Spoilers for last night’s episode of Boardwalk Empire coming up:
The impressive thing, and in a way the problem, of the pilot of Boardwalk Empire was that it was so movie-like. (An inevitable impression since it had Martin Scorsese behind the camera.) With the second episode, the show takes on the challenge of becoming a TV series—introducing complications and entanglements and expanding its universe of characters. And Boardwalk’s sprawling cast still has growing to do; there are still major characters, like Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White, who won’t really come to the fore for a couple more episodes. But what did we learn about the world of Atlantic City this week?
First, the partnership between Nucky and his brother Elias is not as seamless and uncomplicated as either man might hope. We see Nucky send out Elias as his errand boy to Margaret (disappointed to find which “Mr. Thompson” has come to visit her) to deliver money as well as a not-so-veiled threat that she could lose her children if she doesn’t play ball about her husband’s disappearance. Elias seems frustrated by being his subordinate; Nucky, by Elias’ slowness on the uptake.
We also get an expanded picture of the social world of Atlantic City and County, including its black community, which makes up 20% of its population and a significant portion of the political base of Thompson and his Republican machine (another way city politics has changed since 90 years ago). Thompson’s control over the county, and seemingly every dollar spent in it, attracts the further attention of agent Van Alden, who begins to suspect him as “the bigger fish.” (For his part, Van Alden has an almost inquisitorial rectitude and zeal that looks to be as frightening in its own way as the criminal activity he investigates.)
Finally, we learned that Jimmy and Al Capone’s heist was not tied up as neatly as they could have hoped, and that Boardwalk Empire has a visual sense of humor, as the missing fifth man turned up from the woods, horror movie style, as our particularly unlucky Romeo. George, parked with his lady friend for a bit of manual relief on the way back to Baltymore.
The irony of seeing Capone’s impulsive shooting come back to haunt the co-conspirators—as well as the clear indication that his hotheadedness was no one-time accident—is that we watch this knowing (no spoiler alert necessary) that he, and fellow loose cannon Lucky Luciano, became hugely successful gangsters. Times are changing, and the future does not necessarily belong to gentlemen gangsters who control their impulses and understand the niceties. But the loose cannon has left a loose end.
Quick hail of bullets:
* Given that in real life Gretchen Mol is about nine years older than Michael Pitt, was anyone else as jarred as I was to see her playing his mother?
* Jimmy’s delivery home of the newfangled “vacuum sweeper” was a twofer: it both underscored the idea that America was technologically and socially changing (for instance, with labor-saving devices that would affect domestic life) and, by terrifying Jimmy’s son, suggests that the money Jimmy is bringing into the home is not necessarily an unqualified boon.
* Speaking of money, one excellent moment among many: Nucky taking a $3,000 penalty from Jimmy, only to blow it, in Jimmy’s sight, on a spin of the roulette wheel.
* Since the pilot debuted, there’s been discussion out there of whether Steve Buscemi, a nontraditional leading man, was the right choice as Nucky Thompson. But another actor here who is not physically imposing in the usual sense, yet manages to be quietly terrifying, is Michael Stuhlbarg as Arnold Rothstein, whose menace is as cold as Capone’s is hot: “If I cause a stranger to choke to death for my own amusement, what do you think I’ll do to you if you don’t tell me who ordered you to kill Colisimo?”
* I have racked my brain over this since I watched the screener, but I cannot place it: I am certain that I have seen in another series or movie, or read in a novel, a scene similar to that in which the Commodore humiliates his servant with questions about the League of Nations to “prove” that “the women’s vote” is insipid. I cannot for the life of me come up with it, though, and it’s a tough sort of thing to Google, so my gratitude to anyone who can come up with it for me.