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Boardwalk Empire Watch: Sacrificing the Pawns

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Spoilers for last night’s Boardwalk Empire coming up:

While Boardwalk Empire is a crime story, it’s not a story mainly about the men who pull the triggers but rather the men who hire them. And while it is in many ways a political story, it’s not mainly about political leaders but about the men who select them. So as war began to break out in the ninth episode, “Belle Femme,” it was a proxy war, a chess match, as we witnessed the various ways that its men exercised power behind the scenes—and one woman got an uncomfortable introduction to doing the same.

On the bootlegging side of the story, Arnold Rothstein deployed his pieces onto the board, entering into a formal arrangement with the D’Alessios to bump off Nucky Thompson. (Michael Stuhlbarg’s cool menace in the scene in which he met with them made me wish again he could somehow get more screen time.) His plan gets an unanticipated boost from, of all things, the law, as Van Alden intercepts Jimmy in the midst of taking Luciano to a secluded place to deal with him. But Van Alden in turn is tripped up when his own lieutenant—presumably in Thompson’s pocket—eliminates the key witness against Jimmy. (The agent’s compromised loyalty, funnily enough, was something I first suspected when he “lost” the telegram—and Van Alden seemed to suspect it too—but he managed to convince me he was still on Van Alden’s side up until he drove Billy for his final view of the ocean.)

On the political front, meanwhile, Nucky exercises power behind the scenes of a different kind, in response to a reformist challenge to his Republican slate in the upcoming elections. On the Commodore’s advice, he decides to change playing pieces: if the people want change, then he’ll change out his candidate and give them change he can believe in (and, of course, control). The open question being whether he can also take his mentor’s advice and ditch his brother, under political attack and resting his spleen in the hospital.

Maybe the most interesting, and curious, exercise of behind-the-scenes power is Margaret’s. After Madame Jeunet pleads with her, she decides to intercede for her boss with Nucky, to reduce her payoffs to the county. But why, exactly? As Margaret eventually acknowledges, she has no reason to do anything good for the woman, who was nothing but belittling to her when Margaret worked for her, and phony to her afterwards. There’s the reward—the expensive blue dress fancied by Nan—but if that was the reason, it’s a change in character for Margaret, who even after becoming Nucky’s mistress has not seemed interested in luxuries for their own sake.

Is she becoming addicted to the trappings of being a kept woman? Or is it simply important to her to do this because she can—to prove that she can get a result from Nucky (who is seeing her as a valuable political helpmeet as well)? She’s become aware, by reading Nucky’s ledgers, that her boyfriend is more than just a powerful bureaucrat. As she considered when deciding whether to get involved with Nucky, her resources as a widowed mother are limited on their own, but being with Nucky gives her access to money and power; this, it seems, is Margaret testing out her new arrangement and seeing what she can do with it.

Of course, it’s hard to miss the message at the end of the episode, when Margaret—after the failed hit attempt against Nucky on the boardwalk (Go, Eddie!), ends up with her new dress ruined by blood. With the exercise of real power comes real consequences; is she prepared to wear the stains?

Now for the hail of bullets:

* During the New York scene, Rothstein pulls off some impressive pool shooting that is either some nice cue work by Stuhlabrg or an admirably set-up trick stunt; at one point he sinks three balls in one shot, with no editing trickery to create the illusion.

* No sooner does Jimmy get back into town than his mother lures Luciano into bed so Jimmy can get the drop on him—what a mother won’t do for her child! All this raises the question: exactly how long did Jimmy know that his mother and Luciano were sleeping together, and how quickly did this setup come together?

* Another subplot, Angela’s relationship with the photographer and his wife, continues to feel disconnected from the rest of the story; while it adds interest to Jimmy’s sudden return to town, it’s hard to build up a lot of interest in her art aspirations or whether her work really is derivative of Mary Cassat.

* While we didn’t get a lot of Van Alden in this episode, his interrogation of Jimmy was telling vis a vis his obsession with Margaret; even with his prime suspect in custody, he can’t resist asking Jimmy what her relationship with Nucky is. Does he have the courage of his convictions or the courage of his obsession?