The second half of Boardwalk Empire’s second season begins with a humdinger of an episode, following through on storylines the show has been setting up for a while now. Margaret visits her family in Brooklyn! Margaret “succumbs” to Owen! The case against Nucky draws a new (and fairly famous) prosecutor! And in a moment that made me gasp out loud—even though we had been told it was coming—Nucky gets shot, after Jimmy puts a hit out on him. “Peg Of Old” was taut, emotionally rich, lavishly produced, and it moved the plot forward in a major way. It was one of those Boardwalk Empire episodes—and there have been a number of them this season—that makes me feel bad for all those folks who gave up on the show before they could get to this point.
The way the Nucky-shooting played out is Exhibit A in why “Peg Of Old” worked so well. The whole plot gets hatched at a sit-down between Jimmy, Capone, Luciano, Lansky, Doyle, Richard, and a late-arriving Eli—a group that Mama Darmody dubs “delightful boys… colorful and ambitious.” They start out by sorting through their financial affairs as usual—with their usual crisp, almost musical dialogue—deciding who’ll pay what to whom as they all work behind the backs of their various bosses. When it comes to Nucky though, Eli’s ready to cut through the goddamn Gordian Knot: “Jesus Christ, just kill him!” Eli blurts. “What is he, King fuckin’ Neptune?” Richard is appalled (“You would… kill your brother?), and Jimmy can’t believe that Lucky and Meyer and Al are so cavalier about it, when he knows they wouldn’t be so glib about killing Arnold Rothstein or Johnny Torrio. (“Come to my house, we’ll talk about that,” Lansky counters.) But Jimmy wants to be the boss, so he shrugs and orders the hit on the man who was the closest thing he had to a father for most of his life.
Or at least he shrugs outwardly. Inwardly, he’s tortured by the simplicity of it all. A man walks off a train and kills Nucky, just because Jimmy said so. How freaky is that? And it’s not like Jimmy wants Nucky dead; Jimmy just doesn’t want to come off as weak and indecisive in front of his partners. His mother tries to placate him, telling them that all that matters is that the others see him as a take-charge guy. “The rest is bookkeeping,” she says, which is an awfully chilling attitude to take. At the end of the episode, Jimmy walks up to Nucky at Babette’s, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wondering if Jimmy was going to come clean about what was going on. Instead, he leans in to Nucky and says, “Doesn’t make a difference if you’re right or wrong. You just need to make a decision.” Cue gunman coming up from behind Jimmy. Cue gasp from me. And BANG!
If you’re chalking up the Boardwalk Empire winners and losers, this week was a bad one for Nucky all around. One of the reasons that Jimmy’s hitman was able to get the drop on Nucky was because Owen Sleater wasn’t around, and one of the reasons that Owen wasn’t around—besides the fact that he spent the day stalking and killing an enemy from the old country—was that he was banging Nucky’s best gal. Having just returned from an emotionally draining and self-identity-crippling trip to New York, Margaret finds the house empty except for Owen, who engages her in a conversation about how odd it is to be a different country, where everything’s a little off, and where you feel so far away from home that you could disappear and no one would know or care. Taking her cues from that chat, Margaret tells Owen that she’s not who he thinks she is, and then invites him into her bed for a one-time only romp. (Though the look on Margaret’s face when Owen enters her makes me wonder if she’ll be able to resist a second round. Or a third. Or fourth.)
And Margaret’s not the only woman messing with Nucky’s life right now. Now that Harry Daugherty has been pressured into taking the prosecution of Nucky seriously, he’s sent down his office’s most troublesome bulldog: Esther Randolph, played by Julianne Nicholson. Anyone who watched the Ken Burns docu-series Prohibition should recognize that Ms. Randolph is meant to be Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the quick-witted Assistant Attorney General who made life hell for her bosses with her dazzling intellect and incorruptibility. Nicholson plays Randolph with a deadpan sense of humor, which works well against Michael Shannon’s staccato earnestness as Van Alden. When Van Alden warns Randolph that she’ll be eaten alive by Nucky Thompson because, “The scales of justice are weighted down with graft,” she sarcastically says, “My. That is shocking.” When Van Alden returns later to explain his problematic domestic situation, he begins by saying, “I am a married man,” to which Randolph quips, “There goes my dream.” She’s a fine addition to the show, and I liked that after being annoyed at her arrival initially, Van Alden decides that she may be his best shot to take down Nucky, and so hands her the thick Nucky file that his bosses have been trying to bury.
In return, Randolph offers to help Van Alden with his home life troubles, which is something he desperately needs. His wife has fled to Milwaukee and won’t answer his calls. He doesn’t have the money to pay Lucy for the baby like he promised. (“You’re enjoying the phonograph, aren’t you?” he offers meekly.) And the still-unnamed baby cries all the time, which is “an extremely penetrating sound.” Lucy goes behind Van Alden’s back to see Nucky, and talks up motherhood, calling her daughter “a little scoop of ice cream.” (“She is kinda cute… Ten toes and everything.” Have I mentioned lately how much I enjoy the dialogue on this show?) Sensing an opportunity, Nucky gives Lucy some money, and tells Van Alden that he’ll keep helping with the expenses if Van Alden will let him know what Esther Randolph is up to. “I don’t judge people; I help them,” Nucky says. But what neither man expects—though they probably should’ve—is that once Lucy gets her money, she bails. She gets a downstairs neighbor to watch the kid, and then she sticks a dirty diaper on her turntable, with the title page to the A Dangerous Maid script pinned to it. That, friends, is an exit.
