It’s Judgment Week on Boardwalk Empire! Long-simmering resentments come to a boil. Accusations get thrown around that can’t get taken back. Lines get crossed, and lives changed in an eyeblink. And just as last week featured one bad shot that knocked my grade down, this week had one amazing scene that bumped it up.
We’ll talk about The Scene later, but first, let’s get to the important stuff: We finally get to see Hardeen do his act! And guess what? He’s not “just as good.” At least not at magic. (Watching Hardeen struggle to escape a set of chains, Margaret asks, “Is it meant to take this long?” and Nucky scowls, “Not as far as I’m concerned.”) Hardeen, however, is good at making offhand comments that sum up the circumstances our characters find themselves in. After his show, he treats Nucky and his entourage to a private performance and a little conversation and endures the nitpicks of Mr. Thompson, who mentions how Harry Houdini would do that same escape trick but from 50 feet in the air instead of five. Hardeen responds with words almost designed to shake up the perpetually morally conflicted Margaret: “The principle is the same.” (To which Nucky notes the obvious: “Until the rope breaks.”) Hardeen also says of his sleight-of-hand tricks that “deception requires complicity,” which surely doesn’t improve the mood of Harry Price, who’s just been fleeced in a literal Ponzi scheme. “I don’t give a cunt’s-hair you fuckin’ boob,” Harry hisses later, in a line that challenges “These here my daddy’s tools” and “Maybe your cunny isn’t quite the draw you think it is” for the quote of the series so far.
Elsewhere in Atlantic City, Jimmy Darmody has been called by his mother, Gillian, to bid farewell to his dying father, The Commodore, and perhaps to offer some absolution to the old man. But Jimmy’s not really up for it. When The Commodore talks about how Atlantic City used to be “a fucking swamp with sand blowing through and shitty boarding houses,” and insists, “I made this fucking city,” Jimmy dismisses him with, “You and your giant blue ox, right?” Jimmy gets even more disgusted later when Gillian tells him the story of how she came to be knocked up by The Commodore in the first place. He eyed her in a parade when she was 13, and Nucky retrieved her for him. “Nucky has been kind in his way to you and me both,” Gillian insists, but the whole situation—a pimp for a boss, a whore for a mother, a john for a father—makes Jimmy sick to his stomach. Well, that and the Paris Green arsenic that Jimmy discovers has been slipped into The Commodore’s food for weeks—enough “to take down a hippo.”
The prize for the sourest confrontation in “Paris Green” goes to Nucky, though it’s open for debate as to which of his two big blow-ups is the big winner. First up: Margaret, who happens upon Nucky in his office receiving a frank sexual come-on from Harry Price’s mistress, Annabelle, who needs money now that her sugar daddy is broke. Margaret shoots her now-former friend a withering look and tells her not to worry about paying Nucky back right away because, “Mr. Thompson’s gift is to never forget who owes him what.” Later, when Margaret’s preparing to accompany Nucky to a Daughters Of The American Revolution meeting, he’s warning her that the the DAR’s not really wild about suffrage or immigrants, and she tersely says, “I’ll do what’s required of me,” to which he sighs, “Not really the right answer.” He thinks she’s just mad about Annabelle, but suddenly, it all spills out: How she’s fed up with their whole arrangement, and how he’s fed up with her agreeing to everything he asks while letting him know in subtle ways that it makes her feel dirty. Nucky reminds her that “a good person wouldn’t be here right now” and digs out her Lysol bottle as evidence that she’s not so innocent. Margaret reminds him that he’s responsible for making her a widow. He tells her to watch herself, and when she asks, “Are you threatening me?” he says, “I’m advising you.”
Nucky then consults with his convalescing brother Eli about the Margaret situation, and Eli chastises him, calling Margaret a liability of Nucky’s own making. Eli piles on, saying that Nucky should have set her straight with his fists, but Eli says that’s “not who I am.” Eli reminds him that he asks people to kill on his behalf, and that—to quote a not-quite-famous magician—the principle is the same. He also says that while Nucky likes to act as though he’s completely plugged-in to what’s going on, “I got a bullet in my gut from what you don’t know.” And then, for the coup de grace, Eli tells Nucky that, “Nobody cares about you; they only care about what you can give him.” If Nucky had any remaining doubts about The Commodore’s advice to cut Eli loose as sheriff, Eli’s little rant dispelled them. He rises and tells Eli something he learned while watching Hardeen: “It’s an entertaining act, but if he wasn’t Houdini’s brother, nobody’d give a fuck.”
