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Boardwalk Empire Watch: Slap Happy

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SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, gather round your visitors from Philadelphia and watch last night’s Boardwalk Empire.

“What Does the Bee Do?,” the fourth episode of Boardwalk Empire‘s second season, returns to a familiar theme about power: whether it is better–oh, hell, you don’t want to talk about that, do you? Let’s first talk about the last scene, also to be known as the finest HBO slap scene since Tyrion reset Joffrey’s clock on Game of Thrones.

The relationship of Gillian to the Commodore has been one of the most curious ones on Boardwalk Empire. (Tied, perhaps, with the relationship of Gillian to Jimmy, to Lucky Luciano and to anyone else.) Since she hardly seems like a weak woman, and since we know that the Commodore essentially bought and raped her as a girl, it’s been unsettling to see her make a weird, reunited family with him and their son, Jimmy–not just grudgingly, but, it seems enthusiastically and even affectionately. (As Eli says, making sense for once, “None of that’s normal. It never was.”) All the more so, then, at the beginning of the episode as she does a striptease for her childhood brutalizer, even when she unwittingly precipitates his stroke with her prop Diana’s arrow.

So, yes, I’m going to say that it was pretty satisfying come episodes end when we saw her–with the Commodore in bed and as helpless as she was once–drop the facade and smack the holy hell out of him. But it was also the most dramatic playing out of a theme in the episode: when is principle more important than pragmatism?

Nucky Thompson, of course, is the poster boy for putting expediency over passion, not giving in to passion, peeling off a few bills and wishing everyone could just be happy getting rich. In his bootlegging conflict, though, he finally realizes that there are certain problems that need to be dealt with through dynamite, not dollars. And in his political, business and personal life, he runs up against the messy, human fact that sometimes the expedient thing doesn’t matter when there’s a principle at stake.

At home, the dissonance is with Margaret, who clashes with him over giving a bonus to the household staff. “It’s two dollars extra apiece,” he argues. “It makes no difference to us, but to them it’s a windfall.” To Margaret, it’s a matter of principle; speaking not from privilege but from her own service background, she reminds Nucky that the staff also steal from them. “That’s what everyone does. And we pretend not to know and life goes on.”

The payoff, it turns out, does nothing to win the staff’s gratitude, since he had drunkenly promised them a permanent raise that’s not coming. But to Margaret, the dispute is really part of a larger argument over how Nucky leads his life–their life–that is magnified by his (to him) lucky break of turning his indictment into a Federal prostitution charge (which he can have buried by his contacts in Washington). To him, it’s a no-brainer: you accept the expedient break at the cost of a public scandal that means nothing. We pretend not to know and life goes on. To Margaret, of course, the solution is humiliating and not irrelevant at all, an embarrassment that she reacts to the only way she can in the moment, by demanding an extra hundred dollars for household spending. If she is to be bought off by Nucky, it will at least cost more than two bucks.

Chalky White also has problems he can’t easily buy his way out of–the widows of his men murdered by the Klan, who want revenge, not just to be “taken care of.” They confront him at his community meeting, but Nucky–who doesn’t have to sit in that room–counsels him, again, to wait. Chalky, protecting his own role as leader in his community, embarrassingly confronts the limits of his power: without Nucky’s OK, he can offer only payoffs, not payback.

It’s not enough, and when he goes home–where, in an intriguing study of family dynamics, he feels disrespected by the very bourgeois family he’ tried to build–he demands his payback in respect. (In fact, watching this scene–Chalky feels like the “field nigger” in his own opulent home, with his low-class taste for hoppin’ john–makes me wonder if an HBO series about the black community in the 1920s, Harlem Renaissance era would have been a more interesting take on the decade.)

Which brings us back to Gillian. What seemed like an extreme case of Stockholm Syndrome, we see, was actually a tremendous effort of will. She might not like her life, but expediency demands that she act like she does. She might hate The Commodore, but expediency demands that she welcome, even encourage, a reunion. It’s an act, as elaborate and practiced as any Greek-goddess boobie-show pantomime.

And while it seemed a stretch that she would hide her real feelings from anyone–even Jimmy, in private–in retrospect it at least makes sense. What matter above all is her welfare and especially her son’s; to ensure that, she must never break character. Until The Commodore himself breaks, and it’s just she and he alone in a bedroom.

“I understand,” she says early in the episode when the Commodore says he couldn’t have married her because he had a city to run. “I always have.” It’s just that what she understands is different from what she wants him to believe she understands. She understands that security in this world comes from power, that men like The Commodore have great and expansive power and that hers is more limited and specific. Whatever she feels deep down, the expedient thing is to take advantage of what leverage she has.

Principle tells Gillian that she should hate The Commodore. Expediency tells her to keep control and make a family with the man who can, at least, pay her and her son back for what he did to her. But with The Commodore vegetablized from a stroke, expediency has failed her, which leaves her only with principle, and principle tells her to slap the living crap out of him.

Sometimes it’s hard to argue with principle.

Now a quick hail of bullets:

* As I’ve said, I haven’t watched ahead in my screeners, so none of this is based on secret knowledge, but Jimmy’s position seems to have reversed pretty quickly, without his even knowing it. His patron is enfeebled, he’s down in cash and it would seem he has no liquor to make good on an advance payment from a man with a very large knife.

* I wasn’t sure if I was reading too much into Margaret’s initial reception of Slater, but judging by the way she reacts to the servants making goo-goo eyes over him, can we assume he’s brought something dangerous into the Thompson home other than blasting gel?

* I didn’t discuss it above, because it didn’t directly link to the main storylines in most ways, but the subplot with Angela sketching Harrow was just beautiful. And it made more literal my feeling from last season that Harrow’s appearance—not unlike something out of a De Chirico painting—was a nod to the way the horrors of World War I inspired Surrealist art.

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