If you’re going to fuck, you’d best take precautions.
Pardon my coarseness, but “Family Limitation” was an especially coarse episode of Boardwalk Empire, inclined toward making that one point, hard and clear, literally and metaphorically. The title comes from a pamphlet penned by Margaret Sanger in the early ‘10s, advising women on sound birth control. (One method?Douching with Lysol.) Margaret’s stern old acquaintance at The Temperance League gives her the pamphlet, after Margaret confesses that she’s received a “financial, romantic, sexual” offer from a man—from Nucky. He’ll provide for her children, and put her up in a nice apartment, but he won’t marry her. So Margaret had better see to herself, Sanger-style.
But we’ll come back to Margaret and Nucky and their newly-not-wed bliss later, because in this episode—unexpectedly—the best scenes take place in Chicago, where the commingling is much more volatile. The relationship between the established Irish mob and the ascendant Italian mob was strained at best even before Johnny Torrio’s hotheaded enforcer Al Capone started beating up Greeks and violating longstanding agreements. Now Torrio’s been forced to hold a sit-down with his Irish counterpart, to reach some kind of mutually beneficial settlement. But it doesn’t bode well that in the micro version of Irish/Italian relations—in the friendship between Jimmy Darmody and Capone—the Italian snaps to his Irish wife that Jimmy will “take what I give him.” (And that’s just sausages he’s talking about.)
I’ve been upfront over the past few weeks about my impatience with the “Jimmy visits the windy city” storyline, but in “Family Limitation,” we get some tremendous payoffs for our investment so far. In the wake of Pearl’s suicide, Jimmy’s no longer content to play the silent accomplice in the Torrio operation. He’s making suggestions to the boss—including planning a bad-ass ambush at the sit-down with the Irish, leaving the competition dead in their own lair—and he’s openly questioning Capone. When Capone comes across Jimmy playing “five-finger filet” with a dagger and asks what he’s doing, Jimmy stares Capone down and pointedly expresses surprise that Capone never played the game “over there.” (Capone fumbles for a second, then lies: “We were more interested in winning the war.”) And after Jimmy’s ambush of the Irish earns him public praise from Torrio, a jealous Capone needles Jimmy, and Jimmy needles right back, making insinuations about Capone’s phony war record.
Just about all the Chicago business worked this week, from Torrio’s casual “no offense” to Jimmy when he gripes about the Irish, to the quiet, subtle scene where Jimmy rebuffs the advances of one of the bordello’s whores, then finds a picture Pearl drew of of him inside his copy of Free Air. (He then reaches into his drawer and pulls out his dog tags, in a gesture that very simply, powerfully expresses his feelings of loss, shame and regret. Once he fought for something; and now what?)
But the best scene in “Family Limitation” comes towards the end, when Capone comes to Jimmy’s room after their public bout of one-upmanship. Jimmy’s on the defensive, sure that Capone’s there to beat him or shoot him, but instead Capone brings him some salted steaks and makes a combination apology/statement-of-forgiveness/warning when he refuses Jimmy’s offer of a drink, saying, “I get stupid I drink too much, run off at the mouth.” The Capone talks about his son, whom Jimmy had previously noticed is deaf—or “punished for the shit I done,” according to Capone. Al tells Jimmy how he plays the mandolin and sings for his boy, but has to hold the kid’s hand to his throat so he’ll be able to tell that dad’s making music. Jimmy softens when he hears Capone’s story, and sounds a note of hope, for all of them. “They’re finding new things everyday,” he says.
Meanwhile, back in Atlantic City, we’re getting another Italians vs. Irish story, but this time from the other side. Nucky’s hearing stories about Italians robbing his operations, and he’s trying to crack down before the matter gets out of hand. He mistakenly blames Lucky Luciano and leans hard on him (thus inadvertently tipping off Arnold Rothstein that there could be exploitable trouble in AC). And Nucky doubles down on his efforts to get more paved roads in his city, thinking that’ll solidify his power. The problem? Nucky’s relying on his relationship with Senator Edge, not realizing that Edge owns a paving company in Jersey City. (Again: You’d better pay closer attention to the people with whom you’re getting into bed.)
