Tuned In

Boardwalk Empire Watch: Crank Up the Old Victrola

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Spoiler alert: Before you read this post, stop reading that derivative script about the rich society boy who falls for the servant girl and watch last night’s Boardwalk Empire.

I need to keep this week’s Boardwalk Empire Watch brief, which is just as well, since “A Dangerous Maid” (1) dealt largely with advancing more pieces on the Nucky-vs.-Commodore gameboard and (2) otherwise focused on the return of the out-of-wedlock deadlock that is the relationship of Lucy and Van Alden.

Even that storyline seemed dominated by the ghost of Nucky, with Van Alden, despite his professed contempt for the man, seeming finally to feel some pressure to compete with the “fun” treasurer of Atlantic City by sending a Victrola to his captive babymamma. As for Lucy, pregnant and pining to escape, it’s hard to tell where she feels more imprisoned: in her paid-for apartment or in her body itself.

Boardwalk Empire may be a story of Prohibition, but as it made clear early on, it is also about a period of resurgent feminism in which women had just gotten the vote (itself a fact not unconnected to Prohibition). So although the show sometimes loses this thread in its attention to Nucky and the other male characters, it’s also very conscious of the way women are able to attempt and exercise power in this world.

Margaret, for instance, has come up in the world through Nucky, but she has also made herself through her own savvy. (She also relies on her background of working-class toughness; this week saw her balancing her identification with the household staff—whom she was once not much different from—with her position as the boss.) Lucy, on the other hand, has very much depended on, as she puts it, making herself “important to somebody.” While she fantasizes escape through the musical whose script Eddie Cantor brings her, and wins herself the temporary attention of Van Alden, it’s hard to imagine this playing out well for her for long–or her staying content listening to music alone for long. Her desperation and limitation (she has a hard time imagining an out beyond throwing herself down the stairs, presumably to lose the baby) may make her pathetic, but they also make her sympathetic.

The Nucky storyline, meanwhile, concentrated on various ways that he might be able to leverage his remaining contacts to get the upper hand on the Commodore, now using the Coast Guard to put the squeeze on him: his political connections in Washington, the Irish, Jimmy’s remaining filial loyalty or his associates outside Atlantic City.

As for the last of those, it was telling to see outsider Al Capone blow through town and react, amused, to the relatively genteel way these Atlantic City criminals carry out their feuds, laughing at Jimmy’s description of a political coup designed to put Nucky in jail. “Jail?” he asks, indicating Harrow. “Just have Frankenstein drill a hole in his noggin!”

Harrow says he won’t do that, which puzzles Capone even further, and by episode’s end, we’ve seen him in a tense–but for now bloodless–standoff with Nucky’s new muscle, Mr. Slater. We also see Jimmy pushed to choose, again, between his “two fathers,” as Nucky presses him with the unromantic story of the Commodore choosing his mother for his pleasure. (I wonder too if the Commodore will eventually undermine himself with his borderline-belittling paternalism toward his newly rediscovered son: “Meet his eyes, boy!”) Nobody’s getting drilled, for now, but it feels like we’re getting closer.