In the TV business, ideas get pitched, pilots get made, and then it can take months before a series gets picked up and put into production, at which point the cast, the crew, and the writers reconvene and try to pick up their train of thought. That’s one reason why so many second episodes essentially repeat the first: it’s like the creators are retracing their steps to try and remember what they wanted to say.
Boardwalk Empire’s second episode takes a different approach, although the purpose is essentially the same. Here, the creators try to get back up to speed by sending their characters out a-visitin’. Though “The Ivory Tower” picks up the action just a day or two after the events of the pilot, there’s a strong getting-to-know-you vibe about the episode. We’ve had our crazy night together; now it’s the morning after, and we’re grabbing some coffee.
So, yes, there’s only incremental plot movement in “The Ivory Tower,” but at least the movement is significant. In Chicago, the press is swarming after the Colosimo hit, investigating whether Johnny Torrio was involved by questioning Torio’s men—including Al Capone, who greets one reporter’s request for “a whiskey and a statement on the record” by smashing a bottle across the newshound’s noggin. In Atlantic City, Agent Nelson Van Alden is using the fished-out corpse of Hans Schroeder as an excuse to introduce himself to Nucky Thompson, and thus get a handle on how the illegal liquor is flowing through Atlantic City. And in the wake of Jimmy and Al’s hijacking of the Canadian Club shipment, Jimmy is flush with cash and Arnold Rothstein is demanding restitution from Nucky.
Most of this plays in a series of one-on-ones, each enlightening in their way:
1. Nucky and Van Alden. I’d have a hard time singling out the best conversation in “The Ivory Tower,” but this early scene is a strong contender. Van Alden walks into Nucky’s office complaining that the treasurer is hard to schedule a meeting with because he doesn’t keep regular hours, to which Nucky replies, “Both I and the city of Atlantic march to our own drummers.” Nucky then entertains Van Alden’s inquiries, but only up to a point. When Nucky starts to grow impatient, he asks, “Have you seen The Hottentot?” When Van Alden replies that he’s not really a theater buff, Nucky drops all semblance of graciousness and says, “Then tell me what you do like.” We’re still learning about Nucky at this point in Boardwalk Empire, but here’s what seems to be the essence of his economic philosophy: Everybody has wants, so why not let me meet those wants, and then we can all be happy? No need to bring the law into this.
2. Van Alden and Margaret. Poor Margaret Schroeder spends the first two-thirds of this episode being disappointed by her gentlemen callers. First she takes a break from reading Henry James’ unfinished 1917 novel The Ivory Tower (an assault on the pretensions and venality of The Gilded Age) to entertain a “Mr. Thompson” in her hospital bed, but after taking a moment to sit up and tie a ribbon in her hair, her face falls when it’s Nucky’s brother Eli who walks through the door. Later, after she’s discharged from the hospital and is back in her now-much-less-violent, husband-free house, she’s paid a visit by Van Alden, who lets her know that he’s on a case that she’d just as soon remain unsolved. (And still later, while Van Alden’s back in his room writing a stiffly formal letter to his wife Rose, he reaches beneath his desk, pulls out Margaret’s hair-ribbon, and gives it a longing sniff. Yikes!)
3. Margaret and Nucky. Mrs. Schroeder finally gets to see Nucky when she meets him at his office late at night—while he’s waiting for the seemingly-always-naked Lucy to finish her bath—and gives back the money that Eli passed on to her earlier. “I wasn’t seeking alms,” she insists, and then she quotes the writer George Sand. Nucky compliments Margaret for her love of literature and… well, I have to be honest, friends: I’m having a hard time working up much enthusiasm for Margaret Schroeder and her concerns thus far. No knock on the excellent actress Kelly Macdonald, but over the course of these first two episodes of Boardwalk Empire, the energy level has plunged whenever her character appears. I do remain hopeful for the directions that Margaret’s storylines might lead, though. It’s clear from this episode especially that Boardwalk Empire means to examine the place of women in this rapidly changing society. (That citing of George Sand is not coincidental.) A well-read single mother with friends in high places could make for an interesting case-study. Could… but not yet.
4. Nucky and Doyle. Nucky visits Doyle in jail just to tell him that that he won’t be bailing him out, and that he wants Doyle to get out of the bootlegging business to make way for Chalky White. (As we say in the news biz: Developing….)
5. Nucky and Rothstein. The real Rothstein badassery this week comes via monologue, not dialogue, as he looks up from a billiard table to tell a pointed anecdote about winning a bet that involved the loser asphyxiating on a cue ball. (Adding, ominously, “If I let a stranger choke to death for my own amusement….”) But he does also take time out of his busy schedule of manipulating odds to his favor to give Nucky a call about the recent whiskey-hijacking and to remind Mr. Thompson that he now owes the Rothstein organization $100,000. Nucky counters that since he didn’t have anything to do with the hijacking, he doesn’t owe Rothstein a goddamn thing. “Is this how you do business?” Rothstein coldly asks. And Nucky snaps, “You want to know how I do business? Show your face again in Atlantic City.” (Again: Developing…..)
6. Nucky and The Commodore. Paying his due deference as always, Nucky stops by to see his aging mentor and keep him abreast of what’s been going on in Atlantic City, as well as to give him his cut of the takings. (“Why is the money cold?” the Commodore grumbles.) The major takeaway from this scene—and to an extent from this episode as a whole—is that Nucky has been consolidating his power by playing to bases that other politicians won’t touch, like women and minorities. We get a glimpse of why Nucky’s a player and the Commodore isn’t anymore when the old man invites his black maid in and asks her opinion on The League Of Nations. When she says she doesn’t know anything about it, the Commodore smirks. “That’s your Woman’s Vote.”
