Boardwalk Empire: "Belle Femme"
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Boardwalk Empire: "Belle Femme"

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Boardwalk Empire

"Belle Femme"

Season 1, Episode 9

I’ve noted a few times this season how the denizens of Atlantic City are either openly skeptical of the French or daring in their embrace of “the French way.” But while watching “Belle Femme,” I started thinking a little more about how, in 1920, a person’s understanding of other cultures would be far more limited—reduced largely to literature and hearsay. One of the reasons why WWI was such a defining event in the development of America as a superpower is that it allowed large numbers of young American men to experience Europe firsthand. (Along with, y’know, mustard gas.) Previously, the European way of conducting personal and business affairs was known mainly to the monied classes and to politicians who debated endlessly whether America should be more like The Old World or if we should forge our own, new methods.

That’s an especially relevant topic vis-a-vis “Belle Femme,” because not only was this episode fixated on the French—from Mme. Jeunet’s titular boutique to the photographer friend who invites Angela Darmody to try a little ménage à trois—it was also fixated on The Way Things Are Done. 

At the center of all the questions of protocol: our man, Nucky Thompson, who doesn’t know if his usual methods of running things in Atlantic City are going to carry him through this latest crisis, with his power being directly challenged by “second-story men who graduated to stick-ups.” Meanwhile, a Democratic reformer named Fletcher has decided to challenge Nucky’s puppet Republican mayor, and has even begun papering the boardwalk with campaign posters. (“How am I supposed to compete with this guy?” Mayor Bacharach whimpers. To which Nucky replies, disgustedly, “That’s the spirit, Mayor.”) Nucky recommends leaning on the local businesses by charging them a fine if they put up one of Fletcher’s posters, but he knows that’s just a stopgap measure. Times are changing in the A.C., and if he doesn’t get out in front of whatever wave is sweeping through, he’ll drown.

Nucky is pinning a lot of his hopes on Jimmy Darmody, who arrives in town unannounced and takes Nucky up on his business proposition but with a few conditions. First, “We keep what we discuss only between us.” (Something Jimmy learned from his buddies in the Italian mob, perhaps?) Second, Jimmy needs Nucky to say exactly what he wants Jimmy to do to the D’Alessio brothers. No more of Jimmy interpreting Nucky’s will and then getting reamed for “playing gangster.” Nucky needs to admit that if Jimmy kills on behalf, then he has blood on his hands too. But Nucky hesitates, so Jimmy makes it easier on him, saying, “Do you want me to kill them?” When Nucky indicates his assent, Jimmy points to a picture of the youngest D’Alessio and twists the knife. “Even the kid?”

If it makes Nucky feel any better, his chief rival for control of the booze business is  equally appalled by the people he has to manage in his line of work. Arnold Rothstein takes a meeting with the D’Alessio brothers and Doyle, at Lucky Luciano’s urging, and ends up lecturing them about how “a reputation takes a lifetime to build, and only seconds to destroy.” He wants them to get out of the diluted rotgut business and work to bring in the best Scotch from Britain, for discerning, well-paying customers. But he needs the Atlantic City ports and needs the D’Alessios to handle Nucky’s resistance to doing business with the Rothstein organization. (“Nothing that a bullet in the eye won’t fix,” Leo cracks, while Doyle snickers.) And he needs the D’Alessios to sign life insurance polices, as assurance that they won’t chisel him. When his new partners leave the room, Rothstein looks at Luciano and says,“You know what the best thing is about the Bronx Zoo, Charlie? There are bars between you and the monkeys.”

While all this is going on, Margaret is getting a crash course in The Way Things Are Done, from Nucky and from her old boss Mme. Jeunet. When Margaret brings Warren G. Harding’s mistress, Nan, to Belle Femme, Mme. Jeunet gushes over Margaret—while running down her new assistant, a Polish girl—then corners Margaret and tells her that the city is asking her to pay double the usual levy to maintain her prime location, which means she may have to close down. “How can you buy the things that make you pretty for him if there is no Belle Femme?” Mme. Jeunet asks Margaret, by way of suggesting that she might use her power on the homefront to talk to Nucky. At first Nucky doesn’t think that the city’s finances are “a suitable topic”—while noting in passing that what Mme. Jeunet is complaining about is just the cost of doing business in Atlantic City—but later when Nucky asks Margaret to help him get out the women’s vote, she agrees on the condition that he help her with Mme. Jeunet. So she’s learning.

The Margaret arc in “Belle Femme” exemplifies both everything I liked and disliked about this episode. (Though much more like than dislike, on the whole.) It’s all about Margaret figuring out the methodology of backroom deals, inspired by Mme. Jeunet and Nucky’s respective confidence in her. Nucky tells her that she can lead the women of the city to vote Republican because she’s a fine orator, citing her dressing-down of Senator Edge at Nucky’s birthday party as an example. (“He’s a United States senator, and you wiped the floor with him.”) Then Margaret puts her power to use in a selfish way, frankly reminding Mme. Jeunet that when she first started working at Belle Femme, Mme. Jeunet told her she was smelly and useless. And when Mme. Jeunet offers Margaret a dress for her daughter as repayment for her working on Nucky, Margaret gives her a disappointed look, so Mme. Jeunet adds a tiny hairbrush. Margaret continues to look disappointed again, saying, “My daughter didn’t help you, Mme. Jeunet.” Then Nan Britton comes in, wearing an expensive dress that Mme. Jeunet is now probably going to have to pay for. In trading the city’s shakedowns for Margaret’s, Mme. Jeunet may have been penny-wise and pound-foolish.

