Boardwalk Empire Watch: The House Is on Fire

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Macall B. Polay/HBO

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen “Ging Gang Goolie,” sit around a campfire and watch before reading on.

Everyone’s façade began to burn on last night’s episode. The Thompson home (at least its greenhouse) literally burns, while Nucky finds no one but a goldfish to take his usual bribes.

Gaston Means, Nucky’s conduit for graft to Attorney General Harry Daugherty, seems to have disappeared. Both Means and Daugherty are hiding at a breakfast for Boy Scouts. But their corruption is catching up to aide Jesse Smith (an unscrupulous and tragic member of Daugherty’s corrupt Justice Department). Smith, fat and sweaty, seems to be having a panic attack. He says: “How did we get this far? We stole, Harry. We stole.” Meantime, the Scouts begin to sing “Ging Gang Goolie,” an innocently boyish song.

Another boy, Teddy, is figuring out that Nucky isn’t much of a (step)father. Teddy asks his mother whether Sleater, who is probably not kinder than Nucky but who is certainly more present, could live in the house. Margaret, whose fealty to decorum never seems to waver—even as she gets a letter from a prominent reformer of the day, Margaret Sanger—scoffs at the idea. Later, after she learns from Miss Preddick neighbor Cornelia Predock that Teddy may have set the fire himself, she tells the boy to face away from her so that she can spank him. But she can barely hit him three times before she bursts into tears. (Later, Sleater strongly implies that she may have been wrong about the fire from the start.)

Gillian is also losing her composure. After Lucky Luciano gets one of Gillian’s whores to snort the heroin he’s selling, Gillian impulsively fires the young woman. Luciano—who has invested in the brothel—reminds Gillian that Jimmy, not she, owns the place. And so Gillian must finally begin to acknowledge that Jimmy is never coming back. She packs away photographs of him and then, on a stroll along the boardwalk, finds a suitor named Roger who bears some resemblance to her son. And just as she did with Jimmy, she has sex with that suitor.

(PHOTOS: Behind the Scenes of Boardwalk Empire)

“Dreams,” she says to Roger, “are where we should live.” Jimmy will always be her dream. After she and Roger finish their congress, she draws on a cigarette and says he will call him James. Gillian Darmody is almost certainly the creepiest character on television.

Nucky burns his cover by doing something stupid—and also out of character, and also convenient for the writers—which is to buy alcohol in plain sight at Union Station in Washington. That gets him thrown in jail, briefly. It turns out the assistant U.S. attorney in charge of his case is the formidable Esther Randolph, who has apparently been demoted to nighttime prosecutor in a Prohibition court so jammed that the judge routinely hands out $5 sentences before hearing virtually any detail. The judge sentences Nucky to that $5 fine and, after Randolph complains, offers a typical bit of anti-Prohibition language from powerful men at the time: “Miss Randolph, I sympathize with your desire to bring purpose to your life. But this courtroom is not the place to do it.”

Still, it’s it’s safe to say Randolph will figure again in the story line. She burns her independence by agreeing to a 5 a.m. meal with Nucky. Randolph hides behind language: does Nucky see himself as “a paterfamilias”? Randolph quotes a 15th-century poet and calls herself, sarcastically, “all lace and potpouri.” But when Nucky asks for her help against Daugherty, whom she knows is corrupt, she doesn’t say no. Instead, she asks a question: “Is this where Eve gets offered the apple?”

Harrow seems to be the only one not setting his life afire. He feels enough confidence to show up at the American Legion, and he is restrained enough not to intervene in a fight between two other veterans. (But does anyone imagine that Harrow couldn’t have taken either man?) After the fight, Harrow meets Julia Sagorsky, the pretty and frank daughter of the older vet who lost the fight. She betrays no notice of his deformity—no false sympathy or disgust. He likes her and goes to visit.

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Nucky tries to put out fires, as usual, with calming language. He calls Margaret from Union Station. She lies—she says Teddy has been taking care of everyone—and then tells the truth: She needs a conversation with Nucky because “things just can’t keep going on every which way.” She has had enough of his protection and even sends away Gareth Murphy, the bodyguard Nucky sent to protect the family from Rosetti and any other dangers.

Margaret is nervous, though, and Teddy is telling ghost stories. Finally, Margaret goes out with a shotgun to the scorched greenhouse, where she finds Sleater, who says Nucky sent him for protection. Sleater’s appearance is accompanied by thunder, which seems a bit ominous, as does a question Margaret asks him: “how did I end up here?” Sleater tells her to ask herself again the morning, but the central question looms over the show: can Nucky be half a husband?

In the final scene, in the greenhouse ruins, Margaret and Sleater come together. That leads to a few more questions:

*Nucky seems to want Margaret and Sleater to get together, right? Or at least he doesn’t mind as long as he can spend time with Billie.

*Gaston Means can’t be trusted, which Nucky must know. Means is a lit fuse. How does Nucky extinguish it?

*Gillian surely can’t survive the season. The writers have made her incestuous, bitchy, and now irredeemable. Can they get rid of her?

*What is Rosetti doing? Loosening that “dog collar”?

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