Boardwalk Empire: “Anastasia”
B+

Boardwalk Empire: “Anastasia”

On February 27th, 1920, an amnesiac was fished out of The Landwehr Canal in Berlin after a suicide attempt. In the years to come, people would suggest that the woman—who took the name “Anna Anderson”—could well be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, whose body was never recovered when her family was slaughtered by Bolsheviks in 1918. Later, it would be definitively proved that Anna was not Anastasia. But how much of the identity-confusion was an active hoax perpetrated by Anna Anderson, and how much was just other people making guesses about who she was and Anna playing along? 

More to the point, who’s the Anastasia in this week’s episode of Boardwalk Empire?

The most obvious candidate would be Jimmy Darmody, who has moved to Chicago to pursue his gangster dreams in earnest, and who actually says in this episode, “Where I come from, people had ideas about what I supposed to be.” Now he’s yoked his fortunes to the rising Al Capone, who’s serving as an enforcer for Johnny Torrio as Torrio carries out his takeover of the Colosimo rackets. With the dust of Jersey still clinging to his clothes, Jimmy has slapped together a makeshift new life: he’s shacking up with a bright prostitute named Pearl (whom he calls “prettier than Lillian Gish,” though she’s annoyed that he hasn’t seen Broken Blossoms), and he’s trying to be the calm consigliere to the impulsive Capone.

But Capone quickly reveals himself to be a full-on megalomaniac. He wakes Jimmy up one night by firing a gun next to his ear. He muscles in on the Greek territory by clobbering a club owner. (“What happens now is I let you up,” he says to the man, before socking him in the jaw again and saying, “But not really.”) He pushes around the Irish mob at a reconciliation meeting, and misinterprets a boss’s smirking “tell Torio he gets what he wants” as a sign that the intimidation tactics are working, not as a sign that the Irish have no intention of complying with any of Capone’s demands. (And sure enough, the Irish shoot up Capone and Jimmy’s favorite bordello, after slashing Pearl across the face.)

Or maybe the Anastasia of “Anastasia” is Nucky Thompson, an adept at pretense. We first see him in this episode rehearsing how he’s going to react at the surprise birthday party that he’s planned for himself. (“You shouldn’t have!” he says, with a broad, grateful grin.) The problem for Nucky is that after years of working with his fellow Republicans to lock up the New Jersey power structure, a few “fuckin’ Democrats” have queered the deal. Nucky needs paved roads into Atlantic City to boost tourism (and to ease the liquor deliveries), but the Dems are demanding their own road crews upstate, and Senator Edge (R-NJ) is trying to play peacemaker. When the senator orders a Pimms Cup and Nucky’s man Eddie tells him they’re out, Edge uses that as an example of how people can’t have everything they want. But the next day, Nucky ships Edge a bottle of Pimms, with a note, “I do expect to have everything.”

Or maybe the Anastasia is Margaret Schroeder, who is the one most captivated by the news of Anna Anderson at the start of the episode. Later, Margaret arrives at Nucky’s party as part of her job, to deliver a dress for Lucy to change into after she pops out of a cake for Nucky. When Nucky sees Margaret, he corrals her into a dance, and the two of them get a round of applause when they’re done. But then as Margaret’s about to leave, she sees Nucky and Lucy snuggling up to each other. And the next day, as she’s leaving work, she sees Nucky and Lucy again, strolling the boardwalk and laughing. So Margaret steals an item of lingerie on her way out the door. Maybe she too can become someone she’s not.

“Anastasia” suffers from some of the same problems that have been plaguing Boardwalk Empire from the start: the narrative tension is minimal, and the symbolism too blunt. (After a scene midway through where Jimmy and Capone compare scars, having Pearl’s face get slashed at the end of the episode was a too-literal way to show how Jimmy and Capone mar everything they touch.) And, as always, the dialogue is at times overly explanatory. When Nucky and his politician cronies discuss suffrage at his party, their attitudes about the intellectual capabilities of women may be historically accurate, but the way they express them sounds like they’re reading from a Women’s Studies textbook. (Though I did like the line about suffragettes needing “a good rogering.”) The women themselves don’t help matters, between Lucy’s bubble-headed attempt to show she has brains and Margaret’s shrill speech to Nucky’s friends about how women have the right to vote in truly civilized countries.