I liked all of that. But for me the ending of the episode was too much in the bluntly symbolic mode of the early Boardwalk Empires. While Nucky and Margaret are strolling the boardwalk like the king and queen of the city, one of the D’Alessios comes out of the crowd and takes a shot at Nucky, which misses when Nucky’s man Eddie shoves the shooter. The bullet his a passing woman instead, and her blood sprays all over one of Margaret’s new Belle Femme frocks. Get it?

Still, “Belle Femme” was filled with too many strong and pertinent scenes for me to hold one “Nucky’s muddy footprints” moment against it. For example, just when I was getting ready to travel back in time, place a big bet on the 1919 Reds, and then use my winnings to buy Angela Darmody a ticket to Greenwich Village myself, the return of Jimmy—and the contrast of Margaret’s power with Angela’s lack—brought her character back into focus. Jimmy walks in right as Angela’s about to succumb to a threesome, and after her lover and almost-lover leave, the cameraman switches to a jittery handheld while Jimmy swoops in for a seduction of his own. Angela resists at first, then returns in kind, either because she figures that’ll be the easier way to handle her dangerous ex or because she’s still in the “Hey, I’m open to anything” mood that she was in just moments before. Later, at the breakfast table, Jimmy says, “Let’s have another baby,” and when their son cheers the idea, Jimmy says, “Then it’s settled.” No need for Angela to voice her opinion. And to make matters worse, her art-world dreams seem to have died too, as her bohemian friends offer a more frank assessment of her work once they realize they’re probably not going to be having sex with her anytime soon.

This was also a big week for Van Alden, who learns that Jimmy’s in town and puts the pinch on him just as Jimmy’s getting ready to lead Lucky Luciano to his death. Van Alden’s supervisor is pleased when Van Alden calls to give him the news, and Van Alden’s right-hand man Agent Sebso expresses regret that he wasn’t more helpful in the investigation. (In fact, Sebso hid an intercepted Western Union telegram announcing Jimmy’s arrival.) Sebso offers to make up for his failure by transporting Billy—the lone witness against Jimmy—out of town and out of Thompson’s reach. But when they stop on the beach so Sebso can take a leak, Sebso says to Billy, “You shouldn’t have done that. Tried to lunge for my weapon.” Then he shoots the kid in cold blood and bangs his own head with a rock to make the shooting look legit.

Is Sebso operating on behalf of the Nucky Thompson organization? Has he been encouraged by the men upstairs to sabotage the case? A lot of questions raised this week, with no clear answers as to how all this will impact Nucky’s efforts to remain in charge.

Although by the end of the episode, Nucky seems to have found a way. At The Commodore’s advising, Nucky is planning to replace his wounded brother as sheriff with that up-and-comer Halloran, and he’s going to replace the sickly Bacharach too. (When his preferred candidate asks what’s wrong with Bacharach, Nucky replies, “I’ll make my diagnosis as soon as I have your answer.”) Atlantic City is about to be governed by an entirely new set of young men. Or, according to Nucky, “We’ll let them think it does.”

Stray observations:

  • Is there coffee? Are we out of coffee? Are you making more coffee? Lot of coffee-talk in this episode.
  • The worst sin of the D’Alessio brothers? “Fucking bastard called me fat.”
  • How do you rest your spleen?
  • Nan tells Margaret that she fell in love with Warren G. Harding the day she met him, but that, “America needs him, and so I have to sacrifice.” Margaret meanwhile confesses that when she first heard Nucky talking about Harding, she thought he meant Houdini’s brother, Hardeen. (Who’s just as good, y’know.)
  • Not only did Nucky not get Jimmy’s telegram, neither did Angela. Very funny to hear Jimmy curse “goddamn Western Union.”
  • I hadn’t really given much though to Monopoly until tonight, when Jimmy was waxing rhapsodic about Marvin Gardens and “those beach houses on Ventnor.” And then, inevitably, Jimmy had to go to jail—go directly to jail.
  • “What’s the name of the William S. Hart character in the movie?” A clever attempt by Van Alden to break Jimmy’s “I was at the movies” alibi. 
  • A major tease of Jimmy’s backstory tonight, when he’s stuck in jail and asks Nucky to “call my dad.” Nucky’s reply: “Are you that nervous?” So now we know that Jimmy’s dad is still alive, and that he’s a powerful and/or dangerous dude. 
  • “The legal system’s not your ticket to freedom.”
  • Funny to hear that classic Sophie Tucker punchline: “You been munching on the grass for the last 10 minutes.” I had just read that Bruce Springsteen told that joke onstage last week.
  • Our poor Commodore is coughing his life away. Apparently, he’s never recovered from his time in jail. But Nucky reminds him that he had to go. There was no choice. That’s just The Way Things Are Done.
  • Love this exchange between Margaret and Nucky:

    Margaret: “I didn’t want you to know how selfish I was.”
    Nucky: “I would never hold that against anyone.”