Boardwalk Empire: “Two Boats And A Lifeguard”
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Boardwalk Empire: “Two Boats And A Lifeguard”

It took a while for this week’s Boardwalk Empire to get revved up, especially given that it came after such a slam-bang episode. “Two Boats And A Lifeguard” is more aftermath-y, and more elusive. Until Nucky makes his move, that is. Then the situation gets interesting in a hurry.

Whenever I’m feeling stymied about what a Boardwalk Empire episode is up to, I take a closer look at its outlier subplots—the ones that seem to have little to no connection to the episode’s main storyline. This week, the outliers involved Nelson Van Alden and Angela Darmody, both puttering around on the fringes of all the Nucky/Jimmy-related business. For Van Alden, the biggest drama of “Two Boats And A Lifeguard” had to do with whether or not he’d accept a free lunch from a boardwalk deli. He insists that federal agents pay their own way, but after a chat with his underling about the concept of “evil in and of itself” versus “evil by dictate”—and after said underling confesses that he no longer believes that prohibition is an enforceable law—Van Alden crumples up the check. (And later stashes what I presume to be a sizable stack of graft-money behind a painting in his apartment.) Angela, meanwhile, rediscovers her Sapphic side when she meets a free-spirited San Franciscan named Louise, whom the local morals officers are hassling for her “revealing” swimsuit. Angela goes to a decadent house party with Louise, where they’re free to hold hands and kiss because in that company they’re “invisible.”

What’s the meaning of all this? Are these two storylines intended to illustrate the sliding scale of morality in Atlantic City? Or are they purely local color and texture, in the spirit of Louise’s friend’s sand-sculpture of a two-headed Jesus? (“Not everything has to make sense,” after all.)

I ask only because the burgeoning deceptions of Van Alden and Angela run counter to what seems to be going on elsewhere in “Two Boats In A Lifeguard,” in which people look each other in the eye and tell the truth. Even Jimmy, when asked some direct questions by Angela—like “Why’d you marry me?” and “Did you try to have Nucky killed?”—answers her truthfully. (“I love you” and “Yes.”) And Nucky, while enjoying some quiet time at home with Margaret, sighs to her, “I pretend all day; must I pretend with you, too?”

It’s clear that Nucky’s exhaustion with pretense extends beyond his sitting room. When Esther Randolph questions Nucky about whether he knows Johnny Torrio and about how he met Margaret, Nucky tries to play along at first and then gripes about her asking questions she already knows the answers to. When Nucky’s father dies, Nucky runs into Eli at the funeral parlor, but refuses to play the role of the sympathetic brother. He scoffs at the idea that heaven exists, or that their abusive jerkwad of a dad could ever wind up there. He reminds Eli that he doesn’t run anything and needs to grow the hell up. Only later, when Eli’s gone and Nucky notices that their pop’s shoe is untied, does Nucky break down.

It’s in this new spirit of openness that Nucky calls a meeting with Torrio and Rothstein, to discuss the info he’s received that suggests Al Capone may have been responsible for the bullet he caught in the hand. The three bosses swap scoops about what they’ve witnessed recently. Torrio knows that Capone’s been going behind his back and dealing with Darmody and has given the boy some sage advice: “Don’t be fuckin’ stupid.” At an earlier meeting in a stable, Rothstein has tried to sniff out whether Lucky and Lansky have their own deal in place with Jimmy, before becoming overwhelmed by the literal and figurative stench of manure. “The pups have grown fangs, gentlemen,” Nucky says, thus setting up the much more charged last act of this episode (and perhaps of this season).

I have a few qualms with “Two Boats And A Lifeguard.” As noted up top, it seemed strange—though certainly not unrealistic—to come out of the breathtaking cliffhanger of “Peg Of Old” in such a low, low gear. Perhaps nodding to their Sopranos roots, writer Terence Winter and director Tim Van Patten break for a dream sequence, bookending the episode with reveries in which Nucky sees his old baseball glove, and a wounded stag, and his bullet-stoked stigmata. But the symbolism of those images isn’t exactly profound, and the opening dream sets a slow pace to start the episode. I’m also not entirely sure what to make of the fever that Margaret’s daughter Emily can’t seem to shake. Just a plot point? A general bellwether of future ills for all? A specific warning that all is not well with Nucky’s plans? Or am I just over-thinking this? (Don’t answer that last one.)

