For the first nine episodes of Boardwalk Empire, we’ve been getting a lot of introduction and backstory and a lot of exploration of the world of 1920, but only a little bit of forward movement on the plot that was set into motion back in episode one. Yes, we’ve seen Margaret blossom from an abused immigrant peasant to am increasingly assured political player and Jimmy go from being a small-time crook to a shrewd mobster, and we’ve seen a number of folks get shot. But we began this adventure with Nucky Thompson, Arnold Rothstein, and the agents of the United States government all at odds over the future of the booze biz, and their respective advantages haven’t changed much since then. And not to be an alarmist, but after tonight’s “The Emerald City,” there are only two episodes remaining in the first season.
I like the style, the acting, and the scene-setting of Boardwalk Empire so much that I’m not generally inclined to be a clock-watcher of a finger-drummer when it comes to this show. Still, I was delighted by the first half of “The Emerald City,” during which nearly all the players are on the field and in motion, indicating a strong drive to the goal-line. Instead the episode pulled up, pausing for another up-close-and-personal character-study. On the plus side, “The Emerald City” featured some thrillingly cold-blooded violence and more than one of the riveting “I can’t wait to watch that again” scenes that Boardwalk Empire does so well. On the minus side, it ended with another of the show’s cumbersome “button” images, belaboring a point that’s been made over and over.
The title of the episode is fairly sly—or at the least more open to interpretation. L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” books have been picked over by critics and historians for their possible satirical implications, and though there’s no clear agreement on whether Baum was parodying progressivism, socialism, the gold standard, the gilded age, or nothing at all, it is true that Baum’s stories are frequently filled with false promises and men “behind the curtain.” When Nucky tells Margaret that he lives and works in someplace real, “not a fantasy world like Oz,” he’s right, of course. But he’s also, to some extent, fooling himself.
Throughout “The Emerald City,” we tour the various kingdoms of Boardwalk Empire and check in on how the rulers and servants interpret their realms and their places therein. Back in Chicago, for example, Johnny Torrio is trying to figure out how in a city full of horny men who want to drink—and with Torrio as the main provider now of liquor and hookers—he’s not making a lot more money. Forget legal or illegal … strictly from an economic perspective, the numbers don’t add up. Torrio gets some insight into the life he’s chosen when his lackey Al Capone slips him an exploding cigarette in the middle of a meeting with their “beer baron,” Jake. Torrio’s running a gang full of thugs and arrested adolescents, not businessmen. Even Al Capone’s hat is “the cap of a boy,” according to a man Al meets at Jake’s son bar mitzvah. By the end of the episode, Al’s purchased a fedora and he’s apologized to the boss. He’s ready to take his job seriously.
In Atlantic City, Agent Van Alden heads in a different direction. When the supervisor lets Agent Sebso off with a slap on the wrist for killing Billy and scotching the Darmody case, Van Alden is outraged. But he feels even worse when the supervisor turns that outrage around, yelling, “You have bungled this from the start!” Van Alden has been looking at his job as a righteous calling, to tear down the false pride of the immoral (and perhaps lead them to The Lord). Instead, his bosses just want numbers—as many piddly busts as Van Alden can make—and even when Van Alden confronts Margaret about the moral danger of associating with Nucky Thompson, she makes him feel like a creep, not vice-versa. (It doesn’t help that he shows up clutching her Ellis Island photo, talking about how he looks at it “at night.”) So Van Alden walks into a speakeasy, but instead of arresting the proprietors and satisfying his supervisor, he orders a whiskey, drinks it, and then takes Lucy Danziger home for some unsettling, NC-17-worthy screwing.
Also in the AC, the relationship of Angela and Jimmy appears—briefly—to be on the mend. He’s complimenting her painting and showing her that the Princeton man who appreciates art and literature didn’t completely disappear in the trenches of WWI. But then during a family stroll on the Boardwalk—past those incubators that strike such a chord within Jimmy’s boss—Jimmy’s son runs to the photography studio, points at a picture of Angela’s lover Mary and her husband, and says, “That’s Mommy’s kissing friend!” Jimmy naturally misinterprets who the boy’s pointing to, and rushes into the studio to beat the crap out of the photographer (in the most dynamically shot fight scene we’ve yet seen on this show). So much for reconciliation; now Angela is ready to bolt again.
All of the above worked fairly well, I thought. (Though I still have trouble working up much interest in what Angela’s up to.) My main area of consternation this week is the Margaret storyline, which features some of the best moments in “The Emerald City” and also the moment that dropped my grade half-a-point. I loved all the interaction between Margaret and Richard Harrow, who’s staying on the Shroeders’ couch by Nucky’s request. Richard initially terrifies the Schroeder children with his scarred face, until he dubs himself “The Tin Woodsman” from Oz and wins their trust. He wins over Margaret too, with his self-deprecating demeanor. (“Can’t judge myself; why should you?” he says to her at one point, by way of accepting her apology for being a little freaked-out by his presence.)
