How appropriate that on Halloween, Boardwalk Empire would be haunted by a man in a mask. A man named Richard Harrow, to be exact, whom Jimmy Darmody meets at a veteran’s hospital in Chicago while waiting to take Robert Woodworth’s “personal inventory” test, to determine if he might have mental problems (and if those problems might be causing his inexplicable leg pain). Up walks Richard, who speaks with a sticky, guttural voice and has an application covering a third of his face: a piece of rubbery material with a fake eye and pasted-on eyebrows and mustache. Richard asks what Jimmy’s reading, and Jimmy holds up his copy of Temple Bailey’s wartime romance The Tin Soldier, calling it “a bunch of malarkey.” The two men talk about the military mindset, and what they did in the war, and Jimmy’s so relieved to have someone around who understands what he’s been through that he blows off the psych-screen and invites Richard back to his whorehouse to enjoy a drink and a girl. Richard walks in, takes a look around, and says to Jimmy, “You live here?”
I imagine that not everyone’s going to like “Home.” After several consecutive weeks of heated conflicts among the politicians and the mobs, this week’s Boardwalk Empire is much chillier and more contemplative, dealing with where our characters are right now, and where they’ve been. It’s a character piece, with not much direct action.
Which isn’t to say that it’s devoid of showstoppers, or forward progress. In keeping with what has become Boardwalk Empire’s primary narrative style, “Home” breaks every few minutes for a lengthy monologue, or a scene where some odd duck waddles into a room full of hunters. An example of the latter: Michael Lewis, a strange little man who shows up on Chalky White’s doorstep, delivering a well-rehearsed, not-as-eloquent-as-he-thinks speech about the real value of products versus their market value, all by way of offering Chalky ten grand to “cut out the middleman” and start delivering his bootleg booze directly to New York. (Chalky assumes that Michael has been sent by Nucky as a test of loyalty, so he he turns the dude away.) On the flipside of that scene, Lucky Luciano shows up in the lair of Doyle and the D’Alessio brothers and immediately becomes the boss of the room, telling the boys that he knows about their petty Nucky-burgling, and that they owe Arnold Rothstein a piece of the action. In return, Luciano says that the Rothstein organization can help the D’Alessios increase their take—perhaps by robbing one of Nucky’s casinos.
The pairing of the Michael Lewis scene and the Lucky Luciano scene isn’t the only time that “Home” draws direct and indirect parallels. While Jimmy’s complaining about the pain in his leg, Nucky’s father is tripping and falling to the floor in his house, clutching a bum gam. And just as Ethan Thompson spends much of “Home” annoyed at his son Nucky for not properly respecting his elders, so does The Commodore have a scene later on where he gripes that Nucky isn’t coming by to deliver his payoffs in person. “I put the sonofabitch where he is, and they put me in jail,” the sickly Commodore moans, before his stomach woes cause him to projectile vomit into a spittoon. (Which naturally segues into a scene where Nucky recites the lyrics to the old folk song “Some Little Bug.”)
Mostly though, “Home” deals with the relationship between our main characters’ pasts and their present. In Nucky’s case, returning to the house he grew up in to evict his father out has stirred up a lot of old dirt. (Literally, to an extent; Ethan wan’t the best housekeeper.) Nucky wants to fix up the house and give it to one of his associates, Damian Fleming, a new father whom Nucky hopes will turn the old homestead into a warmer, happier place than it was in Nucky’s youth. But doing that necessitates spending a lot of time in the place, often with Margaret by his side. At first Margaret resists his attempts to walk down memory lane, mainly because she doesn’t really want to hear stories about how his dad once beat him with a hot poker when he reached for the bread too soon. (“I’m no stranger to a man’s cruelty,” Margaret says. “Sometimes it’s best to leave the past where it is.”) But then she realizes that she doesn’t really know as much about Nucky as she’d like to, so she encourages him to tell her more about the time he lost a catcher’s mitt signed by Hardy Richardson. Nucky says it was stolen, and that his dad made him go fight the kids who took it. He was beaten unconscious and was in the hospital for 11 days.
