Nucky tries to recover from his surprise arrest, Chalky faces off with a talkative cellmate, and Jimmy takes an exciting trip to New York City
Boardwalk Empire
Credit: HBO

“I keep people satisfied,” said Nucky Thompson at the end of last night’s Boardwalk Empire. “That’s all I do.” One of the big complaints that people had about the show’s first season was that Thompson was an extremely passive protagonist. But to Thompson, that passivity is a virtue: He’s just trying to protect the status quo, to make sure that everyone is reasonably happy, while also making extra sure that he and his friends make enough scratch to maintain the steady supply of flavorful champagne and nude dancers.

But last night, everything changed. Thompson’s lawyer laid it all out for him. Thanks to a couple of Confidential Witnesses, the Law has a whole laundry list of crimes to pin on Nucky: “Voter intimidation, fraud, theft of ballot boxes, and bribery.” Of course, Future President Lyndon B. Johnson was guilty of all those crimes — check out Robert Caro’s Means of Ascent for all the gory details — but one of the best things about Boardwalk Empire is how deftly the show portrays organized crime as just another part of the political process. Nucky is no less guilty of those crimes than his enemies, but they happen to currently have the upper hand.

When Nucky was released from prison, he tried to laugh off the charges. He blamed his arrest on “a frivolous political vendetta.” He talked a lot about “the working man, the family man.” He even had some sparkling repartee with the media hounds:

World-Weary Journalist: “Is there an honest man in Atlantic City?”

Nucky: “Is there a sober reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer?”

Zing! Unfortunately, Nucky’s problems couldn’t be laughed off. Since his usual place of business was crawling with state officials, he had to debase himself by actually visiting the City Treasurer’s Office, where he met his lovely secretary for probably the first time. He called for a meeting of all his allies. Only one guy showed up: Mayor Ed Bader.

Everyone else — Eli and the ward bosses — were across town at Casa Commodore. The only person who didn’t seem onboard with the anti-Nucky policy was Damien Flemming. (You remember Flemming from last season: Nucky promised him his father’s house, then decided to burn it down.) Flemming was worried that the Commodore was, well, a bit old to be launching a coup. The Commodore convinced him otherwise: First, by proving that he could lift an elephant tusk over his head; Second, by dying his hair and mustache jet-black. (“Did he fall into the shoe polish?”)

The other ward bosses don’t seem particularly inspired by the Commodore. They just want more money: “Less headaches and more green.” And they couldn’t figure out why Flemming wasn’t just going along with the plan. Last season, it seemed like Nucky had built a rock-solid operation; the only real danger came from exterior forces, like Rothstein and Van Alden. Now, though, it’s clear that everyone is going money-crazy. They’ve been running an unregulated booming business for over a year — selling cheap alcohol for huge profits, tax-free — and everyone is feeling selfish.

The ward bosses just want a bigger piece of the pie. But over in New York, a couple of smart young operators had a big idea for expanding the business into new areas. Lucky Luciano: “We’re thinking of getting into heroin.”

NEXT: It’s a slipper slope from Boardwalk Empire to Requiem for a Dream.Jimmy was visiting New York on his father’s account to get Arnold Rothstein onboard with the anti-Thompson ticket. “I have great respect for you,” Jimmy told Gangster Number One. “Your wisdom. Your achievements.” The look on Rothstein’s face seemed to contain various emotions at once: Joy, curiosity, dismissiveness, the excitement of a spider who has just trapped a fly. (Michael Stuhlbarg is still my favorite part of this show. I had hoped that they would have figured out some way to feature him more prominently this season. Looks like I’ll have to keep hoping.) “Who are you, Mr. Darmody?” asked Rothstein. “You show up well-dressed with a suit, cravat, and a bold proposal. A year ago, you were a brigand in the woods.”

It’s a good question. Depending on your perspective, Jimmy is either the most complicated or most confusing character on Boardwalk Empire; sometimes he’s extremely naive and other times he’s extremely cunning, sometimes within the same scene. At times, you can tell he was basically raised by Nucky. Witness his careful description of his awkward relationship with Lucky: “We have a person in common.” He’s either an incredibly thoughtful homicidal madman or an incredibly violent intellectual. It’s both exciting and frustrating that you never have any idea how he’ll react in a given situation.

After Rothstein apparently turned Jimmy down, he was approached by Luciano and Lansky — who have apparently formed a kind of New York Criminals’ Minor League and are looking to start playing with the big boys. They agreed to work with Jimmy, but only if he agreed to sell their heroin. “When you run the numbers it starts looking very attractive,” said Lansky. It’s clear that Jimmy was a bit horrified by the idea. But Prohibition is already beginning to change the criminal mindset: They’re already selling one illegal drug (alcohol), so why not sell some harder stuff? Jimmy needed to clear his head, so he won some money at the poker table and then killed a couple dudes in Central Park. (Okay, they attacked him first.)

The best part of the episode found Chalky White, still in prison in the wake of his run-in with the KKK. Chalky had a nice visit from the Missus, who gave him a gift from his son: David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens. His wife received the unwelcome attentions of one Dunn Purnsley, a fellow inmate who seemed to conjure whole speeches out of thin air. Purnsley engaged in an episode-long war of wills with Chalky that seemed to basically come down to Purnsley — first genially, then less so — chastising Chalky for acting as if he’s better than his fellow black convicts, just because he has a pretty wife and good clothes and a big book. (Chalky said the book was Tom Sawyer — an implicit revelation that he can’t read.)

This was all pretty awesome, mostly because Michael K. Williams has enough natural charisma that he managed to literally wipe the floor with Dunn Purnsley’s face without even batting an eyelid. First, Chalky named all their fellow convicts — who all thanked him for one kindness or another. Then, Chalky looked on casually as they beat Dunn’s face in. Finally, he asked the one man who could read to start David Copperfield from page one. (Aside: I’m not sure exactly what we were meant to take from this storyline, besides that Chalky White is a total badass who is not to be trifled with.)

Meanwhile, Margaret had a busy day of descending even lower into the pit of criminality. First, she conned her way into Nucky’s office by pretending to be…well, herself, or at least the quiet pregnant Irish mother we met back at the start of season one. Then, she had to entertain Mr. McGarrigle, a member of the Sinn Fein Irish party. McGarrigle was a barrelful of laughs. He doesn’t eat anything that walks on cloven hoof. He’s prone to pronouncements like “My cause is to drive the English invader from a land he has occupied for 800 years,” which is fine, but really, didn’t anyone ever tell him about bringing up politics at the dinner table?

Mr. McGarrigle also brought with him an assistant named Owen Slater, who spoke in an Irish accent so inscrutable that no woman could possibly resist him. (There seemed to be some chemistry between Owen and Margaret, which will clearly be explored more this season, since Owen will be sticking around. I believe that brings Boardwalk Empire‘s ensemble to about 135 people, right? Is Paz De La Huerta still on this show?)

The episode ended with Margaret giving an extremely tired Nucky a pep talk. It’s interesting to see just how quickly the anti-Nucky brigade has launched their attack — we saw Sheriff Eli hanging out with the Commodore’s old friends. (For those keeping track, this is the second episode in a row to feature Dominic Chianese, The Sopranos‘ Uncle Junior, for about two seconds.) Next up: The Counterattack?

What did you think of the episode, Boardwalk Empire fans?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich


Episode Recaps

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