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Boardwalk Empire Recap: An exercise in character development via cue ball swallowing and "The French Way"


Season 1 – Episode 2: “The Ivory Tower”

Grade: A-

Klan pamphlets.  Cue ball swallowing.  Half-naked mothers.  “The French Way.”

If the premiere episode of Boardwalk Empire was about dichotomy – showing the duality of characters living in a two-sided world – the second episode was about irony.

The first onscreen meeting of Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon) did not disappoint.  The corrupt politician immediately offers the prohibition agent a drink, then, judging his reaction, chalks it up to facetiousness.  The pilot set up Nucky and Nelson (which would be a great name for vaudeville act should the two become chums) as the series’ main rivals – two men at opposite ends of the law with contradicting morality – and it was good to see them brought together so early in the season.  Van Alden quickly deduces that the lavish treasurer is corrupt, well before Nucky tries bribing him with theater tickets.  Van Alden is now a formidable foe.  It should be obvious to any sensible person that Nucky is corrupt – he doesn’t exactly hide it – and having Van Alden realize it early in the series gives him more credibility as a foil than if it took him nine or ten episodes.

But Van Alden’s meetings with Margaret lead to the biggest irony of the episode.  After visiting her with questions about her deceased husband (which were really indirect questions about Nucky), he absconds with her blue ribbon.  Nucky’s motives for interacting with Margaret was called into question with his insistence that the shootings be blamed her dead husband, but when she visits his room to return his money and Nucky turns on the charm (even insisting he gave her money because it was the “Christian” thing to do), it is obvious he has some sort of feelings for her, even if she merely reminds him of his late wife.  Yet, the conflict between Nucky and Nelson expanded as the married agent creepily inhaled Margaret’s aroma from her ribbon.  Could both sides of the law be smitten for the same sweet Irish widow?

Meanwhile, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), fresh off a deep woods massacre, has awkward and disturbing interactions with the women in his life.  First, after celebrating Christmas a month late thanks to his newly acquired blood money, he ever so smoothly asks for sex “the French way,” not caring that his young son is sleeping a few feet away.  Of course, the kid wakes up and sees mommy blowing daddy.  Disturbing, but not as much as the Buscemi sex scene last week.  Second, after showering his family with gifts and scarring their memories, Jimmy goes to a scantily clad live art recreation (reminiscent of Buster and George, Sr.’s live “Creation of Adam” in Arrested Development).  He goes backstage and one of the half-naked artists jumps into his arms, wraps her legs around him and kisses him repeatedly on the mouth.  Just when it appeared Jimmy was an adulterer, the nearly nude woman straddling him mid-air was revealed to be his mother, so it was OK?

Jimmy took back the necklace he bought his mother, a sentimental acknowledgment of his appreciation for her, in order to have enough money to make amends with Nucky for the botched robbery.  Nucky, however, takes Jimmy’s small fortune and throws it all on the roulette table, losing it in one spin.  Herein lies the insight into Nucky Thompson’s psyche I wondered about in last week’s recap.  Where other nefarious crime lords (i.e. Tony Soprano) used boisterous verbal beat downs to control their puppets, Nucky’s laissez faire attitude conveys his power.  The money means nothing to him, and Jimmy will likewise if he screws up again.  Jimmy appeared to be on his way to the top after the robbery, but through his interactions this week is shown to be incapable of demanding the respect so easily given to Nucky.

Overall, this episode, like many second episodes, slowed down the pace a bit to expand on the characters introduced in the pilot.  Fans of network procedurals with weekly forced excitement may be bailing after tonight’s slow-boiling exercise in character development.  Like The Wire, Boardwalk Empire is taking time to build its case.  The first season of The Wire started extremely slow and meticulously built up a large cast of characters, but once the season kicked into gear, you were hooked.  I expect the same from Boardwalk Empire, and apparently HBO does, as well, and already ordered a second season.

Additional Thoughts

  • I’m pretty sure that was the most shocking deep-woods-vehicular-hand-job scene in TV history.
  • Nucky’s bathtub lady wants him to grow a Douglas Fairbanks mustache. I can see it.
  • Margaret’s neighborhood reminds me of the slums in City of God.
  • Arnold Rothstein’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) indirect-murdering-via-cue-ball-swallowing-wager monologue was brilliantly creepy.  Could Rothstein be the most sociopathic character on a show full of sociopaths?
  • Jimmy’s son doesn’t like the vacuum cleaner – just like my cat.  Jimmy’s son interrupts sex – just like my cat.