Boardwalk Empire: “Nights In Ballygran”
A-

Boardwalk Empire: “Nights In Ballygran”

At the end of last week’s Boardwalk Empire review, I noted one of the episode’s throwaway lines: “Old habits die hard.” Well, this week’s “Nights In Ballygran” was practically a study of habits—old and otherwise. And it used the preparations for yet another big Atlantic City party as a way to better define the strengths and weaknesses of our anti-hero, Nucky Thompson. It was my kind of episode, in other words.

The occasion: St. Patrick’s Day, which is a huge deal in the Irish-controlled AC. Nucky orchestrates the event like a circus ringmaster, even arranging for the midget boxers from the boardwalk to dress up as leprechauns and distribute goodies to the political bosses at an annual dinner. When the little people ask for $10 to appear instead of their usual $5—“Ten dollars a man? What is that, three bucks a foot?”—Nucky quickly assesses the situation and gives their spokesman $12 to persuade his cohorts to take $7. This is Nucky’s prime political skill: to see what people really want when they come asking for him favors, and to assure that they get just enough to stay out of his way. And if, like the leader of the little people, they complain about the “humiliation” of the situation, Nucky just shrugs and calls it “show business.”

And for Nucky it most definitely is. Because here’s a secret about Nuck: He hates St. Patrick’s Day. In almost every way, Thompson is a progressive, willing to seek out new coalitions and embrace the changes of the modern era. He can’t stand the idea of sitting in a room with a bunch of hidebound Irishmen, all getting drunk and singing old songs and weeping over the problems of the past. (“Centuries of loss,” his brother Eli says. “We’re a sorrowful people.”) But Nucky’s also a pragmatist who knows that his political power derives from those cranky elders. And he knows how to give them what they want: green beer and pipes and shamrocks and shillelaghs and a chance to rise as one and sing “Carrickfergus.” So he plasters on a smile and puts on the show.

Eli, on the other hand, misses that bigger picture. For one thing, he takes real pride in his Irish roots, not the means-to-an-end pride of Nucky. Eli also misunderstands the real reasons for his brother’s success, and thinks that all he has to do to move up is to wow the ward bosses with his oratory. His first step: A big re-election speech at the annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner. Nucky warns him against it, and the crowd groans when Eli rises to give it, but Eli’s been reading pamphlets by Dale Carnagey (from before the self-help guru changed the spelling of his last name), so he’s sure he can hold everyone’s attention. And at first it seems like he’s right. Eli starts off with some fiery rhetoric about The Troubles back home and those damnable English, while his audience roars their assent. But then people begin to bicker amongst themselves about who’s been more supportive of the Irish War Of Independence, and whether the American-born children of immigrants really appreciate the struggles of their ancestors. The whole scene threatens to turn ugly before Nucky intercedes. Later, Nucky tells Eli that the kingmakers will remember the man who speaks well and shows good form, letting his brother in on his strategy for gaining and keeping power: Just try not to look like an unprepared asshole. Then Eli takes a swing at Nucky and misses, and Nucky can’t figure out why his brother’s so pissed.

That Nucky can’t read Eli as well as he can read a room full of drunken politicians is significant. “Nights In Ballygran” takes a closer look at how Nucky operates, and what emerges in a portrait of a man who reduces human interactions to their transactional basics—“How much can I afford to give you?” versus “How much are you willing to take?”—while miscalculating how that ruthlessness will make the people on the other side of the bargaining table feel. 

This proves to be a major miscalculation in the case of poor widow Margaret Schroeder. We first see Margaret in “Nights In Ballygran” waking up early—stirred by the middle-of-the-night beer deliveries in the garage across the street from her apartment building—and sifting flour to make soda bread for Nucky. But when she comes to bring him the bread, he blows her off and tells her to leave it with an assistant. Instead, she throws the bread out, and when she next sees Nucky—as a representative of The Temperance League, asking that something be done about the beer deliveries—she asks if he enjoyed the gift and is disappointed when he says he did. She’s even more disappointed when the beer deliveries continue even after Nucky promises her that they’ll be halted immediately. So she puts on makeup and her finest dress (over the fancy green lingerie she stole last week) and shows up at Nucky’s office planning to make a stronger impression. But he refuses to see her, so she storms into the makeshift offices of Agent Van Alden.

Van Alden initially puts off Margaret too, showing her his map of the various illegal alcohol operations in and around Atlantic City—a map with 117 pins—saying that Margaret’s beer-garage will have to wait. Even when Margaret mentions that she saw the 4th Ward’s alderman Mr. Neery at the garage, Van Alden raises an eyebrow but doesn’t seem inclined to take action. So Margaret bites down hard and feeds Van Alden the name he really needs to hear: Nucky Thompson. That night, Van Alden raids the St. Patrick’s Day party and arrests Neery, while outside Margaret and The Temperance League hoist their banner and raise their voices in protest of the boozing going on inside. When Nucky sees Margaret, he realizes he underestimated her. So at the end of the episode, he knocks on her door and gives her a big kiss.

