There was a subtle motif running through “Broadway Limited,” the third episode of Boardwalk Empire. Call it public inappropriateness, or immodesty, but this episode was full of people saying or doing things beyond the bounds of social niceties, in ways that revealed something about their character—and that in some cases revealed some of the weaknesses of this series thus far.
Let’s start with Jimmy Darmody, since his arc provides the title of this episode. The immodesty here comes via his common-law wife Angela, who posed for a suggestive photograph—shoulders bared, eying the camera seductively—while Jimmy was overseas fighting in WWI. Worse, the photographer and his wife seem awfully familiar with Jimmy’s son when the kid runs into their shop during a boardwalk stroll. Meanwhile, the not-quite-dead guy from the woods at the end of the last episode is still suffering from a sure-to-be-fatal belly wound, but before he kicks, he gives up the only piece of information he knows from the night of the massacre: the name “Jimmy,” spoken by Capone. Now Arnold Rothstein wants Jimmy dead, Agent Van Alden wants Jimmy in jail, and the brothers Thompson want Jimmy to hop the Broadway Limited and lam it.
A week ago, Jimmy would’ve resisted vehemently, reminding Nucky that he just got back home to his gal and their son. But now he’s pissed at Angela about the photo (and because she won’t use his new vacuum machine), and she’s not too happy with him either. She tells him that the photo was for him, but that she couldn’t send it to him in Europe because he never wrote to say where he was. So Jimmy skips town, toting a copy of Sinclair Lewis’ seminal 1919 road trip novel Free Air.
I confess some disappointment with the way Jimmy’s story played out in “Broadway Limited.” I get that it was a dramatic necessity to move him out of the picture for now, and I appreciate the acknowledgement that when a young man comes home from war to a young bride—especially a common-law bride—the couple may come to realize that they don’t really have that much in common. But the whole time that Jimmy was staring at Angela’s photo, I kept hoping that we weren’t headed to a big, clichéd “did you fuck him?” scene. But alas.
By contrast, consider another scene of immodesty in “Broadway Limited:” the one in which Nucky’s showgirl lover Lucy Danziger wields her nude body as a tool of humiliation in front of Margaret. Early in the episode, Lucy talks about joining the Ziegfeld Follies, but says she’d give it all up and ruin her figure if Nucky wanted a child. She’s feeling threatened by Nucky’s fascination with preemies, as well as by all the attention Nucky is paying to the child-rich Margaret—attention that extends to Nucky getting Margaret a job as a dresser and occasional clothes-model at a French boutique. Margaret’s job is plenty humiliating to begin with—she has a snooty boss who says she’s too thin and assumes she doesn’t bathe—but she was at least enjoying how pretty the clothes made her feel, until Lucy walked in and demanded that she get down her knees to help her step into a skimpy piece of lingerie. The body language in that scene says so much more without words than any of Jimmy’s argument with his wife.
As for the “public inappropriateness” side of the show, I think first of Rothstein’s almost-dead lackey (his sister-in-law’s nephew, as it happens), who responds to Van Alden’s request for information by gasping, in Yiddish (and in front of a Jewish mother and her son), “You should fuck your grandmother with your little faggot penis.” Van Alden has seized the lackey from the hospital—where Sheriff Thompson earlier had tried to strangle him—and is transporting him to New York when the John Doe starts to crater. Van Alden rushes him to the nearest medical facility—a dentist’s office—where the dentist injects the dying man’s cheeks with cocaine to revive him. Then the man says his piece about Van Alden’s allegedly questionable genitalia, and Van Alden responds by jamming his hands into the man’s belly-wound until he sings. Then the man dies, while Van Alden quotes the bible about what happens to “they who worship the beast.” (Quoth Van Alden’s partner: “Isn’t he Jewish?”)
I have only minor qualms about Van Alden’s place, both in this episode and in the series as a whole. Last week’s ribbon-sniffing and stiff letter home marked Van Alden as mildly kooky; this week’s wound-troubling and Bible-quoting pushed him into the realm of flat-out batshit. Then again, maybe this show could use a character or two that’s completely nuts, just to bring a little more variety to the show’s vibe, which sometimes seems too much like a chamber drama with swearing and tits. Also, I loved the scene of Van Alden back home with his wife Rose. Slow fade in to a silent dinner. Van Alden, softly: “The roast tastes good.” Slow fade out. Very funny, but also an echo of the other romantic relationships highlighted in this episode—Jimmy and wife, Nucky and Lucy—in which the principals don’t really know each other.
Speaking of Nucky, I remain fascinated by the way he seems to know all the angles of his business and yet have difficulty anticipating the stupid things that other people might do. This week we learned that Nucky had promised Jimmy’s mother Jillian that he would look after the boy and keep him out of trouble. Nucky even tells a story about what a bright, optimistic kid Jimmy was once, and how Nucky was sure he’d be living the up-by-the-bootstraps life of a Horatio Alger character. (“Like Ragged Dick,” Nucky suggests.) But then Jimmy went off to war and came home with a yen to play gangster. So much for Ragged Dick.
