Technology with attitude

Boardwalk Empire Episode 3 Recap: Plot takes a backseat "in the name of progress"


“Broadway Limited”

Grade: B

Boardwalk Empire slowed down quite a bit this week to further examine the world its characters inhabit with a good deal of irreverent nostalgia.

This third episode was all about cultural progress, showing how society has evolved since prohibition and how the characters deal with the influx of change around them.  When Angela uses a broom and dustpan to clean a mess off the floor, Jimmy asks her why she doesn’t use the “vacuum sweeper,” to which she replies it scares their son.  Jimmy dismisses the boy’s fears and says using the new technology is “all in the name of progress.”

Technological progress was also illustrated with an examination of the medical practices of the time in more of the shockingly graphic scenes that are quickly becoming the show’s calling card.  First, in the 1920s, gonorrhea was apparently treated using medieval dentistry tools and a lot of poking and twisting.  Second, actual medieval dentistry tools also made an appearance, shortly before a dentist administered cocaine as an anesthetic.  Third, viewers got some sound medical advice when it was shown that you cannot survive if a fist is thrust into your festering open gut wound.

A reminder of our cultural progress regarding racial relations surfaced via Nucky’s interaction with Chalky White (and a little nostalgia seeing Michael Kenneth Williams, the great Omar Little from The Wire).  Chalky White is now Nucky’s go-to bootlegger and the two have formed an uneasy alliance, but not before a cultural misunderstanding.  In a dialogue exchange that will be difficult to top – in this series or any other – Chalky uses the phrase, “As a baby’s ass, motherfucker,” to which Nucky asks, “What’s motherfucker mean?”  Nucky’s beautifully-mustached butler replies, “I suppose it’s a schvatza word.”

According to Urban Dictionary, “schavtza” is the Yiddish n-word (we also learned more Yiddish profanity, and if Yiddish is anything like other languages, the cuss words are all I’ll remember).  Though racial misunderstandings still exist in America, this scene, along with Doyle’s diner rendezvous, are stark examples of how different ethnicities were once openly regarded as strange and foreign.

Meanwhile, Margaret progresses from one cultural lifestyle to another as Nucky procures her a job at a fancy French boutique at the expense of an unseen 4-year employee.  Margaret gets the Pretty Woman treatment as she is obviously out of her element, only instead of being a frumpy customer a’la Julia Roberts, she is the frumpy sales associate chastised for not knowing the stores preferred language.  The audience knows Margaret’s perception of Nucky isn’t based on his true character, but his continued kindness to her is setting her up for yet another tragedy.

Speaking of Nucky, Atlantic City’s man behind the curtain may be hinting at his own progression from lavish gangster who has meaningless sex with gorgeous bimbos to lavish gangster to secretly dreams of settling down.  Nucky, like every man, wants what he doesn’t have.  Men with wives and kids dream of living like Nucky, but it appears the freewheelin’ treasurer may have domesticated dreams of his own.  Lucy (the one who’s been naked in every episode so far) tells him he was smart not to have children, but he may want the life he lost when his wife passed.  This life will definitely not include Lucy, who Nucky patronizingly said would be a good mother due to her “very loving disposition;” and it appears that as the series progresses he will pursue the frumpy sales girl demeaned by his current fling.  I may be misreading the situation and the show may be simply reiterating that Nucky isn’t the fatherly type, but his continued fascination with the “premature baby hospital” may show his true leanings.

Overall, this episode didn’t hold my own fascination like the previous two and I’m apprehensive of how taking Jimmy away from Atlantic City so early in the series will affect an already sprawling setting (though we all know he’ll return, hopefully with Al Capone in-tow).  Still, I’m having trouble keeping track of the many supporting characters already introduced and adding a Chicago cast isn’t likely to ease the confusion.  After a stunning start, Boardwalk Empire is now entering those middle episodes that can make or break a series, where the plot and characters must hold the audience’s initial interest for an additional nine hours.

Additional Thoughts

  • Watching Boardwalk Empire is like watching an old movie without the overacting.
  • Agent Van Alden will not be the series’ shining hero.  No one who quotes scripture while wiping the intestine blood from his hands is going to be John Wayne, but I don’t want another clear-cut good guy vs. clear-cut bad guy series.  I’m complex like that.
  • Feeling down about gaining a few pounds?  Don’t worry about it.  According to sheriff Eli, you’ll be more likely to survive in the woods for three days with a hole in your stomach.
  • Televised poker isn’t as enjoyable without the hole card cameras.
  • Watching this show requires researching 1920s pop culture.  This week’s historical figure appearing on screen: singer/performer Eddie Cantor.