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Boardwalk Empire Watch: Arsenic and Old Wounds

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Spoilers for last night’s Boardwalk Empire coming up:

Last week’s Boardwalk Empire may have had the actual gunfire, but “Paris Green” was chock full of people pulling triggers. There was a welter of activity, mostly surrounding characters ending relationships, or trying to, as the series set up to end its first season next Sunday.

Count up the number of severed, or nearly severed, ties in this installment: Margaret cutting Nucky loose, he in turn cutting Elias loose. Angela trying to leave Jimmy; Gillian trying, almost successfully, to end things permanently with the Commodore (revealed to us now as Jimmy’s father); and Van Alden successfully, and horribly, dismissing Agent Sepso, the object of his suspicions. Even the subplot about Harry’s ruination in the original Ponzi scheme ended with a breakup (though in a twist, it was he who flew the coop on Annabelle, taking her stash with him).

In the process, a lot of old baggage was unpacked and unspoken grievances addressed, in an episode that was as explosive on a character level as last week’s was on a shooting-people-in-the-head level. There was, of course, the showdown between Nucky and Margaret, in which she confronted him with all she knows about his operation, and he voiced out loud what she had been seeing in herself as she became his consort: that despite her protestations, she was not an innocent, but a knowing partner in a mutually beneficial arrangement.

But what were the terms of that arrangement? We’d seen that Nucky wanted Margaret’s practical and political assistance in exchange for his support, but here he made plain what the series had been hinting at: that he had been hoping for, at least on some level, a child. What Margaret wants is a more intriguing question. It’s more than money, or there would be no issue between them. It’s more than Nucky’s affection, and I doubt that she’s naive enough that, knowing what she does about him, that she can want his redemption. (Which anyway would largely take the money with it.)

It seems that what she wants is, pragmatically, power, and the ability to make a difference through the only means available to her—but not only on the terms Nucky dictates. If being a mistress and implicitly condoning Nucky’s bootlegging (and by extension her husband’s murder) is the price, the reward would seem to be being able to participate in the actual reformist side of Republican politics, not just as Nucky’s pawn but with an actual voice. Whether she can, and whether there’s a further concession involved (say, that baby), remains to be seen, but if their relationship is an arrangement, then by leaving she may have opened its terms for renegotiation.

For my money, the showdown between Nucky and Elias was an even more powerful scene, laying bare Eli’s resentment of Nucky and Nucky’s contempt for his brother in ugly terms. The irony is that Eli, who has often come across as a lummox and a weight for Nucky to carry, is in many ways in the right this time, colored as his views may be by jealousy. Nucky has in fact dangerously exposed them and their associates through his relationship with the “liability” Margaret (another reason to suspect Nucky will patch things up with her somehow). But just at the moment that Elias has his greatest insight into Nucky—or maybe because of it—Nucky reaches the decision that he couldn’t be talked into earlier: to sacrifice his brother for the sake of his party’s ticket.

Meanwhile, the two “breakups” surrounding Jimmy shed light on what made him what he is and on what he (possibly) is becoming. We got confirmation that the Commodore is in fact his dad, and why Jimmy resents him: Jimmy was conceived when Gillian was only 13, thanks to Nucky serving as pander for the randy old politico. (This in turn is also the root of Nucky’s paternal relationship with Jimmy, for whom he feels responsible, and is probably one of many original sins driving the guilt he tries to assuage through Margaret.) Gillian’s own feelings toward the Commodore are more complicated—or at least more convoluted, as she has “reconnected” with him in his old age, apparently with the aim of poisoning him for his money.

Jimmy’s behavior toward the Commodore here, his reaction to his discovery of his mother’s plot and his response to Angela’s return home all show how excellent Michael Pitt has become in this role. He has to play Jimmy as someone who’s become a kind of monster—though sometimes a sympathetic and principled one—but who is cursed with the self-awareness that he is a monster, of the reasons why that is and of the effects of his behavior: “I am what time and circumstance have made me.” It is maybe for that reason that he doesn’t create a scene when Angela returns, after having left him a goodbye note, though his calm response to catching her out in the presence of their son is horrific all the same. The question: whether Jimmy recognizes his own role in her wanting to leave, and whether he’s driven to be a different man at home.

Someone who doesn’t seem to be driven to change in any way is Van Alden, who continues to be absorbing on the screen as Michael Shannon plays him, but for many of the wrong reasons: he’s such a histrionic, guilt-wracked, damnation-obsessed monster that he reminds me of Brother Justin from HBO’s Carnivale. As well staged as his drowning of Agent Sepso was, it threatened to take him entirely out of the realm of believability. (I suppose I can believe that a government agent of his time would expect to get away with committing a murder in full view of an African-American church crowd, but it seemed reckless and insane even by his standards.)

Still, undeniably the stakes have been raised for the final episode of the season. We’ve had a baptism by water—maybe the fire next time?

Quick hail of bullets:

* I inadvertently laughed during the Commodore’s speech to Jimmy; it’s just hard to hear someone brag about “building those hotels” in Atlantic City without conjuring images of Monopoly. (“And I bought up all those railroads and utilities!”)

* One thing that bothered me about Van Alden’s turn for the even crazier is that the storyline had plenty going for it without that: the religious bigotry behind his mistrust of Sepso, for instance, and the complicating factor that Van Alden is actually right, even if it’s his monomania and insanity that lead him to the correct conclusion.

* “The wrong man is running this town.” I’m glad the Commodore is (apparently) going to survive, because I’d love to see Dabney Coleman in a second season. And if the old man can make this much trouble from his deathbed, imagine what he can do on his two feet.

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