Tensions between Nucky and the Commodore boil over, while Lucy and baby-daddy Nelson try to learn to get along

By Darren Franich
Updated October 10, 2011 at 04:55 AM EDT
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Macall B. Polay
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One of the hallmarks of a great television drama is the ability to shift between small character-focused stories and larger, more serialized, show-defining narratives. Series as diverse as The Sopranos, Deadwood, 24, Lost, Breaking Bad, The West Wing, and Mad Men are all great at portraying how massive world shifts affect individual characters’ interactions, and also how those individual characters and their highly specific emotional journeys affect the world around them. (Breaking Bad is probably the most adept at nailing this mix, shifting on a dime from microscopic character study to macroscopic modern-western epic.)

My only major gripe with Boardwalk Empire is that it feels like a huge story without those little character moments: Less like a genuine story, and more like a Cliffs Notes diagram of a Charles Dickens novel. Last night’s episode, though, hit that micro/macro mix very effectively, moving nimbly between a pair of plotlines that pushed the whole “Nucky Vs. Everybody” plotline forward without sacrificing some valuable characterization. Heck, you could argue that last night’s episode practically reinvented one character — or at least, finally gave her some meaningful motivation.

The Pregnancy Pact

Paz de la Huerta is sort of the unofficial Boardwalk Empire mascot, partially because she was nude in maybe 75% of her scenes last season, and partially because her line readings are fascinating. Lucy Danziger sounds a little bit like Juliette Lewis, a little bit like Marlon Brando doing a Christopher Walken impression, and a little bit like Rain Man. So even throwaway lines wind up sounding bizarre and fascinating. At the start of last night’s episode, Lucy was begging her baby-daddy/live-in babysitter Nelson to let her go out. Here is what she said she wanted: “A simple dinner. Some conversation. Some music, for god’s sake.” Here is what it sounded like: “Azim pull d’ner. Zum convuss-AY-shen. Some mooozik, f’gawdzakes.”

Last night, we learned that Nelson made a deal with Lucy: If she carries his baby to term, he’ll pay her a hefty sum. But the trade-off is that she has to live life according to the Van Alden Method, which means no fun, no music, no dancing, and certainly no booze.

It’s kind of bracing to see Lucy in such a different environment. And since Michael Shannon plays Van Alden as such a ramrod-straight monolith, the sharp contrast between the two — very different actors playing very different characters — was refreshing. Even better: For the first time, the writers actually gave Lucy some meaningful emotions. When Lucy’s pal Eddie Cantor visited the Den of Pregnant Melancholy, she explained to him that she was initially happy about the baby: “I wanted to mean something besides just Whoopee.”

I have to believe that the writers were aware that that line has some meta-resonance — in the first season, pretty much all Paz de la Huerta did was “Whoopee” — and it brought a vividness to the character that’s been lacking before. Eddie brought a little present on his visit: A script for a new play that’s casting downtown. “A showgirl wants to marry a society boy. But his parent’s won’t snoooorreee,” he explained. (By the way, does anyone else like that the actor who plays Eddie Cantor is basically doing an impression of the Vaudeville Guys from Family Guy. “A baby! That’s the ticket! Wait’ll he gets a loada that kisser.” Oh, Vaudeville: There’s a reason no one ever tries to ironically bring you back.)

NEXT: Nelson is not a great fan of the theater, turns out.Lucy read the script into a mirror, leading to the single best utterance of the word “Flibbertigibbet” in TV history. (In Paz-speak, “flibbertigibbet” seemed to have infinite syllables and yet zero syllables, all at once.) Nelson overheard her, or perhaps he could just sense that fun was being had somewhere, and knew he had to put a stop to it. In the process, we learned that Nelson has a troubled history with plays: “I was taken by an aunt to a Christmas Pageant in 1894. After my parents found out, they cut off all contact.” Fun people, those Van Aldens!

