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Boardwalk Empire Watch: The Man Behind the Curtain

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Spoilers for last night’s Boardwalk Empire coming up:

“The Emerald City” was an underwhelming episode of  Boardwalk Empire, partly because it seemed largely to be mechanically setting up conflicts for the season’s final two installments. But also—after a run of strong episodes—it particularly indulged in some of Empire’s biggest weaknesses as a series.

Chief among them, in this episode, is a tendency to be subtle as a case of moonshine when it comes to spelling out its themes and its characters’ epiphanies. This was especially pronounced here in Margaret’s story and Al Capone’s subplot. That Margaret has been wrestling with how much she is going to be changed (and wants to be changed) by becoming Nucky’s mistress has been clear; that this is going to be an issues for an intelligent woman who has her own opinions and principles (which often differ with Nucky’s) is also abundantly clear.

The irony that she should mark American women’s achieving suffrage by agreeing to stand up for Nucky and shill for a candidate she knows to be unqualified—allowing him, essentially, to co-opt this triumph—was pretty clear to us and her. Underlining it, for instance, by having the camera linger on Nucky as he ignores his own candidate’s speech (proving, as didn’t need to be proven, that the guy is his patsy) was an additional hammer of the nail we didn’t need. And by the time we heard Harrow say that he passes by a mirror and hardly recognizes who he has become—just like Margaret! do you see it?!—that turned the hammer into a sledgehammer.

(It’s unfortunate, because I like Harrow in the series, and had liked his introduction into the Schroeder household. Having him liken himself to the Tin Woodsman to win over the Schroeder kids—at least the second time the Oz books, the Harry Potter of their times, have been referenced in the series—was charming, precisely because a blatant spelling out of an analogy makes sense when used with a four-year-old, as opposed to their mother, or for that matter an adult HBO audience.)

Likewise, it’s been abundantly clear for a while that bar mitzvah boy Capone has some growing up to do if he is to become the capable mob boss that we know he will. Passing Torrio the exploding cigarette—a juvenile move, it seemed, even for him—was proof enough that he needed to grow up. But actually having him come to an epiphany by sitting down and having a wise old Jewish man explain the rites of manhood to him—”You’re a man, yet you wear the cap of a boy”—oy gevalt, enough already!

Then there was the subplot of Van Alden’s defeat, frustration and fall into dissolution. On the one hand, Michael Shannon has been captivating every second he’s been on screen as the zealous investigator. On the other hand, it seemed like the episode missed a chance to further complicate his character through his fall into sin; instead, we got another variation on Van Alden as the self-flagellating, repressed moralist. (And—in another of Empire’s occasional attempts to out-HBO anything that’s been on HBO to date—a super-graphic sex scene with Paz de la Huerta, who I’m pretty sure at this point has been more nude than any woman has ever been on non-porn TV, and I’m including Tell Me You Love Me.)

On the plus side, Jimmy’s further descent into brutality was tough to watch but plausible and well played. And we saw the return of Chalky White, who threw an intriguing complication into Nucky’s plan to eliminate Rothstein’s muscle by literally jumping the gun(s) and getting payback for the lynching of his man. His vengeance was not just dramatically surprising and satisfying; more important, it established him as someone who is not simply willing to act as Nucky’s employee, subordinating his interests to Nucky’s larger plan.

Chalky is Nucky’s ally, associate and peer, not his stooge. And Nucky implicitly acknowledges this when Chalky asks why he never said that the D’Alessios were behind he lynching. Nucky says he didn’t have confirmation, but Buscemi delivers the line in such a way that suggests he knows that he owed Chalky more than this, and that he’s shamefaced that it played out in this way—even as he’s also concerned that Chalky’s independent act may have jeopardized his own strategy against Rothstein.

I’m guessing—and this really is just a guess, as I have not watched the additional screener I have—that the looming Black Sox scandal somehow functions to hurt Rothstein and give Nucky leverage to keep control of his operation. Otherwise, on the face of it, it would seem that however well Nucky plays things politically, he has to be outmuscled in the face of the New York mob.

Of course, we’ve seen New Jersey get the upper hand over the New York mob on HBO before. With two episodes remaining, care to advance any guesses?

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