But as I also noted up top, “Two Boats And A Lifeguard” snaps to once Nucky sets to plottin’. While conferring with Torrio and Rothstein, Nucky indicates that he can’t relinquish his position because the bulk of his fortune is tied up in a land deal that he needs to oversee. Rothstein suggests that since he has no move, he should do nothing and let the other players jockey for a while. But later, while playing a board game with Margaret’s kids—and perhaps while reflecting back on the old joke referred to in the episode’s title, about the man who drowned because he wouldn’t accept that God’s mercy could come in the form of ordinary men—Nucky figures out a way that making no move can be a move. He goes to see Jimmy, The Commodore, Gillian, and Whitlock, and announces that he’s stepping down as treasurer. He’s literally going to do nothing.

Jimmy chooses to celebrate this news, even though he’s being haunted by the specter of Manny, who’s come up from Philadelphia to demand his money and/or his liquor. Manny walks around The Commodore’s house, with its imposing collection of stuffed bears and animal heads, and tells a story about a man who once brought him a massive deer carcass—killed by someone else—just so he could claim the trophy. “I’ve eaten venison,” Jimmy counters. But that’s not Manny’s point. He wants to know whether Jimmy’s capable of pulling the trigger. It’s a variation on Nucky’s Memorial Day needle, that Jimmy can’t play the game because he doesn’t even know the rules. 

And as if to prove that point, on the same day that Nucky gives up his day job, he puts his boats and lifeguard into play: He suggests to Chalky that now might be the time for the black workers of Atlantic City to go on strike to protest the recent wave of lynchings, and he also mentions to Owen Sleater that he should continue to pursue his mission of vengeance for “The Troubles.” I was reminded of that great scene from the start of this season where Nucky stands in front of two different church congregations and feeds their respective prejudices. Only now, Nucky’s not trying to placate his constituents; he’s trying to stir up his replacement’s constituents. (Oh, and he’s apparently done with the truth-telling, too.)

Eli tries to warn Jimmy about Nucky, but Jimmy won’t listen. Doyle tries to pester Jimmy about where they’re going to get their liquor and when he’s going to pay Manny, and Jimmy tosses him off a balcony, right at Manny’s feet. I may have found Nucky’s dream and Emily’s fever too vague, but I loved the camera angles and editing in the sequence where Jimmy stands one floor above Manny, both smiling and yelling at each other, and both unable to hear. 

I also loved the subtle moment when Nucky meets with Chalky and looks apologetically at his own hand, silently explaining why he can’t shake right now. It’s a funny little gesture, but also indicative of Nucky’s new status. The shooting has transformed him. He’s making deals, but he’s also not making deals, if you get my meaning. Because nothing’s official if you can’t shake on it.

Stray observations:

  • Lots of AC atmosphere this week, from the half-man/half-woman on the boardwalk to the “beach lizards” who do crazy stunts and ogle the local talent. (“They’re called knees, gentlemen.”)
  • Van Alden employs a nurse for his daughter Abigail. He can’t afford to pay Ingrid much or give her much time off, but he does tout his Victrola—“the latest model”—as part of the compensation package.
  • “You know what’s another privilege? The ability to sell medicinal alcohol.”
  • I felt a little chill when Nucky told Margaret’s kids to start calling him “Dad,” because I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before Nucky finds out about Margaret and Sleator. Is he still going to want to be “Dad” then?
  • Capone doesn’t get Torrio’s “Romulus and Remus” joke.
  • Nucky’s not an onion; he’s an artichoke. And if you save his life, he’ll send you a fruit basket. Anyone get the impression that Terence Winter’s been spending a lot of time at the farmers’ market lately?
  • Next week: Brad Anderson directs, and judging by the title—“Battle Of The Century”—it looks like we’ll get to see some of the Dempsey/Carpentier fight, in conjunction with Nucky’s score-settling schemes. Very excited for this one. Only four episodes to go this season.

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