7. Nucky and His Money. With no Martin Scorsese in the director’s chair this week—and, presumably, with a lower budget—the style of Boardwalk Empire was dialed back a bit to something more conventional, though not completely staid. There was one particularly snazzy montage in fact, carrying forward a motif I noted in the first episode, about the complicated movement of money among all these characters. In “The Ivory Tower,” Van Alden delivers a report to his bosses about how Nucky “lives like a pharaoh” and while he’s talking we see a representative examples of Nucky’s high-living and the graft that makes it happen. (Great throwaway line from the montage: One of the city employees hands in a roll of bills and Nucky snaps, “Did the envelope catch on fire?”)
I could go on with enumerations for “Nucky and Jimmy,” “Jimmy and Angela,” and “Jimmy and His Mom,” but I’m going to ditch my organizing structure at this point, because all of those segments are closely interrelated, and tie also to “Nucky and His Money.” Early in the episode, Jimmy strolls into Nucky’s office, figuring that the small pile of cash he passed along after the whiskey-hijacking would defuse any anger that Nucky might have over Jimmy and Al messing in his business. Instead, Nucky hisses, “You want to be a gangster in my town, you pay me for the privilege,” and tells Jimmy that he owes another three grand.
The problem? Jimmy’s already blown most of his take. He gives his wife and toddler a second Christmas, by digging a tree out of the alley and popping the very appropriate “You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover” on the phonograph before showering his family with presents: including jewelry and a new vacuum sweeper for his wife Angela. She tries to show him her appreciation later that night in bed, but she can’t have sex because it’s “not a good time,” and when Jimmy suggests that they “do it the French way,” they’re interrupted by their son. A frustrated Jimmy goes for a long walk to a burlesque theater, where a troupe of topless women are rehearsing a tableau intended to evoke ancient Greece (and, presumably, to provoke arousal). Jimmy finds one of the performers backstage and gives her a necklace, and just when I was getting ready to type a joke in my notes about how I’m sure this lady knows “the French way,” we find out that this topless gal is Jimmy’s mom, and that this necklace is intended to replace one he lost years before.
Which brings us back to “Nucky and His Money.” Last week we saw Nucky land a $60,000 deal from Arnold Rothstein’s crew and then find out the next day that Rothstein had won $90,000 in one of Nucky’s casinos. This week, Jimmy has to steal his mom’s necklace back in order to pay Nucky the $3,000 he owes, and then as soon as he hands Nucky the money, Mr. Thompson walks over to the roulette wheel, bets it all on black, and loses it. It’s an ice-cold moment, and a reminder that in a town where fortunes can change in an instant, it’s no wonder that everyone’s so obsessed with making money whenever, wherever, and however they can.
There’s one other storyline that weaves through “The Ivory Tower,” and in a way it encapsulates the rest of the episode. As an illustration of how Nucky specializes in making people feel good, he glad-hands a visiting businessman (with the help of his assistant, who’s better at remembering names). The man, Baxter, is in town with a chippie named Claudia, but like so many other men in “The Ivory Tower,” he’s not getting what he thought he was paying for. Claudia likes roller-skating and taffy and dinner at The Knife & Fork—kids’ stuff—and in keeping with her juvenile interests, she’s not coming across for her sugar daddy back in their hotel room. Even after Nucky tries to warm Claudia up for Baxter by saying that he’s thinking of sponsoring a beauty contest in Atlantic City and that Baxter might be a judge, she insists that “she’s not that kind of girl.” Finally she gets tired of his pouting and while he’s angrily driving her home she asks him to pull over in Hammonton, NJ (the blueberry capitol!) so she can give him a handjob. (Thus underlining another theme of “The Ivory Tower:” that these women are savvier than their men have been led to believe.) But while she’s jerking him off, a disheveled man caked with blood lurches out of the woods and pounds on Baxter’s car.
The music on the soundtrack during this scene is “By The Light Of The Silvery Moon,” but after all the other reversals in this episode, I thought of a line from maybe the most famous song about Atlantic City: “Maybe everything that dies… someday comes back.”
-I’ve been trying to pay special attention to the sources of music in scenes. Last week I almost wrote something about “songs on the radio,” until I remembered that radios (or at least music programs on radios) wouldn’t have been prevalent in 1920. As near as I can tell, when music is clearly playing in a room with the characters, it’s either a live performance or a phonograph.
-One thing that Boardwalk Empire has in common with The Sopranos is that a lot of its scenes take place in business establishments populated by half-naked women. I never much cared for the dancers at the Bing in The Sopranos. Too much plastic. But it looks like the Boardwalk Empire casting agents are making an effort to keep everything historically accurate, which I appreciate. (Strictly as a stickler for authenticity, mind you.)
-Meanwhile, in the streets of the AC, the Ku Klux Klan recruiting. (You know the drill: Developing….)
-The chauffeur must have a cap.
-Love the moment where Nucky plays straight man to a diminutive pal on the boardwalk. “I’d like to, but I’m a little short” is a hoary punchline, but I laughed just at the way Nucky took such obvious pleasure in the exchange.
-Nucky is clearly a man who likes jokes. Two more classics tonight, with the punchlines, “As long as you’re gone by noon,” and, “See, I told you he was stupid.” Were those jokes old even then?
-As I’m sure you know, Boardwalk Empire has already been renewed for a second season after posting such huge numbers for its debut episode. I suspect the ratings will drop some this week, but not precipitously. As I said last week, Boardwalk Empire is an entertaining show first and foremost, and this episode maintains that enjoyable vibe. My one concern about Boardwalk Empire as an ongoing series is that it has a cast full of movie people, and I wonder how many of them are going to be excited about being locked-in to another season. (But hey, that’s their problem, not ours.)