Boardwalk Empire: “Under God’s Power She Flourishes”
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Boardwalk Empire: “Under God’s Power She Flourishes”

Once upon a time, Jimmy Darmody was a student at Princeton, spending his days attending symposia on 17th century English literature, and his nights bedding a skinny waitress named Angela, to the envy of his classmates. He was chummy with one of his professors, too: a man from a working-class background, with a father who was proud of his accomplishments even though he didn’t really understand them. So when this scrawny whelp from Atlantic City interpreted a passage from John Webster as meaning, “Everyone around him’s getting rich… he can taste it,” the prof offered to become another in a string of well-meaning men who have taken Jimmy under their wing, saying, “People like us, we need to be clever.” But then Gillian Darmody showed up, encouraging Jimmy to blow off his homework and go drinking with her. And then when Jimmy’s mom flirted with his favorite professor, and got a little mussed up in the process, Jimmy stepped in and administered a beating to his would-be mentor, effectively ending his days as a Tiger.

Oh, and later that night, he fooled around with his own mother. I’m sorry, did I bury the lede?

I’m writing this week’s review from a hotel room, where I just watched “Under God’s Power She Flourishes” in non-HD, with no real power to pause or rewind. Plus, I have an early flight tomorrow. So I’m going to keep my thoughts brief, and leave it to you all to expound more in the comments on what was kind of a crazy episode. I promise I’ll make it up to you next week, by which time I’ll have had a chance to process everything I just saw. (Though I won’t have a screener of next week’s episode, either, so expect that review to come late in the evening.)

Anyway, as is often the case with penultimate episodes of serialized TV seasons, a lot of what I think about “Under God’s Power She Flourishes” will be determined by how all of its various twists and turns play out. My initial impressions are these: This show’s whole story may have just gone way off the rails. But even if it did, it did so with panache, and by no means without forewarning. The Jimmy/Gillian incest theme has been teased since the first time we met her back in season one. As for the other big events in this episode—Margaret getting subpoenaed in Ester Randolph’s investigation of Nucky, Van Alden getting charged with the murder of Agent Sebso, Doyle looking to mastermind an insurrection against the Luciano/Lansky/Capone/Darmody gang, and Jimmy hitting for the Oedipal cycle by killing The Commodore—they have all been bubbling under the main Boardwalk Empire plot for a while. So while I have no idea where the show’s writers go from here, I can’t say that they got to this point haphazardly.

And like I said: There was panache. I loved the way the music on the soundtrack bled between scenes, connecting the past to the present and the various factions of Atlantic City to each other. I loved how the clatter of the trains outside Jimmy’s window at Princeton gave way to the clack of typewriter keys in Esther Randolph’s office. I loved the little push-in camera move to the disheveled Gillian and the newly pregnant Angela, the two women about to drive Jimmy to enlist to fight in WWI—stealing a classmate’s family tragedy along the way as his reason for joining the cause.

I look at this episode as a set of interlocking origin stories. We see how Jimmy became Jimmy, yes, but we also see what looks to be the start of Van Alden’s new career as a fugitive criminal. One of Nucky’s servants overhears his boss talking with his lawyer about Van Alden, and because the servant feels he owes Nucky, he tells them about Van Alden’s “baptism” of Sebso last year. The lawyer passes this info on to Esther, and just as she’s about to have Van Alden arrested, he flees. To put that reversal into full context, the episode includes an earlier Van Alden scene in which he tells his daughter’s nanny about being raised by parents who were heartbroken when the world didn’t end as their pastor had predicted, as well as a scene in which he signs his divorce papers, and a scene in which he turns down Doyle’s offer of an alliance, saying, “I prefer not to.” There were signs of hope that our Nelson was normalizing, all dashed when he flees his judgment.

This episode could also be read as an origin story for Doyle, who gets pushed too far when his associates tell him that he should give his share of the government whiskey sell-off to Jimmy, or else they’ll deliver his head to Rothstein and collect a bounty that’s been outstanding since early in the first season of the show.

Or it could be read as an origin story for Margaret, who seems about to enter a new phase of her life. Still convinced that she deserves to be punished for what she’s done, she has her now annual grumble session with Nucky, where she reminds him that, “We began in sin,” and accuses him once again of having her husband murdered. The difference this year is that Margaret confesses to stealing money from her family to come to America, and she comes close to confessing her affair with Owen, but instead turns that guilt back on Nucky and their whole relationship. Nucky intends to transfer to Margaret his voting control of the property that’s the key to his future; can he still afford to do that when she’s in such a penitent mood?

Ultimately though, all these stories are backdrop to Jimmy’s sad, perverse saga, which plays out almost like a dream he’s having after snorting heroin. “Jimmy, I have to leave,” he hears Angela say to him in the past, and then again in his head after she’s dead. Meanwhile, his Mom in the past tries to seduce him by whispering, “There’s nothing wrong with any of it,” and in the present she reacts to his attempt to choke her to death by saying, “What you did, you didn’t mean it. We don’t have to mention it again.” This kid has no real moral bearings; no sense of what’s public and what’s secret; no sense of what’s real and what he’s imagining. His mother has told him only useless things. That's how Jimmy one week can be a floppy-haired boy, quoting Webster. And the next week? The Revenger’s Tragedy.

Stray observations:

  • I know she had her reasons, but I think the most hateful moment from Gillian in this episode comes when she tells the police not to question Richard because he’s a “simpleton” that “my son is charitable to.”
  • Y’know, he may still come, yay-sus. (Cue Van Alden: “Doesn’t that worry you?”)
  • Doyle doesn’t like the way Van Alden looms.
  • Classic Nucky: When Margaret recounts the lesson her priest delivered about how in heaven and hell the inhabitants each have oversized spoons (but in heaven, they feed each other), Nucky asks, “Why couldn’t they just hold them higher up on the handle?”
  • Katy overhears Owen ask Margaret if she thinks about him. The way things have been going on this show, that other shoe could be dropping very soon.

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