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Boardwalk Empire Watch: Jail Baiting

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, put down that copy of Tom Sawyer—or David Copperfield, or whatever—and watch last night’s Boardwalk Empire.

Two men begin this episode of Boardwalk Empire, “Ourselves Alone,” in jail. One is quickly set free on bail and eventually returns to his luxurious home for a sumptuous dinner. The other is left there to linger in the threatening company of a hardened criminal.

Which of them is safer?

The comparative jail terms of Nucky Thompson and Chalky White says a lot about their relative positions and the status of their communities in 1920s Atlantic City. In their business dealings, they’re peers, and they treat each other as such. But when it comes to spending a night in the joint, the difference between a powerful white man and a powerful black man becomes clear. Nucky is sprung from his cell while Chalky stays behind–in Nucky’s words for his own safety, and he may well be right–and is soon thrown into the general population because a white man needs his cell, and “We can’t mix the races.”

But how each man fares is also a testament to their relative power right now within their communities. Chalky’s cellmate Dunn Purnsley doesn’t know him, and quickly tries to establish himself as alpha dog, taunting him over his wife, the book from his son (which Chalky can’t read) and, especially, his fine clothes, which says to him that Chalky feels he’s better than him. (He likens Chalky to Zip Coon and Tambo, old-time minstrel-show characters. I can’t tell you how much time I spent on these reviews looking up hundred-year-old slang.)

Chalky is a powerful, feared man outside this room, but in here, he’s just a man–“just another jiggaboo in a jail cell”–and he tries at first to defuse the situation with his wits. But when that fails him, he smoothly, fearsomely, uses something more powerful than any one man’s fists: his connections. The fact that he knows every local black man in the cell with him–has paid their daddy’s doctor bills and fed their families and knows their middle names–and they quickly teach the out-of-towner just who the hell Chalky White is.

Chalky White doesn’t need to raise a finger, because he has a powerful weapon: loyalty. He comes from a community within a community that has bled together and survived together, and he has a bond with them that goes beyond the simply transactional.

Whereas Nucky? Nucky had the entire power structure of Atlantic City on his side, until he didn’t. Now, with his ward bosses peeling off to The Commodore’s side, he finds that his relationship with them is as thin as the hundred-dollar bills with which he bought their loyalty. Nucky is a smart man, a businessman, but he hasn’t been able to bond deeply with his people. His is a cold kind of leadership, based neither in fear nor love but convenience. “”I’ve tried to keep people satisfied,” he tells Margaret near the end of the episode. And she–with apparently a greater understanding of his situation than he has, having just saved his money and ledger with a fantastic bit of playacting–tells him he should know better: “They will not be satisfied.”

The meeting Nucky has with the Sinn Fein representative is more than coincidental; the popular mistranslation of the group’s name–“Ourselves Alone”–gives the episode its title and, it would seem, inspires Margaret’s advice. The Irish rebels understand that beyond words, they need literal power–guns–and the figurative power that comes from a deeper, tribal affiliation.

The show is in danger of repeating itself, because in a way Margaret’s advice is a rephrasing of what Jimmy told Nucky a year ago: “You can’t be half a gangster.” Nucky is no longer in the position of being merely a businessman, or even a corrupt pol, able to buy his hold on power with money. Facing the rejuvenated Commodore, he needs to outsmart his enemies, and fight them.

There are also the outlines of a generational conflict in this battle, with at least three camps. On one side of Nucky is The Commodore, the old silverback literally proving his strength to his men and showing off his hunting trophies as proof of his virility. On the other side of him is Jimmy Darmody–who has not stuffed grizzlies but his bloody experience fighting hand-to-hand in the Great War–and the younger gangsters who see Prohibition (and now the heroin trade) as possibly their chance to leapfrog Nucky’s generation and take power themselves.

Nucky ends the episode certain that Jimmy will take the The Commodore’s side. The Commodore’s men are not convinced that Jimmy will stay with them. And it looks like they’re each right to look to him as the linchpin of this war, as he goes off to negotiate with the New York mob and finds younger men, like Luciano and Meyer Lansky, who are tired of being errand boys; like the Mafia version of twentysomething Silicon Valley startup leaders, they want to be their own bosses, and now. As Lansky says, “Nobody wants to be in school forever.”

There’s something in them, and during their meeting, you sense that Arnold Rothstein can see it in Jimmy too: “Who are you, Mr Darmody?” he asks. “You show up well-dressed, with a suit cravat and a bold proposal. A year ago, you were a brigand in the woods. Who are you?”

“I’m a businessman,” Jimmy answers. Though by episode’s end, he has a bloody knife that says he’s more than just that. Maybe Nucky could learn something from this younger generation.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* “When you come face to face with destiny, do you want to be the bear, or do you want to be holding the shotgun?” I plane to use that line in everyday conversation from now on. Though I am not entirely convinced that The Commodore—relying on shows of literal strength to keep his men on his side—is the shotgun-holder and not the bear in this situation.

* “Is he competent?” “He’s a Hebrew gentleman.”

* Again, this episode of Empire did not strain to give screen time to every one of its many storylines, and I can’t say I especially missed Van Alden and Lucy.

* Loved the scene in which McGarrigle’s assistant, Slater, mistakes Margaret for a serving woman—”Off you go, there’s a good colleen”—and his change in tone once he realizes he’s misspoken. Though probably more significant is the much-impressed look on his face when Margaret talks back to his sanctimonious boss (“You’re plain-spoken, for a woman”). And—hmmmm—apparently he’s going to be staying in town for a while.

* A confession: at first viewing, I did not notice Dominic Chianese, minus Unlcle Junior glasses, plus fabulous 19th-century-style muttonchops. It takes some doing to him him in plain sight on HBO.

* “How dirty is this town? Is there an honest man in Atlantic City?” “Is there a sober reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer?” Ah, for print media’s glory days!

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