I have friends who don’t much care for movies or TV shows that are based on real people or events, for one simple reason: History demands fealty. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but there’s still a freedom to invent in the latter that the former allows only sparingly. For example, when the second season premiere of Boardwalk Empire introduces George Remus (played by Glenn Feshler), a Cincinnati attorney who holds 80 percent of the whiskey produced in the U.S. within a 300-mile radius of his home, it just takes a little bit of Googling to find out what’s going to happen in Remus’ life if Boardwalk Empire runs on long enough to get there. To some, that might diminish Remus as a character, because no matter how much the show’s creators tinker with the particulars, the broader arc of Remus’ future is just sitting there, unavoidable. As for me… well, I like the way Remus talks about himself in the third person when he meets with Al Capone and Johnny Torrio. And I like the way he agrees to take down Nucky Thompson because he’s still pissed about the way Thompson once tried to nickel-and-dime him over a phone bill.
Boardwalk Empire can have a portentiousness problem at times. The writers know that we know what’s coming down the pike for these characters—what with the end of prohibition, the crash of the stock market, and the rise of the civil rights movement all on the horizon in the decades that follow—and so they occasionally overplay the irony of arrogant men making grand plans based on assumptions that turn out to be untrue. Boardwalk Empire can have a pretentiousness problem at times, too. It’s what I dubbed last season as the “Nucky’s muddy footprints” flaw, where a direct visual representation of an episode’s theme is shoved right into the characters’ (and the viewers’) faces. There’s a little bit of both of those problems in the opening montage to the season premiere, “21,” in which we see a bottle on the beach—echoing the opening credits—as a new day dawns, and Richard and Jimmy supervise the shipping of whiskey crates while on the soundtrack we hear the old Irving Berlin tune “After You Get What You Want You Don’t Want It.” No mistaking the message there. It’s all very deterministic.
But the reason I still enjoy Boardwalk Empire so much is that there’s enough “George Remus’ phone bill” to the show to counteract all the “Nucky’s muddy footprints.” As another case in point, the big inciting incident in “21” arrives when the KKK—the real one this time, not Mickey Doyle’s bootlegging lackeys—attacks Chalky White’s operation, guns-a-blazin’, announcing that they’re working on behalf of “purity, sobriety, and the white Christian’s Jesus.” This is dark-underbelly-of-history stuff, intended to force some gravitas onto a gangland epic. But it’s also the source of a couple of wonderfully written, staged and acted scenes: one in which Chalky welcomes Nucky into his elegant parlor (where his son is playing a flawless “Clare de Lune” on the piano) and he essentially threatens Atlantic City with a full-on race-war; and another where Nucky’s sympathetic speech to a black congregation gives way to a far angrier, racist-friendly Nucky sermon in a different location. Those are the moments that get me excited about Boardwalk Empire, when we see operators operating.
The major dramatic stumbling block for “21” is that it’s a reintroduction episode, and with a cast as big as Boardwalk Empire’s, that takes so much time that it stalls some of the narrative momentum. “21” works around this as deftly as it can, by slipping the re-introductions into compact mini-stories, along the lines of the opening KKK massacre.
Agent Nelson Van Alden’s story is the most removed from the rest but also the most rounded: almost like a little short film woven throughout the episode. Nelson brings his wife Rose into Atlantic City for their 13th wedding anniversary, and at first endures a series of embarrassments and awkward moments: His underlings are play-wrestling when Nelson and Rose walk into the office (a reminder of Van Alden’s ineptitude as a boss); his wife is distracted by the sight of the incubators in a Boardwalk storefront (a reminder of the child Nelson won’t give her); and the restaurant they dine at offers them booze, mere moments after Rose is handed a pamphlet called “If Jesus Came To Atlantic City…,” containing a guide to all the local bars and whorehouses. Just when it looks like Van Alden’s going to have a thoroughly humiliating evening, he calls his men into the restaurant and asserts his federal authority, as the camera zips along the floor, dynamically. Cut to: squeaky bedsprings and a pounding headboard at Van Alden’s hotel. But it’s not what we think; it’s just Van Alden testing the bed and finding it unsuitable for his wife. Rose leaves town after a less vigorous round of lovemaking (in the dark), while Van Alden returns to his seedy rooming-house, where he’s stashed his very pregnant mistress Lucy Danziger. Fade out on the pathetic life of a hypocrite. Roll credits.
Well, roll credits on Van Alden anyway. Much of the rest of “21” picks up where last season left off, with the confirmed members of The He-Man Nucky-Hater Club aligning against our man. The Commodore and Eli Thompson have both been getting healthy and pulling strings, as we see in the opening montage. And Jimmy Darmody—who’s living in a huge house by the beach now, with his mother and his wife—has signed on to help them, even though he’s been reminiscing lately about the time he spent as a boy gull-hunting with Nucky.
The most pervasive theme in “21” has to do with family ties and paternal/maternal bonds. While Jimmy’s re-enacting idyllic scenes from his youth with his own son, Nucky is trying to be a dad to Margaret Schroeder’s little boy Teddy, who’s been starting fires at school, with matches that came from Babette’s Supper Club (a place I’m sure you’ll find listed in “If Jesus Came To Atlantic City…”). Nucky sympathizes with Teddy’s fear of nuns—and father-figures, for that matter—but he only has so much time to devote to this little reformation project, so he ultimately does what he always does when confronted with a difficult problem. He throws money at it.
There’s a bit of “Nucky’s muddy footprints” to the end of “21,” as Jimmy takes a statuette of a father and son hunting and he stashes it on a high shelf in his closet, effectively putting away childish things. But otherwise the episode ends on an exciting cliffhanger, as Nucky stops off at his office for a quick meeting on his way to go see a Charlie Chaplin movie with Margaret and her kids, and finds himself cornered by a state’s attorney who arrests him for election fraud. The broad strokes of Boardwalk Empire may be, well, broad, but as we see in this big twist, there are intricacies in the show’s study of power and influence, as well as in the shifting dynamics of its relationships.
Not to mention the thoughtfulness of the period detail. Like, that Chaplin movie? But of course: The Kid.
- One of the questions I had about Nucky last season was whether he was smart, lucky, or just ballsy. I’ll be keeping an eye on that this year too. He seems shrewd enough in the way he panders to different constituents, but he also seems completely unaware—as he was last season—of the forces aligned against him.
- According to rumor (okay, okay…. according to Wikipedia), George Remus was the model for Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby.
- No Arnold Rothstein this episode (speaking of The Great Gatsby). No Lucky Luciano either, or Meyer Lansky. They’ll be back soon, I’m told.
- Richard Harrow though is back already, and is as sympathetic-yet-creepy as ever. He refuses to eat in front of other people, lest they see how disgusting the process must be. He wistfully asks Jimmy, “How’s it feel to have everything?” (Here’s a hint, Richard: Think Irving Berlin.) And he spends his downtime pasting photos of happy families into books. Welcome back, oh sweet, sad weirdo.
- “Pardon me dear, I need to wash up. Public spaces.”
- I have a fascination with what people ate in restaurants in the olden days, so Van Alden’s precise diner order—steak, turtle soup, coffee, cold buttermilk—was as alluring to me as any speakeasy orgy.
- What’s made little Teddy such a firebug? Seeing Nucky burn his own childhood home down last season, perhaps?
- I was all set to frame this review by using the scene with The Commodore and his dead animals, and his line, “You’re judged by what you succeed at, not by what you attempt,” but then Alan Sepinwall beat me to it in his review. Curse you, Sepinwall!