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Boardwalk Empire Watch: Do the Right Thing

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Margaret (Macdonald, left) goes to Brooklyn to find her past.

SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, stop listening to that pay-wireless boxing match and watch last night’s Boardwalk Empire.

Much of all drama boils down to whether a character will do the right thing. What complicates drama, and life, are questions like: What is the right thing? What if there is more than one right thing, and they each contradict each other? What’s the difference between doing the right thing and merely doing the righteous thing? What if there is no right thing, and what matters, instead, is simply doing something?

“Peg of Old” asked these questions of several Boardwalk Empire characters, and in the process, provided an overdue showcase for Kelly Macdonald.

Boardwalk Empire’s first season did excellent work with Margaret’s moral conflicts, as the woman who started off as a Prohibition activist and battered wife ended up the lover of a bootlegger, having to wrestle with whether and why to give up principle for security and power. But in the first half of this season, she’s often faded into the background of the struggle between Nucky and Jimmy and the Commodore.

She came roaring back in “Peg of Old,” traveling to Brooklyn for a reunion/confrontation with her family—in particular, with her brother Eamoinn (Tony Curran), each of them feeling wronged by the other. We knew that Margaret fled Ireland, pregnant, and miscarried on the passage over. Here, we explore the backstory: that her family was ready to commit her to the notorious Magdalene Sisters asylum for “fallen women,” and the he escaped to America, paying her way with money meant to bring her brother across.

Given the history between them, it is probably too much to hope that Margaret can show up, newly rich, and reconcile by paying him back and becoming her siblings’ patron. But what’s between them is greater than resentment: it’s two different views of morality, of the right thing. To him, what is right is what he’s been taught, the values of his community: what priests and parents and nuns say about correct, Christian behavior. When people step outside that authority and begin crafting their own morality, everything falls apart.

To Margaret, on the other hand, her brother has betrayed a fundamental, primal morality: to defend and protect one’s family and loved ones. His life may be harder financially but it’s much easier morally because he farms out his every dilemma to the Church, even when the result is giving over his sister to its cruel justice over a mistake. “You’re honest, are you?” she asks him with sweet fury, in an Emmy-clip of a speech. “Never take more than you need. Never talk back to the priest or the boss or the policeman. Never question. Never make a fuss. Never dare to stand up for me, your own flesh and blood.”

Their final confrontation is outstanding, and the episode overall lets Macdonald display the range she’s brought to this character, whom she credibly makes empathetic yet tough, moral yet sophisticated, deeply sensitive yet–when circumstances and self-preservation require–controlled and steely.

So when she comes home to Atlantic City, she decides to connect with Old Ireland on her own terms: the consummation of her long-telegraphed attraction to Owen is not a moment of uncontrolled passion but an expression of power. “Are you mine to command?” she asks him–in the most sexually charged discussion of baggage portage I’ve ever seen–and afterward, tells him that this never happened. But in between she utters her most telling line—that Sleater doesn’t really know her at all—a powerful statement in an episode that showed us the reasons she has to be so guarded.

Agent Van Alden, meanwhile, confronts his own moral choice, in the form of a deal/threat from his quarry, Nucky Thompson. (In the process, we learn, finally, how the Nelson/Lucy love child will connect with the larger plot.) Van Alden can be Nucky’s ears on the new prosecutor, Esther Randolph, and see his money problems go away—or he can refuse, and be exposed for embezzlement. (Nucky knows well enough about how money travels to immediately infer how Van Alden has been funding his double life on a Fed’s salary.)

After a bonding moment with the new baby, he goes to the office—and promptly offer to help Randolph put Nucky away. In earnest of his offer, he confesses to Randolph about his love child, so that she’ll know he’s honest. But is he? Adultery may be a sin in the Lord’s eyes, but what his boss would care about is his stealing—a vulnerability that, presumably, Nucky can still punish him with. (A confession: I do not entirely know whether to read this as Van Alden’s decision to resist Nucky’s temptations or if in fact this is all part of some vaster double-cross engineered by Nucky. This is probably the result of watching one too many “twist” plots on TV dramas lately.) Either way, this simple and believable moral conflict is a much better use of Michael Shannon than the borderline-crazy theatrics it’s put him through in the past.

Jimmy, finally, has a moral choice to make—or rather, ends up having it made for him. In a meeting that quickly spirals out of his control, his insistence on ending Nucky politically becomes a plan to end him physically, and he goes along with it to avoid humiliation. (Michael Shannon nicely conveys his frustration and loss of power in the room silently.) As Gillian tells him, in yet another creepily charged encounter—where is this going? also, don’t tell me!—what’s going to happen is going to happen. The important thing now is that he be seen as ending up on the winning side.

In other words, by going on his new path, he is crossing over—if he hadn’t already—into a place were there is no right, only might. Or as he whispers to Nucky: “It doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong. You just have to make a decision.”

Needless to say, it doesn’t go down as Al Capone et al. planned: this is not Game of Thrones, the headline star is not being killed off the show, and a Federal agent just happens to be on hand to blow Nucky’s assailant’s head off. Jimmy walks off, with an enigmatic look on his face. What sort of decision has he made?

Now the hail of bullets:

* My hand to God, I have not watched any future episodes of Boardwalk Empire, be regarding Margaret and Owen: please, not another one-time-wonder pregnancy.

* Speaking of which: I loved Nucky’s way of welcoming new mother Lucy to his office: “You and I have not seen each other since May 23 of last year.” Showing not only that he suspects the reason that she’s there, but that he’s long since anticipated it, and done the necessary math.

* I had just noted to myself that there were no showily gory scenes of violence in this episode when, like clockwork, Owen garroted his old Irish chum’s fingers off.

* Not that it should have surprised me, but the bluntness with which Eli signs on to Capone’s plan—”Jesus Christ, just kill him”—was a nice, swift punch in the gut.

* “I am a married man.” “There goes my dream.” I like this lady already.