Macall B. Polay
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October 10, 2011 at 04:55 AM EDT

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.

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