That said, I find it odd that people who dismiss Boardwalk Empire keep pointing to the dialogue as the main reason the show’s not living up to its potential. I’ll  grant that there’s been a scene or two each week as clunky as Nucky’s artless “Here’s to prohibition!” speech in the pilot. But there have also been plenty of sharply written, funny scenes, like the one in “Anastasia” where Sheriff Eli raids a KKK meeting, asks who’s in charge, sees several hooded members point to the guy on stage in the purple robes, and then hears the leader call him “a grafter, a whoremonger and a bootlegger,” to which Eli says, “You’re thinking of my brother.” Or scenes like the one where Chalky White confronts the bound KKK leader, tells him a long story about how his carpenter father got lynched, and then ominously opens up a pouch full of pliers and cutters and says, “These here my daddy’s tools.”

And even though Boardwalk Empire has been uneven, in part that’s been a function of trying to weave so many characters into a thematically dense study of a culture in transition. Just consider the questions raised by the lynching of Chalky White’s associate at the end of the previous episode. Chalky has agreed to go along with Nucky and not stir up any racial unrest in the black community, but Nucky knows that African-Americans are growing in numbers and economic power, and won’t be his political pawns forever. On the other hand, Chalky may not want to risk all that he’s acquired simply as a matter of principle.

In Atlantic City in 1920—and in the country at large—so many people are trying to pull an Anna Anderson and present themselves as something entirely new, while forgetting who they used to be. But in the words of the New Jersey politicians swilling illegal whiskey in front of a stalwart of The Temperance League: “Old habits die hard.”

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

-By the way, as near as I can tell, just about all of the Anastasia business in this episode is anachronistic. Yes, the woman whom many believed to be Anastasia was first discovered around the time of this episode, but it was a couple of years before the rumors that she was a lost Romanov daughter started (and even then, people first thought she was Anastasia’s sister Tatiana, until that idea was discredited). So there would have been no international headlines declaring “a hoax” in February of 1920.

-Nucky tries to explain to his brother and others the importance of maintaining good relationships with the black community. “One hand washes the other and both hands wash the face,” he says. And Nucky’s not amused when one of the cops says, “Take a lot of suds to wash Chalky’s face.”

-More evidence of Nucky’s progressive attitudes (opportunistic though they may be): We get a little more insight into his relationship with his assistant Eddie when Nucky reminds Eddie that he stood by him during the anti-German rallies of WWI.

-No pie in Germany; just strudel.

-Lucy to Nucky: “You know you tore me apart last night.” I don’t know about you, but I didn’t need to hear that.

-Last week we’d already guessed who lynched Chalky’s associate: it wasn’t the KKK (as Chalky learned with his tools), but the Italians, following a tip from Doyle, who had meant for them to hit Chalky instead. As payment, Doyle tips the brothers off about a easy-to-hijack payoff to one of Nucky’s ward bosses. And so Doyle and the Italians continue to make trouble behind the scenes.

-Grandma Gillian plays a larger role this week, roped into babysitting duty now that her son has skipped town. (Though she doesn’t like to think of herself as a grandmother… not when “the peaches are still in season.”) While she’s watching the kid, Lucky Luciano comes over looking for Jimmy, but she turns him away, saying, “Maybe he’s up your ass. Have you considered looking there?” Later, Lucky attends the Roman tableau at the Café Beaux Arts and is so smitten by Gillian that he hangs around outside to flirt with her. (To which she responds in kind.) But is he really interested in Gillian, or is he just looking for a way to Jimmy? And does he know that Gillian is Jimmy’s mother, or does he think he’s hitting on his target’s wife?

-Though I didn’t like Margaret’s speech to Senator Edge, I did find interesting the implication that the temperance movement arose as a feint for the suffrage movement: Give us the right to vote or we’ll take away your booze.

-Margaret has to be at work early tomorrow for inventory. She picked a bad time to start stealing.

-Nice shot of Nucky’s glass of seltzer: so effervescent, so necessary after a long night of excess.

-Our special guest ‘20s celebrity this week is Edith Day, who sings a song at Nucky’s party. In February of 1920, Ms. Day would’ve been three months into her celebrated five-month run on Broadway as the star of Irene, a musical about an Irish immigrant shop assistant who is plucked from obscurity and thrust into New York high society. Sound like anyone we know?

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