For now, Nucky’s pinning his hopes for the future on Chalky White, who’s in charge of diluting and repackaging Nucky’s shipments of Canadian Club, initially for a 35% cut of the profits, until one of his men turns up lynched (tethered to a car with “Liquor Kills” scrawled on its chassis) at which point, in exchange for covering up the hanging and avoiding a race war, Chalky demands 50% and Nucky agrees. This is in keeping with what we’ve seen so far from Nucky: he grabs money wherever he can find it, but he dispenses it just as freely, to keep the organization running smoothly.
The Nucky/Chalky interactions also give “Broadway Limited” its other big moment of telling public inappropriateness, when Chalky calls Nucky a “motherfucker” and Nucky’s not familiar with the term. I know some people find that kind of “Hey, it’s the ‘20s!” stuff annoying, but as long as it’s not too egregious (the way the, “Hey, it’s the ‘60s!” stuff was in the early episodes of Mad Men, or the way the, “Hey, it’s Eddie Cantor!” scene is in this episode), I like it. There were times during this episode where I thought to myself that you could transfer the dialogue verbatim into an episode of The Sopranos and not lose much. But the little reminders of where we are—the music, or the cultural references, or the pump-action dentist’s drill, or Arnold Rothstein’s detachable shirt collar—help spin the mood that makes Boardwalk Empire so enjoyable. As I’ve often said, one of the main reasons we watch television is spend time with people we like in places we like to visit. And Boardwalk Empire has that side of the equation covered. I don’t anticipate getting tired of hanging out with this show for an hour a week anytime soon.
That said, three episodes in, I do have some concerns—mostly minor, but nagging. It’s disappointing that Boardwalk Empire is still relying too often on dialogue to explain who everybody is and what they’re up to. Also, as a matter of personal preference, I like my serialized TV shows to pay a little more attention to episodic structure. Right now Boardwalk Empire’s story is just sprawling out from hour to hour, and though each episode has a button at the end, I’m not getting a sense of new insights or thematic depth developing with each new episode. Granted, it’s early, and there’s plenty in this show’s story, setting and characters to keep me engaged (and you all too, I hope). But Nucky looking at his dirty footprints at the end of “Broadway Limited” and thinking about the muck he’s been walking through—and the mess it’s been leaving behind—is more of a “huh, neat” moment than an “oh shit” moment.
Besides, “Broadway Limited” had a couple of other visuals that would’ve served as better buttons to the episode. Like Jimmy looking out the window of his departing train and seeing a shade-pull dangling like the noose that hung Chalky’s associate. Or Jimmy’s wife tossing out that stupid Christmas tree that Jimmy brought home last episode, and then using that blasted vacuum to remove all trace of her no-good dope of a man.
-Eli suggests a reason why Rothstein’s man didn’t die in the woods: “He’s fat.”
-Love the scene of Eli smothering the suspect while pretending to question him, as the man in the screened-off bed mutters, “Is he all right?”
-“You thought. Fuckin’ Aristotle.”
-Poor Margaret, having to explain to her daughter why there’s no baby on the way anymore: “The stork must’ve gotten lost.”
-Lucky Luciano has the clap, and it’s making him impotent.
-More deriding of the French this week, both in the depiction of the snooty boutique manager and Margaret’s neighbor tsking, “The French… I read about them.” (Meanwhile, I believe we can confirm that Lucy knows “the French way.”)
-Jimmy praises the vacuum cleaner as being more efficient, like the machine guns he saw in action in WWI. Angela’s response? “We used to talk about books.”
-I criticized the Margaret storyline last week, but I enjoyed the direction it went in this week, with her getting a job and having to deal with her lingering self-consciousness about her social class. I especially liked the little grace note of her sniffing her armpit while she was changing clothes, and the boutique manager replying to Margaret saying she doesn’t speak French by snapping, “Yet I speak your English. There you have it.”
-Wisdom from an old song: “The dumb ones know how to make love.”
-Angela’s photog pal says that he wishes he fought in WWI because, “I would not have minded having my mettle tested.” Nucky has a little more respect for what Jimmy went through, but even he too underestimates the horrors of war.
-Arnold Rothstein bluffs a bluffer.
-Meanwhile, bubbling up from the underground, Mickey Doyle is forging an alliance of necessity with nine Italian brothers, to whom he owes money “with vigorish.” I assume that they’re behind the violence against Chalky White’s gang.
-Van Alden is headquartering at the post office, since that’s the only federal building in Atlantic City.
-Eli’s suggestion when Jimmy asks where he should run to: Los Angeles. (“Maybe Chaplin needs a foil.”)