But the dominant Atlantic City storyline this week involved Margaret, and after a few consecutive weeks of nuance and intrigue on the Schroeder side of Boardwalk Empire, I confess I found her parts of “Family Limitation” a little uninspired, aside from one strong scene. At the lingerie boutique, Lucy returns to humiliate Margaret some more, demanding that the pathetic little shop girl try on the frilly little number that Lucy’s planning to buy and wear for Nucky. “I’ve done worse,” Margaret says defiantly. “I bet you have,” Lucy sniffs. Then Lucy evaluates Margaret’s body and finds it wanting. Margaret, getting tired of talking around the subject, says, “He doesn’t seem to mind.” Then, when Lucy says that she has ways of dealing with Nucky’s neuroses, Margaret tells a story from her childhood about a one-trick rooster that the local children got tired of seeing, and finishes with the line of the episode: “Maybe your cunny isn’t quite the draw you think it is.”
The rest of the scenes with Margaret were a little more pat. She quits her job, and moves her kids into their fancy new digs, only to find out that her new neighbors largely consist of the other “concubines” of Atlantic City’s power elite. And despite her cockiness that she has something to offer Nucky that Lucy doesn’t, at the end of the episode we see Nucky breaking his date with Margaret and canoodling with a prostitute. I don’t have a problem with facts of this plot-development, but I thought it was handled too quickly and too obviously, with little of the grace of the Chicago scenes.
Then again, sometimes underplaying is overrated. It’s one thing to hear from Lucy that Nucky’s a good Catholic boy who gets disgusted with his own moral weakness. It’s quite another to see Agent Van Alden, much further down the corruption continuum: so resistant to temptation that when he feels a twinge of desire for Margaret, he dutifully turns his wife’s picture down, lays a towel down on the bed, and proceeds to flagellate himself with a belt. These men. They try to be good. They really do.
-So after Chalky’s monologue in “Anastasia,” Jimmy’s in “Nights In Ballygran,” and Capone’s and Mararet’s this week, I think we’ve discovered Boardwalk Empire’s favorite storytelling mode: the parable.
-Strong opening to “Family Limitation,” with horses galloping down the beach followed by a young Irish kid running up to a community leader, calling him “Fat Chops” and stealing his money-pouch. And then: a beautifully filmed slow-motion chase that I think gave us our longest and most awe-inspiring look yet at the boardwalk in all its splendor.
-Nucky demands that Eddie “knock like a man” before he enters a room, then complains when Eddie knocks too loudly. That may tell us all we need to know about Nucky.
-Van Alden gets called on the carpet for overstepping his bounds in trying to understand the deeper moral rot beneath the illegal liquor trade. (“You’re a prohibition agent, not Bulldog Drummond!”)
-In Capone’s family-friendly version of the Pearl incident, Pearl was Jimmy’s “friend” who was a “waitress” at “the restaurant” before she got “hit by a streetcar.”
-Why buy underwear? Some women wish to hide, others to reveal
-Nucky has tickets to go see Houdini’s brother. “He’s just as good!” he tells everybody.
-Loved Margaret’s former neighbor in this episode, derisively telling Van Alden that Margaret “works for the French,” and saying of Margaret’s drunken abusive husband, “He was a lovely man… always brought us the day-old cruellers.” Well, we all have different standards of “lovely.”
-Is it me, or was Kelly Macdonald’s Irish accent more pronounced this week? Or was I just influenced by the scene where Nucky is horrified by her fake American accent? (And speaking of fake, I’m assuming that was a body-double in Margaret’s nude scene, given the awkward cuts back and forth to a headless torso. I wish directors didn’t use body doubles. If the actress doesn’t want to do the nude scene, they should find another way to shoot it. Otherwise, it’s distracting. It’s not like Margaret’s bare breasts were essential to the content of that scene.)
-Nucky’s not at all shocked that Gillian’s sleeping with Lucky; he just wants to make sure that Lucky treats Gillian with respect. Meanwhile, Lucky finds out from A.R. that Gillian’s not Jimmy’s girl; she’s his mother. Another case of a character hopping into the sack without enough information.
-A nice piece of acting from Michael Shannon when he studies Margaret’s immigration records and sees that she miscarried in 1909, on her way over to the states. Then he looks longingly at her picture, until he realizes that the picture was taken when she was 16, at which point he recoils a little.
-Current Temperance/Suffrage interrelationship status: According to the head of AC’s Temperance League, it’s tight. And that may be the last I say on the matter, since every time I bring it up, I seem to get misconstrued. (It’s my own fault, for not making it plain enough in previous weeks that I was restating Margaret’s point—and badly, as it turns out.)
-I miss Chalky.