Richard is a strong character who makes any scene better, but I also liked the subtle symbolism of Margaret coming to accept him. Nucky asks her to house a monster, and she quickly begins to get used to the idea. That’s Margaret’s story-arc in a nutshell. Similarly, when Nucky asks Margaret to introduce Ed Bader as the new Republican candidate for mayor in front of The League Of Women Voters, she hesitates and is nervous, but she ends up delivering a persuasive speech, about how Bader is “quite literally a builder,” who will build great things for the city as mayor. It’s one of the episode’s tensest and most exciting scenes, even though no one gets beaten, strangled, or shot in it.
But then the Boardwalk Empire creative team goes for the overkill, by having Margaret look on fretfully as Nucky chuckles and plans across the room. A brief glimpse would’ve been fine, but the moment plays on for about 15 seconds, long past the point is made. Then, the episode ends with Margaret looking at herself in her bedroom mirror, in an echo of something Richard Harrow said about not recognizing himself when he catches his reflection. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this closing image, per se. But given the blood on Margaret’s dress in the previous episode, and all those earlier episodes that have ended with Margaret looking worried after yet another Nucky-related disappointment, I couldn’t help but feel a little frustrated. We get it: Margaret’s conflicted. Now is she going to do anything about it, or is she going to keep spending 50 minutes of each episode enjoying her privileges and two minutes looking haunted?
I much preferred the moral muddying of Nucky, who’s making his own transition from corrupt politician to full-on crimelord. When Doyle comes to Nucky and confesses that he’s been involved with the D’Alessio brothers—and spills all the Rothstein plans that he’s been privy to thus far—Nucky and Jimmy concoct a plan that will have Chalky agreeing to accept Meyer Lansky’s fake offer from a few episodes back, in order to bring as many of the D’Alessios and the Rothstein regulars into one place at one time, for an old-fashioned massacre. But during Chalky’s initial meeting with Lansky and two of the D’Alessios, he hears a reference to his Packard and realizes that these men were responsible for the lynching of his friend. So he accelerates the plan and takes his visitors hostage. When Nucky and Jimmy arrive to assess the situation, one of the D’Alessios—the scarred one, or the one “with dogshit on his face,” according to Nucky—mouths off too much, and Jimmy puts a bullet in his head, while Nucky watches. (“I wasn’t going to, but you kinda talked me into it,” Jimmy says, in a line so badass that it almost makes up for the episode’s closing mirror shot.)
As mentioned, “The Emerald City” features a lot of scenes of powerful men dealing with underlings who may or may not be up to the responsibilities of their respective organizations. Even Arnold Rothstein has a rough time of it, trying to explain “the age of information” to a bunch of goons whose idea of sound business practice is to shoot a man in the street. But then that’s what Boardwalk Empire is all about, isn’t it? Or at least it’s what keeps me fascinated by the show even when it occasionally annoys me. What is it that all these characters are engaged in: Is this business or crime? Or is it something in between—like politics.
- Interesting conversation between Sebso, the supervisor, and Van Alden about Sebso’s shooting of Billy, which Sebso blames on Billy needing to “make water” and Sebso not wanting to touch his johnson. Van Alden blasts Sebso for ruining a case “in service of your own modesty,” but Van Alden too has some repression issues. Who knows? Maybe hooch and whores will make him a better lawman.
- “Nothing says ‘I’m sorry’ like money.” A great line from Rothstein, and also perhaps the catalyst for a lot of the action in this episode. After he says that, we get a close-up of Doyle, who got involved with the D’Alessio brothers in the first place because Nucky cut him off and then got deeper into the shit because he owed the brothers some dough. Put plainly: Doyle ain’t got any money, and if the Rothstein organization needs that kind of fealty, then Doyle wasn’t going to last long there anyway.
- While Nucky’s reading the papers for news about the ratification of the 19th amendment, the back page carries a story about the Black Sox scandal. A clever reminder that Rothstein’s always casting a shadow over whatever Nucky’s up to.
- When Chalky meets with Lansky, he delivers a little piece of Nucky’s origin story, talking about how they met when Nucky was making collections for The Commodore. In the story, Chalky says that Nucky was overcharging and skimming, which may be a lie to win Lansky’s trust, but I’m betting is true. In fact, for a moment, I was wondering if Chalky was seriously contemplating taking Lansky’s deal. And then the guns came out. (Two guns, in fact.)
- Eddie asks Nucky whether he should frisk Doyle before he enters the office. Nucky: “You’re Tom Mix all of a sudden?”
- Love Doyle loutin’ it up in Nucky’s office, tossing his hat onto a statuette.
- Margaret sips champagne to celebrate the ratification of the 19th amendment, foreshadowing Van Alden’s whiskey-fueled debauch later.
- Margaret, on the ratification: “You’ve caught up with Ireland at last.” (Nucky: “It’s your country too, y’know.”)
- Nucky defends Ed Bader’s mayoral chances to Margaret, noting that Andrew Johnson was a tailor before he became president. Margaret’s retort: “Wasn’t he impeached?”
- Poetic justice of a kind: Jimmy shoots the D’Alessio brother who shot at Nucky, while Chalky avenges his lynched friend by engaging in a little choking.