Nelson tried to keep things businesslike. He refused to let Lucy try out for any ungodly stage shows. He reminded her that she was carrying a child, which was (I loved this line) “A sacred charge from the Lord, and a financial agreement between us.” But Lucy’s melancholy was clearly getting to him. When he met with the relentlessly backstabbing Doyle, he actually asked the gangster, “Would you consider Nucky Thompson…fun?”

I’m not sure I quite believed this plotline’s denouement. It seemed a bit simple: Yay, Nelson gave Lucy a Victrola, and now we know this Tin Man has a heart! (It was also a stark contrast to the episode last season when Nelson sent his wife a letter conclusively stating they would not seek any fertility treatments.) But Lucy’s journey over the episode — staring at herself nude and pregnant in a mirror, standing on the edge of a stairwell to force a miscarriage — had a genuine emotional charge.

The Trials of Nucky Thompson

Like Lucy, Nucky began the episode in a melancholic haze. He stood in his greenhouse, still wearing his finest silk pajamas at a time of the day when only old men and exiled monarchs should be wearing fine silk pajamas. His problems seem to be multiplying every second. We saw Damian stop by a local casino for his latest collection. The envelope was less full than usual, prompting the casino owner to unleash this week’s Best On-The-Spot Soliloquy: A lengthy description of the process by which casinos feed their customers free alcohol until the customers lose all their money. Conclusion: The casino needs alcohol, real alcohol, none of that Canadian swill.

Across town, the Commodore and Jimmy were meeting with Bill McKay, who carries the alcohol in from offshore. They gave him their sales pitch: Nucky is the past, and the Commodore is the future. McKay refused, possibly because the Commodore made a crack about how he used to smell like “Halibut and motor oil.” The Commodore also reminded McKay that he built the lighthouse. I was surprised that the Commodore brought up a lighthouse — surely one of the most potent/overused metaphors in the English language — without making a speech about it. But maybe inhaling all that shoe polish on his mustache is impacting the soliloquizing membranes in the Commodore’s brain.

NEXT: Capone. Al Capone.

So what else can go wrong for Nuck? Enter Al Capone. Capone is another one of those awesome characters on the periphery of Boardwalk Empire who arguably deserve more screen time than the Nucky/Margaret/Jimmy triumvirate — especially since Stephen Graham gives Capone just enough fragility to make his caveman outbursts even more threatening.

(Lengthy Aside That You Can Skip If You Understandably Don’t Like Comparing Boardwalk Empire to other HBO TV Shows: Sometimes I wonder if the problem with Boardwalk is that the writers are a bit too wedded to the historical record. Yes, in real life, Capone was in Chicago and Arnold Rothstein was in New York, but keeping such vivid characters on opposite ends of a Boardwalk‘s world seems like a shame. By comparison, Rome did a good job of following the genuine history, but it also created two characters whose whole purpose was to constantly find themselves at the center of pretty much every historical event, every battle, every coup. Maybe if Boardwalk Empire had a similar character — if Van Alden was investigating everyone, and not just Nucky — it wouldn’t feel so disparate. End of Aside.)

Capone had a message for Nucky: “With regret, Chicago will no longer be buying alcohol from Atlantic City.” Nucky tried to root out where Chicago would be getting their booze, and Capone told him: “Some Jews across the lake,” with a little help from George Remus. Nucky placed a call to Harry M. Daugherty, formerly the fabulously corrupt campaign manager for the Warren G. Harding campaign and newly-installed as the fabulously corrupt Attorney General of the Freaking United States. “The White House — it’s filthy,” he told Nucky, while yelling at a workman not to put the canister of (illegal) wine on the radiator. He had no help to offer Nucky. Nucky poured himself some whiskey and stared meaningfully out at the waves.

Meanwhile, Back In Manhattan

Michael Stuhlbarg filled his state-mandated quota of appearing in one single awesome scene of Boardwalk Empire when Arnold Rothstein mediated a sitdown between Lucky and Meyer and Joe “The Boss” Masseria. Seems that the Lucky/Meyer Poker Showdown is located behind Masseria territory. Worse, the Boss wasn’t too happy to find two of his men dead with their throats cut.

