her. Loved the contrast with Margaret and Lucy and I agree with the scene of Nucky looking to Margaret being amazing, but the scene of them dancing was spectacular. It was more than a princess moment, it was a truly enchanting moment and I would like to think this is the moment where they fell in love. Can’t wait to see where it goes from here.

  • Chad Shanks

    If you’re interested, Salon has an interesting article on how authentic the show’s portrayal of Al Capone is:

  • Lynne

    Thanks for another great recap! Al Capone is absolutely terrifying on the show (as I’m sure he was in real life). I’m still having trouble getting the other gangsters’ names, faces, and turfs straight.

    I’m also shocked at how progressive Nucky is for his time, but it’s one of his redeeming qualities. I think the writers needed to make something likable about his character.

    Random thought: Overall I’m very impressed with the costumes on the show, and I was glad to see some more flappers this week. 🙂