I realized while watching “Paris Green” that what’s been largely missing from Boardwalk Empire is full-on, operatic sweep—the kind we saw in the climactic scenes of the show’s first episode. Boardwalk Empire has been very good at exploring the complications that arise when business, crime, and politics intersect (as they inevitably must, to build a city), but the emotions on display have been relatively small: some melancholy, some regret, some shame, some consternation. In “Paris Green,” we see fury, and betrayal, and deep, deep bitterness. We see brother against brother and lover against lover and multiple examples of mentor against mentee. This episode isn’t fucking around.
To take the full measure of how not-fucking-around “Paris Green” is, we come to The Scene. Throughout the episode, Agent Van Alden is trying to pick holes in Agent Sebso’s story about why he shot the key witness in the Jimmy Darmody/Nucky Thompson case. Van Alden’s getting so close to the truth in fact that Sebso calls Nucky, who gives him a tip about some bootleggers, in hopes that Sebso can make a bust and prove his loyalty to the agency. But instead, when Sebso and Van Alden arrive in the woods outside of town, they come across a full-immersion baptism in process—in a nice, sun-dappled follow-shot—and Van Alden gets into an argument with the preacher, asking, “You think Christ hears you in this forsaken place?” Later, he needles Sebso some more, picking at his Judaism, and his new wingtip shoes, and his request for a transfer to Detroit. “What do I have to do to convince you?” Sebso pleads. Cut to: the river again, where Van Alden is standing with the congregation, beckoning Sebso to be baptized. Sebso wades out, figuring he has nothing to lose, and Van Alden dunks him under the water repeatedly, asking for the truth. Finally, Sebso drowns, and Van Alden leaves, shouting about the judgment of the wicked while giving the local evangelicals a look that says, “You didn’t see nothin’.” Now that’s operatic.
More importantly, the elements of grand Guignol in “Paris Green” are balanced by those moments of quieter yearning that have previously been Boardwalk Empire’s stock-in-trade. Angela Darmody, for example, makes plans to flee to Paris with her lover—and even leaves a note for Jimmy saying goodbye—but when she gets to the photographer’s studio, she finds the place cleaned out, save for a blurry photo of a couple in their wedding clothes. (“Look mommy, ghosts!” her son says.) And after splitting with Margaret—and Eli, for that matter—Nucky stops off to get his fortune read by Lady Jean. Rather than a “Nucky’s muddy footprints” kind of final shot, the camera pulls back to reveal the boardwalk at night, with all its glittering attractions, full of trumped-up promise. And there’s Nucky, right there with the rest of rubes, looking for answers in a storefront.
- As a little bit of set-up for next week, we see Arnold Rothstein on the phone with Chicago, hearing that the Black Sox scandal is heating up thanks to Rothstein’s punch-drunk ex-boxer associate Abe Attell. (The Little Hebrew!) Looks like A.R. may be heading for a sit with the Torrio organization in the finale.
- More possible foreshadowing for next week: Richard Harrow pops by The Commodore’s house to tell Jimmy that he’s located another D’Alessio brother, a dentist named Adrian, as well as the D’Alessio’s mother and sisters. Richard’s suggestion: Kill ‘em all.
- Van Alden, refusing to eat his Chinese dinner (while also contemplating the moral turpitude of Atlantic City): “The thought of what ingredients might constitute this filth repulses me.”
- The Commodore’s dog has been eating the old man’s food too, so now he’s dead of poisoning. When Jimmy seems unmoved by the sight of the dog in a casket, The Commodore calls him a “stony little bastard” and Jimmy says, “I’m what time and circumstance have made me.”
- Leave it to Nucky to complain when mayoral candidate Ed Bader botches the historical facts of a dirty joke.
- A question for someone with a better memory (and eye) than mine: Is the faded wedding photo the same one that the photographer was taking when Jimmy clocked him?
- See, the reason why you hire Dabney Coleman for what’s been a minor role for most of the first season is because he can take a speech like The Commodore’s reminiscence of building Atlantic City and he can imbue with irascibility, self-promotion, and pathos. When The Commodore suggests to Jimmy that “the wrong man is running this city”—proposing that his heir should be in charge, not some petty hustler like Nucky—he both lays the groundwork for season two and establishes what this first season has really been about. Who should be in charge? Who’s earned their power? Those with the fortitude to build something, or those with the moxie to take it?
- Or, as Eli would put it: “Deserved? Leave that shit up to God and stick to business.”
- This is the last Boardwalk Empire episode for which I have a screener. If HBO holds true to form, they probably won’t be sending out a screener for the finale, which means I’ll be watching “A Return To Normalcy” right along with you all. Look for the next review to be up around midnight central time.