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Boardwalk Empire Watch: In the Names of the Fathers

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, turn off that Chaplin picture and watch last night’s season premiere of Boardwalk Empire.

Boardwalk Empire‘s first season resolved a longstanding question of paternity: who was Jimmy’s father? Some fans had suspected it might be Nucky Thompson, the “uncle” who did much of the work of raising him. It turned out that the daddy was actually The Commodore, however—the man, eased out of power by Nucky, who now plots revenge against him—and that settled the issue.

Or did it? There are fathers and there are fathers, and while we now know whose genes Jimmy has, the central conflict set up for this season—on a show very much concerned with literal, figurative and spiritual paternity—is: who has Jimmy’s loyalty?

For now, Jimmy, with Eli, remains in The Commodore’s camp—though after the Klan attack orchestrated on Chalky White’s warehouse, we already see the potential for division, as Jimmy questions the bloodshed, especially the shooting of a woman. Unlike Nucky—who may be a bastard in many ways but tends to see war as bad for business and something to avoid—The Commodore answers bluntly: “Did you mollycoddle the enemy in France, Jimmy?” He then offers some paternal advice, telling a hunting story and concluding: “You’ll be judged by what you succeed at, boy. Not by what you attempt.”

There’s a poignant overtone to the story, though. As we learn elsewhere in the episode, it was Nucky who usually took Jimmy out to shoot birds when he was a boy, not his father. Nucky, no idiot, already suspects something with The Commodore, grilling Jimmy about him at the Klansman’s funeral and warning, “Your father is a very devious man.” Yet you can see how Jimmy might be drawn to The Commodore’s style of fathering, compared with Nucky’s more awkward, arm’s-length style.

Which Nucky has a chance to practice again on another generation, as Teddy runs into trouble with matches at his school, and Margaret tells Nucky, none too subtly, that Teddy could use some fathering himself. Nucky, we know, had a rough childhood—last season, we heard a description of his “drunk Piney” of a dad—and he’s probably developed his style in reaction to that. But while he refuses to do as he mentioned his father would have and take the belt to Teddy, his own version of discipline is no great improvement, as he stiffly and unconvincingly tells Teddy to mind his mother and the sisters at school.

And then it comes out: Nucky’s Magic Problem-Solving Bankroll, from which he peels the kid off a sheaf, as if he’s one more pain-in-the-ass constituent coming to Nucky’s office with his troubles. This gesture—maybe well-meant, but bloodless and tone-deaf all the same—has an echo too, as Jimmy opens Nucky’s wedding gift: another wad of bills meant to paper everything over. Eli said it well in last season’s finale—”There are consequences to what you do that you can’t buy out of with money”—but Nucky does not seem to believe it yet.

There are other fathers that figure into this paternity-heavy episode: Van Alden, visiting Lucy, pregnant with his child, and Chalky, who we see for the first time with his wife and teenage son Lester (Justiin Davis), headed for Morehouse (who, and I swear I have not watched future episodes so as not to spoil these weekly writeups, I hope is not there as foreshadowing of something awful). Chalky, of course, is motivated in his defense by the very personal memory of having seen his own daddy lynched as a child, and now fears that he cannot provide security for he and his despite all the power he’s worked to acquire.

But “21″ also keeps returning to the subject of the Holy Family. Maybe the most evocative small moment in the episode is Mrs. Van Alden’s crushing disappointment in discovering that the pamphlet she’s handed by one of her husband’s deputies—”If Jesus Ever Came to Atlantic City”—and discovers that it’s actually a guide to “houses of ill repute.” There is no Jesus in this Atlantic City, not that she can see, anyway.

But there are plenty willing to claim him: when the doomed Klansman (Jimmy’s former teacher) trains a rifle on Chalky, it’s in the name of “Purity, sobriety and the white Christian’s Jesus.” And in a striking directorial sleight-of-hand, we see Nucky both condemn the racist attack and its victims, speaking from the pulpit of two very different churches in a seamlessly cut speech: “neither I, Sherriff Thompson nor any of his men will rest until these hooded cowards are brought to justice and the message is sent loud and clear that / no one need fear for their safety, or the safety of their wives, children or property in the face of the obstreperous Negro. These coloreds need to learn a lesson, and we are going to teach it.”

It’s an example of the deft, if cynical, way that Nucky has held on to power to this point, playing every side off the other and into his pocket. But with his enemies getting more bold—and the law busting him for getting too clever in finessing the last election—it seems as if Nucky is facing trouble that he will have to confront head-on, rather than try to talk or buy his way out of it. It may just be time to reach for the belt.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* Boardwalk developed a pretty broad cast of characters and stories its first season, and I’m glad that it didn’t try to give everyone a sizeable cut of screen time in one episode. That said, it’s too bad that it was largely the female characters whose stories were back-burnered in a pretty male-centric episode. While we’re speaking of fathers and sons, though,  one storyline set up that promises to be interesting is the conflict at home between Angela and her too-close-for comfort mother-in-law, still cooking her baby boy’s ham and eggs. The beatific smile on Gretchen Mol’s face as she says, “You know, when Jimmy was a baby and I would change his diaper, I used to kiss his little winky”—brrrrrr.

* On the other hand, I’m just fine with the already busy episode flick at the doings (and further potential trouble) in Chicago and trust that we’ll catch up eventually.

* I can never, however, get enough of Harrow, and Jack Huston (and his mask) manage to make his slightest scenes memorable—here, simply in the way he pushes around food on his plate and asks Jimmy what it’s like to have everything, followed by the haunting scene of him pasting domestic scenes into a scrapbook.

* “You want to grow up to be a fishmonger?” “Yes.” Parenting is like lawyering. Don’t ever ask a question to which you don’t already know the answer.

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