I found the Nucky parts of “Home” intriguing for a couple of reasons. First off, I’ve read some complaints—here in our comment section and elsewhere—that while Boardwalk Empire is becoming a richer, more dynamic show week-to-week, Nucky himself isn’t yet as strong a character as, say, Tony Soprano. He’s not as charismatic, or dangerous. Me, I like Nucky. I like his dumb jokes, and the way he tries to create the impression that he knows and cares about every citizen of Atlantic City, even if he needs help remembering their names. He’s not a crime boss. He’s a politician who allows crime to flourish under his watch, so long as it keeps his pockets lined and his city secure. The stories he tells to Margaret say a lot about his relationship to the underworld. Nucky was raised to be tough, but he wasn’t—at least not physically. So he got ahead via shrewdness, and now sees himself as having beat the brutes at their own game, by buying them out. And yet I imagine that every time one of these thugs walks into his office, Nucky pictures his father, and seethes.
Second off, I liked the sly build-up to this episode’s big finish, which has Nucky setting his father’s house on fire, after it’s fully restored. The moment is foreshadowed early, when Nucky comes over to supervise the repairs and sees his old Junior Beach Patrol plaque burning in an garbage drum. But the arson also makes a weird kind of sense. Nucky’s original goal was to bury the past by letting someone else have a fresh start in the house, but with each sweep of the broom and fresh coat of paint, the house looks more and more like the one where Nucky was kicked around as a kid. The wound gets fresher and fresher. So he cauterizes the fucker.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, Jimmy ends this episode by walking into a restaurant and confronting the man who slashed Pearl. Jimmy tells a long story about a wounded German soldier—stuck in barbed wire—who kept clinging to life, even though he was in so much pain that living would be worse than dying. Jimmy then tells the man to leave town, leaving the anecdote hanging in the air, as though warning him that letting him live is a worse punishment than killing him. But then, across the street, sharpshooter Richard Harrow sends a bullet through the restaurant’s window and into the slasher’s brain. Exeunt all, to the sound of the Toccata & Fugue In D Minor. (In keeping with the spooky Halloween theme.)
I liked this scene too, in part because I’m becoming a fan of Boardwalk Empire’s big conversation-pieces. (If nothing else, they hold up to multiple viewings… if I’m flipping past HBO and the past week’s BE is on, I nearly always have to watch for a few minutes, just until one of those scenes is over.) But I also think that that having Jimmy tell a WWI story—after asking the slasher if he served—is significant. Jimmy connected with Al Capone initially because he thought Al was a veteran, and thus would understand the mental and physical pain that he’s in every day. But Al was a liar, so now Jimmy has Richard, who clearly does understand.
But I think Jimmy’s still deluded. As deluded as he was when he came home to Angela, not realizing that she had the hots for another woman. As deluded as Lucy Danziger, who weeps alone at a screening of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde because she thought she was closer with Nucky than she actually was. Jimmy apparently wasn’t paying close enough attention to Richard when the masked man explained why he doesn’t like to read novels anymore. “The basis of fiction is that people have some sort of connection with each other,” Richard says. “But they don’t.”
-Richard is played by Jack Huston, grandson of John Huston and nephew to Angelica and Danny. I’m not familiar with his work, but he made an impression, that’s for sure. If the IMDB is accurate, he’ll be a regular for the remaining five episodes.
-Richard gives Jimmy a copy of Tom Swift & The Undersea Search. I never liked Tom Swift, myself. I was more a Danny Dunn man.
-So Angela Darmody likes the ladies. You guys called it.
-Margaret learns from Harry Price’s concubine that she could make good money by rummaging through her man’s pockets while he’s asleep.
-The first appearance this week of Harry Price, played by Michael Badalucco, the Emmy-winning actor best known for The Practice, though he’s also been a go-to bit player for Spike Lee and the Coen brothers. (Fun fact: Spike Lee and Joel Coen were classmates briefly at NYU film school. Jim Jarmusch, too.)
-Jimmy’s official cover story in Chicago is that he works for Bell Telephone.
-One of the D’Alessio brothers is playing the Jew’s Harp when Lucky Luciano walks in with his Jewish friend, Meyer Lansky. (Fun fact: the Jew’s harp was neither invented nor popularized by Jews.)
-Nucky’s dad never even plugged in the nine-dollar toaster Nucky bought him. Parents never change. (If he had plugged it in, it would still be flashing 12:00.)
-If you didn’t care for the largely internalized action in “Home,” don’t fret. This week Van Alden finally found someone who’ll pin the liquor heist on Jimmy Darmody (and thus Nucky Thompson). Between that, and Chalky’s annoyance at Nucky for a test that wasn’t actually a test, and Lucky planning a casino heist, and a couple of Nucky’s major allies (Lucy and The Commodore) souring on him, it looks like we’ll be diving into the deep end very soon.