BOARDWALK EMPIRE: Checking In

With the conclusion of Mad Men (for now), attention must be paid to Sunday night’s other fascinating period piece, Boardwalk Empire. I haven’t written about it since the pilot. Not because I wasn’t impressed mind you (although as far as pilots go, the premiere was spectacular) but rather I was letting the show sink in, trying to understand how the various underworld allegiances worked, and getting to know the myriad of characters. Not every episode was a slam dunk. In point of fact, several were quite slow until the last 15 or 20 minutes (in particular, I’m thinking about the lynching of Chalky White’s associate at the end of what was otherwise a fairly average hour of television). After that hideous act, we were treated to Michael Kenneth Williams’ “bookcase monologue.” There was a lot of buildup to this moment in critical circles (“if you loved him as Omar on The Wire, just wait until you see this speech in episode four!”). And it was a great speech delivered by a truly gifted actor. But we don’t know enough about the character (let’s face it; he’s had maybe 20 minutes of total screen time) for the moment to have its desired effect. You could have said that about many beats during this show’s freshman season. Until last week.

“Nights in Ballygran” was as perfect an episode as one could hope for. Take a character like Elias Thompson (the subtle Shea Whigham), hero Nucky Thompson’s “lawman” brother. He who had just been muscle and a cover for Nucky’s illegal activities, is revealed as wanting his own share of the limelight, and his disastrous attempt at public speaking is followed by drink after drink that leaves him on sick on his knees with his wife at his side. Suddenly Elias is a man to watch. It’s no longer if but when brother will turn against brother. In Chicago, Jimmy Darmody (wonderfully played by Michael Pitt) cares for a prostitute he inadvertently scarred simply by taking a shine to her. Was I the only one who thought he was going to do the merciful thing and put Pearl down as he regaled her with a sweet memory from his childhood? In the end, Pearl takes her own life, and Jimmy takes solace in opium to ease his guilt. As of last night’s episode, the equally strong “Family Limitation,” the binge appears to be a one time thing. In point of fact, Jimmy is so sharp that he comes up with the strategy to rid his associates of their enemies (and get a little justice for Pearl) and almost instantly takes note of the profound deafness of the young son of his buddy/accomplice Al Capone. Still, given the life he’s chosen, Jimmy could slip at any moment.

Last week, the twisted triangle of Nucky, Margaret Schroeder, and Agent Van Alden, moved forward at a rapid pace. When Nucky seems indifferent, Margaret goes to Van Alden. To show his strength to the widowed Irish lass, Van Alden stages a public humiliation, and Nucky finally realizes that ignoring Margaret is a far more risky proposition than keeping her close. So what does he do? Seduces her, what he’s wanted to do from the moment they met (who knew bug-eyed Steve Buscemi could be so romantic?). As of last night, he takes their relationship to the next level (Nucky sets Margaret and her children up in a luxurious flat). But the cracks are already beginning to show; how long will Margaret (intelligently played by Kelly Macdonald) silently wait for a phone that does not ring? And as for Van Alden… he whips his back raw while staring at Margaret’s photograph. Disturbing for sure (and how good is Michael Shannon on this show?), and the question becomes how much will Margaret eventually suffer as she is now caught between these two powerful men?

If you’ve yet to check it out, get on board (no pun intended). All the origins of organized crime aside, this is a fascinating character study of flawed people struggling against their stations and their own desires. And it promises to be one hell of a ride.

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