Tuned In

Boardwalk Empire Watch: Generation Gap

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Eli and his father, in an episode with even more father-and-son issues than usual.

SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, finish playing that fortuitously instructive board game with your ersatz family and watch last night’s Boardwalk Empire.

As I’ve mentioned in these reviews before, Boardwalk Empire is a tale of three generations: Jimmy Darmody’s, which fought the Great War; the Commodore’s, which came of age around or just after the Civil War; and Nucky’s, which is sandwiched between the two of them. There is competition among them, and also alliances, debts and baggage.

It’s Nucky’s generation that gets it from both sides–he in particular is either plotted against by the Atlantic City alterkockers or plagued by the bad memories of his father. And just as Meyer Lansky earlier identified the generational conflict implied in his friends’ ambitions–that the old guys’ day was over–in this episode, the old, or middle-aged, guys got wise to what was going down. “The pups have grown fangs, gentlemen,” as Nucky tells Torrio and Rothstein.

Rothstein counsels Nucky to sit tight and make no move until he sees an opening. That opportunity, it seems, comes to him through the intervention of the younger generation—the sailing-themed boardgame of Teddy’s that appears to inspire the eureka moment of appealing to Ireland for help. But Nucky also seems to be freed by the final cutting of his tie to the past generation: the death of his father, whom he can’t forgive for his abusiveness. In a way, by some Oedipal bank shot, Nucky has killed the father—provoked to a heart attack by Eli’s scuffle with Randolph’s deputy—and where Eli still wants to cling to his loyalty, Nucky’s response is curt and cold: “Grow up… and take some responsibility, at long fucking last.”

Which, more or less, is Manny’s message to Jimmy, with whom he’s allied but, we’re seeing, still holds in contempt. Jimmy sees himself as a self-made man, taking charge of his destiny; Manny sees a jumped-up kid who still uses his father’s wealth and power as a backstop. That Jimmy has done his own killing does not impress the butcher: “I can see that, boychik. And that you hid behind Papa when you pulled the trigger.”

There is, in short, all kinds of generational, paternal-filial tension going on in “Two Boats and a Lifeguard,” which would have been plain without the “Daddy eats first” double-underlining of the opening dream sequence (more on that below), and the subsequent triple underline of Manny’s venison monologue which referred back to its wounded-deer image.

The deer, however, is only wounded, and appears to be sharpening its antlers. Jimmy ends the episode victorious—apparently—and in defiance of Manny, sending his defender Mickey over the balcony to him as a greeting. However—and who would have imagined writing this sentence?—he should listen more closely to Eli, who warns him that Nucky is still dangerous.

In fact, I wonder if Jimmy already knows this, and if his posturing at his victory celebration is just a way of dealing with anxiety. Nucky is smart, but Jimmy is not an idiot, and surely he should recognize that his former patron’s surrender came way too easily. (Michael Pitt seems to betray a hint of this in his eyes as Jimmy and Nucky exchanged freighted good-lucks.)

Nucky ends this episode stepping down as treasurer and immediately—starting by fomenting a strike with Chalky—planning the downfall of his successors. He ends the episode having gained a son, having lost a dad and seeking the backing to re-establish himself as Atlantic City’s patriarch. Maybe he’ll find it in the land of his fathers.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* Free suggestion to all TV writers considering employing a dream sequence: first ask yourself, “Is this necessary? Does it convey information or motivation that could not be provided better by waking action and dialogue? Does it do something novel with the form, rather than simply throw out a bunch of wild symbols and portentious dialogue? Is it memorably cool, disturbing or moving? Have I earned the use of this dream?” If you ask all these questions and answer them in the affirmative, you still probably should not write the dream sequence.

* I realize that in these weekly reviews, I often end up shunting certain characters’ stories–particularly the women’s–into the hail of bullets. I feel bad about this, but it’s also what the show does with them, excepting sometimes Margaret. (Lucy spent most of the season to date literally trapped in a room.) So–remember Angela? Remember her lesbian almost-ran-off-to-Paris affair? She and her understandable discontent with Jimmy were back this week, with a long-overdue conversation about why she stays with him and the blaringly-telegraphed introduction of her new lady lover from San Francisco. I’m glad the show remembers her, and I’m intrigued what it might do with the storyline about gay life in the ’20s: “It’s OK, Cookie. We’re invisible here.” I wouldn’t mind Angela being a bit more visible on the show, though. Still, excellent scene between her and Jimmy, in which she presses him on the difference between honesty and simply not lying. (“I haven’t lied to you.” “You never told me anything.”)

* “Romulus couldn’t make it.” “That his partner?”

* Nice tense moment between Nucky and Sleater, who obviously thinks his boss is referring to a different “friend from Ireland.”

* As usual, I have not watched any future episodes before writing this, so I still have to wonder: exactly what kind of help can McGarrigle offer Nucky from Ireland? Your guesses?