Last week I mentioned in passing that I’ve been impressed with Boardwalk Empire’s ability to sprinkle each episode with two or three spellbinding scenes—a subtext-ridden casual conversation, for example, or one of the show’s many parable/monologues—such that even when an episode doesn’t completely coalesce, it’s still engaging. My wife’s been out of the town the last two weekends, so I’ve been watching Boardwalk Empire without her and then watching the episodes again when she gets back. And I can tell you: This show’s rewatchability factor is high. Somewhere in the blend of period detail, hushed tone, and stylized performances and dialogue, the creators of Boardwalk Empire have hit on something subtle but strong.
Of course they don’t always get the balance right. “Hold Me In Paradise,” I felt, was a little too muted, though it did advance the plot in a few significant ways and did feature a couple of confrontations that have been long overdue. (Plus, as I was saying above, it may be unfair to assess Boardwalk Empire on the fly; even when an episode doesn’t immediately impress, moments tend to linger in the mind and deepen on second viewing. So keep that in mind as an implied counter to any complaints.)
Unlike the past few weeks, which have woven the various subplots into one dominant theme, “Hold Me In Paradise” is more split into two:
1. What’s under that cover?
The action in “Hold Me In Paradise” is mostly driven by Nucky’s trip to Chicago for the Republican National Convention, where he’s expected to work to get his old friend Senator Edge onto the ticket as a vice-presidential candidate. But a lot can happen at a convention, as the power-behind-the-power strike deals, all while trying to determine whether the men they elect will do what their benefactors demand. In 1920, a dark horse emerged: Ohio senator Warren G. Harding, referred to here by Nucky as “the best of the second-raters,” is attractive to the delegates because he doesn’t carry the political baggage that a lot of the front-runners do. He’s drawn favorable headlines for his post-war “Back To Normalcy” speech, and he’s backed by the charismatic power-broker Harry Dougherty, who works on Nucky until our man begins to soften. Finally, Nucky, irritated by Senator Edge’s inability to come through with the roads Atlantic City needs, flips his loyalties and pledges to back Harding, so long as Edge is not on the ticket. On his way out of town, he hisses at Edge, “The only chance you have of entering The White House is on a guided fuckin’ tour!”
There’s a lot of uncertainty and blind hope involved with any election, as voters try to predict what their candidate will do when faced with opportunities and crises as yet unknown. Nucky has ultimately decided it’s better to throw his considerable weight behind someone he doesn’t know rather than help a guy who’s already screwed him. And that’s not the only moment of decision in “Hold Me In Paradise.” In the biggest development of the episode, Sheriff Eli gets shot in Atlantic City when he arrives at the casino to make a pick-up, right when the joint is being robbed by the D’Alessio gang. Distraught by the implications for his organization, Nucky asks Jimmy Darmody to come home, to apply his burgeoning criminal wiles to thwarting this insurgency by the Italian mob. Nucky’s still not happy with Jimmy—and Jimmy sure ain’t happy with Nucky—but Nucky makes a compelling case, noting that in Atlantic City he’ll be with his own people, whereas in Chicago he’ll always be some Irish outsider among the close-knit Italians. So by the end of the episode, it looks like Jimmy’s going with the devil he knows—the one who’s been awfully unfriendly to him lately—rather than stick with a mob that’s been accommodating, but perhaps not welcoming enough.
But the biggest example of knowing vs. not-knowing in “Hold Me In Paradise” concerns Margaret Schroeder, who begins the episode in high spirits, still palling around with her fellow concubine Annabelle and enjoying the good life. She even gets to enjoy a moment of triumph at Lucy’s expense, when she slaps Lucy in the lobby of the Ritz after she comes stumbling drunkenly out of Madam Jeunet’s boutique, her credit exhausted. Margaret’s equally chuffed when Nucky calls her in the middle of the night after Eli gets shot and asks her to move her family to the Ritz right away, so that Margaret can attend to business in Nucky’s office. Specifically, he asks her to secure his ledger. First though, she looks warily at it, not sure if she wants to know what it contains that’s so dangerous to Nucky’s well-being. Part of her—a big part of her—probably knows what it’s in there. But so long as she leaves it closed, she can go on pretending that Nucky’s wealth (and her sharing in it) is wholly legitimate. Once she opens the book, she sees all the liquor-delivery figures and the payoffs and the skim from the casinos, and she knows more about who Nucky really is. The question now: What does she do about it?
2. But think of the children!
The title of “Hold Me In Paradise” comes from a famous love letter written by President Harding to one of his mistresses, Carrie Phillips, though unless I’m mistaken, it’s implied here that it was written to Nan Britton, the woman who appears in this episode, cradling her alleged love-child with Harding. Nucky takes one look at the poor bastard and, as always, his heart bleeds a little. He suggests to Dougherty that maybe he can keep Nan and little Elizabeth Ann out of the papers by taking her to Atlantic City, where Margaret and those other ladies with loose morals will help her out and keep her shielded. Y’know … for the sake of the kids.
Anxiety over children is all over this episode, whether it’s Angela Darmody worrying about whether she’ll be able to take care of her son with no money coming in from Jimmy or Jimmy calling his mom to tell her that he’s okay. (Oh, and by the way, what can she tell him about Lucky Luciano?) And then there’s Agent Van Alden, the man responsible for keeping Angela from getting the money that Jimmy’s been dutifully sending every week. He’s been intercepting Jimmy’s letters from his perch in the local post office and stowing them in a drawer, presumably to weaken Angela to the point where she’ll be receptive to rolling over on her common-law hubby. But he’s been having his own trouble at home, where his wife Rose is distraught because she can’t conceive and doesn’t feel “fully a woman.” She wants to have corrective surgery, but it’s too expensive, and though Van Alden briefly considers using the Darmody money for the procedure, he decides instead to send the money on to Angela after all (anonymously, it would seem), and to send his wife a letter, instead urging her to find her answers in prayer and the future promise of heaven. (Cf. the title of this episode, yet again.)