Lucky and Meyer legitimately had no idea what he was talking about — Jimmy killed them after they attacked him — but Rothstein still insisted that they pay Masseria a tax: 10% of their profits, on top of the 50% they’re already paying him. (I always like when TV shows delve into the literal business side of the mob.) Masseria also chastised Lucky for hanging out with “these Christ-killers.” Anyhow, fun scene, and a good reminder that New York exists.

Daddy Dearest

Al Capone toodled off to the Darmody Seaside Household, where he played with Jimmy’s kid and spoke Italian to Jimmy’s wife. I loved the way he greeted Jimmy and Richard: “Mutt and Mutt!” Al didn’t understand all the hubbub over the anti-Nucky movement. “It’s a political coup,” Jimmy explained. Al just wondered why Frankenstein hadn’t put a hole in Nucky’s head. Al also talked a little bit about his father — a recently-deceased barber who slaved away his whole life, like a shmuck. (Richard asked after his mother, which prompted Al to say: “She’s a hoo-ahh.”

At that point, Al departed the episode, but he’d established the central theme: Fathers and sons. Over at Eli’s house, Papa Thompson is bed-ridden, freaking out about Nucky’s arrest, and begging Eli to help his brother. At Casa Darmody, Jimmy asked his mother why she’d forgiven the man who raped her, who she used to call “The Lech.” She kept on filing his nails and told him that forgiveness was a virtue. But then shouldn’t Jimmy forgive Nucky? Mama Darmody grinned her Cheshire-Cat smile and navigated the conversation elsewhere.

(Brief Update on the Irish Population of Atlantic City: Owen proved himself to be a legit enforcer, refusing to let the casino purchase alcohol from non-Nucky sources, leading to a Mexican Standoff with Mr. Half-Face that served as a decent reminder of why Mexican Standoffs are so awesome. Meanwhile, Margaret spent the episode obsessing over the news that her family had arrived in Atlantic City. That subplot concluded with the revelation that the family considers “Peggy Rowan” to have been dead for twelve years — Peggy Rowan being Margaret’s real name. Oh, the Irish and their emotional intrigue! Also, for those keeping track, the Irish won this week’s Period-Appropriate Ethnic Slur Race, with several utterances of the words “mick” and “paddy.”)

NEXT: I want. My lobster. Thermi-dor.Everything came to a fantastic head during the climactic dinner sequence. Nucky decided it was time to show his face again, and took Margaret out for a double-date with the Baders. But another party had taken his table: The Commodore, the Governor, and Jimmy the Traitor. Nucky tried to keep his cool. No worries, we’ll take another table. Why yes, I don’t mind being seated so close to the orchestra. But Nucky could only take so much embarrassment. When the server told him that they were all out of the Lobster Thermidor, he looked over…and saw the very last lobster being shoveled into The Commodore’s fat face. “Oh, hang you and hang your Lobster Thermidor!” is what Nucky was thinking when he went over to the table for a showdown.

Nucky was on fire. He threw the Commodore’s lobster on the ground. He told Jimmy, “You’re looking very respectable, James.” He looked at the Governor with disdain and said, “I will ruin you. All of you.” Best line: When the Commodore told him he was acting like a child, Nucky said, “You’re the expert on children, aren’t you?”

All in all, this episode did a great job of bringing the series’ simmering tension into the open air: Finally, Nucky is starting to strike back at his aggressors. I know I’ve been sort of a Boardwalk skeptic so far this season, and I still think the show could benefit from a little bit more focus — I could’ve done without Margaret’s Immigrant Drama and the Great New York Italian/Jewish Mob Cockfight, personally — but if the whole point of Boardwalk is to sprawl, then last night it managed to sprawl gracefully.

What did you think of the episode, viewers? Excited by the prospect of more open conflict between the Nucky and Commodore contingents of Atlantic City? Happy to hear that Chalky White made bail? Hungry for a Lobster Thermidor?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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Boardwalk Empire

Steve Buscemi stars in HBO’s sprawling Prohibition drama set in Atlantic City.
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