This raises a couple questions: Is Nucky wooing Margaret because he’s genuinely interested, or because he thinks this is the only remaining way to shut her up? Is Margaret wooing Nucky to advance the interests of The Temperance League, or is she using the League as an excuse to get closer to Nucky? On the latter question, I’m pretty certain that Margaret’s primary interest is Nucky. But on the former? I honestly don’t know. And what I liked about this episode is that it tells us so much about Nucky and yet maintains that note of ambiguity.

I wish the various subplots in “Nights In Ballygran” were as rich. The one that’s most on-topic involves Angela Darmody and Grandma Gillian, the latter of whom makes an offer to take over the raising of Angela and Jimmy’s young son. After all, she says, Jimmy’s probably gone forever, and Angela’s still very young (and liberal-minded, given that she’s a painter). Plus, Gillian’s used to raising young boys, with the help of whiskey-and-milk and all her showgirl pals. Why wouldn’t Angela want to cut her losses and move on? Apparently, it never occurs to Gillian that Angela might have formed some emotional attachment to her boy. Perhaps Gillian’s spent too long in a world where people and their loyalty are commodities. (As it happens, Angela does look back as she’s leaving her apartment to go hang out with her friends, almost as though she’s considering Gillian’s offer; but more likely she’s just worried about whether her son will still be there when she gets back.)

Meanwhile, just as Gillian’s looking for a new Jimmy to mother, the actual Jimmy is in Chicago, reverting back to a mode he knows well: comforting a wounded harlot. He’s squeezing fresh orange juice—laced with laudanum—for the convalescing Pearl, who only has a few more days to enjoy the hospitality of her old brothel before she’s evicted. (Unless Jimmy wants to kick in the $100 a day that Pearl used to make.) After Pearl comes out into the parlor, stoned and unbandaged, inviting the patrons to enjoy her services, Jimmy takes her back to her room and calms her down with a story about how when he was a boy, he went on a boat trip with his mom and one of her boyfriends, and how they ate roasted lobster and corn and hoisted a tattered American flag that flew at Gettysburg. Then he goes to the next room to wash up, and Pearl shoots herself.

I liked Jimmy’s monologue a lot—if not as much as Chalky’s last week—but otherwise I confess to being a little impatient with the Chicago storyline, if only because it’s drawing momentum away from all the action in Atlantic City. (Plus, seeing Jimmy cope with Pearl’s suicide by visiting an opium den suggests a potential narrative direction that I’m dreading.)

Still, Jimmy’s scenes are relevant, inasmuch as “Nights In Ballygran” shows how different people handle messy situations. Jimmy’s approach—and Nucky’s for that matter—runs counter to the advice of Arnold Rothstein’s associate, who recommends patience and avoidance. If you’ve stepped in shit, you don’t want to touch it right away and smear it around. Better to let it dry, then brush it off nice and easy.

Grade: A-

Stray observations:

-“I was Baby New Year in ’17. Even the diaper was second-hand.”

-Nucky knows that whenever someone comes into his office and asks how he’s doing, there’s going to be a “By the way….”

-Last week Margaret implied that the Temperance movement was partly a stalking-horse for the Suffrage movement, and while that notion’s untrue in the broader historical sense, on the Margaret-level it’s getting clearer that Temperance is less a deeply felt cause than a tool she can use: first against her drunken husband, and now against a man who’s not paying her the proper attention. 

-The Temperance League itself is an interesting case in this episode. Now that prohibition is in effect, the League’s membership is dwindling, even though the victory they won is proving to be slippery. What do you do with your political fervor when the people in power have heard what you had to say, have taken token action, and then moved on? That’s a question that resonates even today.

-Eli’s late to the St. Patrick’s Day dinner because his kids were “playing Tarzan” with his sash.

-We see more of Nucky’s love of jokes in this episode, both in the way he keeps calling Eli “Daniel Webster” when he talks about his brother’s speechmaking plans and in the way he rises to make a bunch of loving cracks about the Irish when the dinner starts to get out of hand. (“What do you call an Irishman who doesn’t swear? A mute.”)

-Speaking of mutes, I don’t want to read much into it but it is pretty neat that Eli and Nucky’s dad is deaf as a post. That’s a powerful metaphor, especially coming in an episode that’s about how some people can’t sense what’s coming right at them.

-Love the shot of the green beer spewing out of the chopped-up barrels. Like St. Paddy’s Day puke.

More TV Club