Like I said, on the whole I felt like “Hold Me In Paradise” was a shade or two too dry, given that it featured a casino heist, a political betrayal, and Margaret learning Nucky’s business secrets. (Surely I can’t be the only one who was hoping that the casino heist would be a bigger deal, more like the coat-check hit in Chicago or the hijacking in the woods, and not something over and done in less than a minute of screen-time.) But as always, the episode contained a few scenes that were like little short films or playlets all on their own.
One of those is the dinner table scene between Van Alden and his wife, in which he says grace and she breaks down crying. It’s shot through windows and around doors, so that Rose and her husband are rarely in the same frame (or frame-within-the-frame). And it ends with Rose trying to pour her heart out and Van Alden shutting her down with a curt, “Please eat.” Chilly stuff.
On the brighter, warmer side, I also enjoyed the scene of Eli and his cronies watching a hand-cranked stag film in Nucky’s office, cracking crude sex jokes and just generally having a good time. (Until the projector catches and the film burns, that is.) It’s not a significant scene in any way, beyond establishing that Eli will be doing the pick-up at the casino, but it captures these men and their times so well. It’s a prime example of why I look forward to Boardwalk Empire each week.
Lastly, I loved the two scenes between Nucky and Jimmy in Chicago: the first an awkward reunion with Nucky chastising Jimmy for not taking care of his responsibilities back home, and the second a reluctant call for help after Eli gets shot. Note how in both, Nucky’s demeanor doesn’t really change, only Jimmy’s. The first time around, Jimmy’s a little bit embarrassed, even though he’s doing well in Chicago. The second time around, Jimmy’s more defiant, pressing for some kind of acknowledgment from Nucky that maybe he shouldn’t have run him out of town so quickly. But Nucky won’t budge. His sole concession? A piece of the action. Coming from Nucky, that’s practically penance.
- Two-dollar bills! I used to have a couple of two dollar bills that my grandfather gave to my brother and myself as a birthday present. I’m pretty sure I spent them when I was a broke-ass teenager.
- Nice shot of Eli behind Nucky’s desk, adjusting the supplies and waiting for someone—anyone—to need him. It’s clear he resents Nucky’s success. (“I’ll buy a nickel joke-book down at the five-and-dime, I’ll be the toast of the town myself”) And yet when Eli gets shot, Nucky rushes to his side, saying, “It’s only money; forget it.” Will a gesture like that soften Eli’s feelings, or make him hate Nucky even more for being so goddamned magnanimous?
- Query for you all: The bagman who skipped out on the casino collection because his kid needs leg braces … do you think he was in on the heist? (Or was this just another subtle “think of the children” moment?)
- When Nucky tells Dougherty he can help out with Harding’s lady trouble, Dougherty grumbles, “Which lady, which trouble?”
- More Nucky backstory: “I had a son. He died.” Not sure why the writers keep portioning the tale of Nucky’s wife and kid out in dribs and drabs. Is it because we’ve probably figured it all out already anyway?
- I liked Torrio stopping his doorman from frisking Nucky, dropping that well-known goodfella phrase, “These are friends of mine.” And I liked Nucky’s reply: “Convenient that you waited until he was done.”
- Very funny moment when Torrio tells Nucky he should ask Judge Graves from Ohio what he thinks of Harding, then turns to the room next door in the bordello and yells, “Your honor?”
- Nucky to Jimmy: “I’ve been coming to Chicago since before you were born.” Torrio’s follow-up: “Who do you think lit that fire?”
- Grandma Gillian suggests to Angela that she could make money by becoming the 1920 equivalent of an Avon Lady and selling Little Dot Perfume Sets door-to-door. (Little Dot was a product of the California Perfume Company, which later became Avon.) Angela, though, is still pining to live the life of a Greenwich Village artist, with her “friend” Mary. Want to take bets on whether she’s going to use her sudden windfall to make that move?
- How will Jimmy’s part in the coming war against the Italians in Atlantic City play with Torrio and Capone, I wonder? Torrio’s already annoyed with Nucky that the liquor deliveries aren’t coming fast enough. Will ethnic loyalty win out, or will he side with whomever’s best for business?
- Not much Arnold Rothstein again this week, though we do see him practicing his testimony in the Black Sox trial and flashing an unnervingly broad grin when he uses the word “besmirch.” His lawyer takes it all in and says, “Not too late to go to law school.” Rothstein’s answer? “I prefer to make my living honestly”
- Jolson or Cantor? It was the “Beatles or Stones?” of its day.
- Most of the nudity this week was either painted or projected, for a change.
- Couldn’t help but think about some of the common criticisms of Boardwalk Empire when Nucky noted, “Someone’s got it in his head that I’m weak.”
- Nucky’s annoyed to find that General Leonard Wood got the presidential suite at their hotel, while Nucky was stuck in the ambassador. Nucky made his case for the presidential quite succinctly: “I on the other hand am a magnificent tipper.”
- Nucky has a keen eye for phoniness and hypocrisy, as noted when he takes a look around his hotel’s elegant dining room and mutters, “All this empty space. Wonder where they hide the hooch?”
- Harding’s wife says that a fortune-teller told her Harding would die in office, which of course he will, in 1923, from a never-fully-diagnosed respiratory ailment. But what’s more relevant to Boardwalk Empire is that before his death, Harding’s administration would be beset by scandal, much of it related to influence-peddling. In short: Some of those power-brokers who put him in office were rewarded with government jobs, which they used to line their own pockets. As we’ve seen on this show, that was just the way business was done to a large degree back then. But it didn’t play well in the press.