Maybe I’ve just fallen under Boardwalk Empire’s narrative spell this season, but this episode struck me as livelier and more urgent than last week’s. It reminded me of “Gimcrack & Bunkum” in that not only did the action heat up considerably, but every line and every camera move in every scene seemed purposeful. Even the interludes in Brooklyn were marvelous examples of narrative economy, filling in huge chunks of Margaret’s backstory via conversations that are as fraught with peril as any gunfight for our heroine.
If I hesitate to go ahead a slap an unreserved “A” on this episode, it’s only because I tend to like a little more thematic oomph in my Boardwalk Empire. I like it when the various storylines echo each other more resoundingly (so long as they don’t shade into “Nucky’s muddy footprints” territory). “Peg Of Old” is more about telling the story than setting the scene. Unless I’m missing something, the episode’s various sections mainly seem connected by the meaning of the title. Just as Margaret tries to present herself as someone sophisticated and new—only to revert to being the slutty “Peg of old”—so Jimmy’s efforts to take a more modern and bloodless approach to criminality gives way to the usual violent power-plays. Owen too is driven by old business, while Lucy turns her back on her kid, and Van Alden returns to his grudge against Nucky. Nothing new here.
But for me, that theme really only strikes a chord in the scenes with Margaret—though granted, it resonates like a son-of-a-bitch there. I know I griped earlier this season that I didn’t have high hopes for the “Margaret finds her family” subplot, but from the couldn’t-have-been-cheap recreation of Ye Olde Brooklyne to the subtle shifts in status during her visit, the sequence had the quality of a fine piece of cinema. I especially liked the introduction of her much-younger sister, who asks to be called “Juliet” (though that’s not her name), and admires Margaret’s fancy hat, and concocts a not-too-far-from-the-truth story about her long-lost sister’s life in Atlantic City. We get a full sense of that character—a Margaret-to-be, to the chagrin of her kin—in just a few scenes.
And then there’s Eamon (apologies if I’m spelling the name wrong), who dismisses Margaret’s gift of AC taffy by saying that they can get the same in Luna Park, and who answers Margaret’s boast that her children have become “quite the patriots” by noting that every family member in his cramped apartment puts in a full day’s work. In short: He flatly refuses to let bygones be bygones. He’s still pissed at Margaret for getting pregnant out of wedlock and fleeing to America with the money that he intended to use for passage, and no matter how fancy her duds, he still thinks of her as a whore. He even refuses the money she tries to give him to repay him—money that she’s been stashing away from Nucky’s allowance, as we saw a few episodes ago, which in a way proves Eamon right. “There’s no one here who knows you,” he says, cutting her off and foreshadowing what Owen will say to her later.
Margaret though asks a question that’s pertinent to just about every character on Boardwalk Empire: “Am I the only sinner you’ve ever met?” This is a show where everyone likes to think of themselves as having a certain amount of moral high ground, even when it comes to who they kill and why. But as we see tonight, they’re all just one impulsive decision away from losing themselves.
- Jack Dempsey returns! Another example of how this episode is so concise-yet-evocative: During the brief time we spend with Dempsey, we hear about the accusations that he’s a draft-dodger, we hear about his plans to use a “secret punch” in his upcoming bout against Georges Carpentier, and we hear about the unprecedented plan for RCA to sell the radio broadcast fight to any fan with a quarter. Keen details, all.
- Another stellar scene in “Peg Of Old:” the confrontation between Owen and his old Irish acquaintance. The “feeling each other out” chit-chat is full of provocations and feints and double-meanings, and then when they do actually fight in a public toilet, the episode takes time to note the other customers trying the locked door, and the people walking on the grates on the street above. All of that made what could’ve been a routine punch-and-slash much more interesting.
- Nucky’s irritation with Eddie is never not funny. While Nucky’s in a meeting, Eddie walks in to announce that he has two visitors. “Is this a mirage sitting before me?” Nucky snaps.
- When Nucky hears that Lucy and Van Alden haven’t chosen a name for the baby, he says, “Can’t go wrong picking something from the Bible.” Preaching to the choir, Nuck.
- Van Alden would like you to know that the racist figurine on his new desk does not belong to him.
- I usually don’t pay attention to the weird Jimmy/Gillian flirtation as much as you guys do, but it’s hard not to note the way she changes clothes in front of him (even though she asks him to keep his eyes closed… for once) and the way he says that when they were younger, “People thought I was your brother.” But honestly, that stuff strikes me as pointlessly sensationalistic. I could be wrong, but I don’t believe they ever had a sexual relationship—nor will they—which makes Gillian’s inappropriateness just another cue that she’s not right in the head. (And there are plenty of cues for that already.) More interesting to me is the way Gillian is working behind the scenes to control what’s going on in the city, whether she’s violently banging Lucky Luciano—“I’ll just sew up my dress and go,” she says after one particularly vigorous assignation—or she’s putting bugs in her son’s ear. “The men talk; the geisha retires,” she says at the big meeting that opens this episode. Uh-huh. Riiiight.
- If you’d like to read the book that Margaret gave her sister, it’s available here.
- “The dictaphone cannot hear you nod.”