Part of being a fan of a TV show is enduring characters and storylines that are less appetizing in order to get to that tasty, tasty meat. This week’s Boardwalk Empire ostensibly follows three big plots—Van Alden’s weird relationship with Lucy Danziger, Margaret’s search for her relatives, and Nucky’s political standoff with The Commodore—but I’d say only the latter was of the juicy, gotta-see-what-happens-next variety. The other two were mainly good for some thematic resonances and character moments, and perhaps for setting up some dominoes that will topple later in the season.
In the case of Margaret, her scenes in “A Dangerous Maid” continue to explore the theme of who she really is: a raggedy pauper, just trying to put food on the table for her children, or a cunning, beautiful lady who deserves to sit at the table with kings and kingmakers? Last week, Margaret was insisting to her servants that she’s really no different than they are, and this week, the former temperance advocate actually sits down with the staff and has a drink. (“It’s the first drop kills ya; there’s no harm in the last,” as the Irish say.) She’s also begun making economies around the household, by planning to return her fancy duds to The Belle Femme to help Nucky restock his war chest. But by the end of the episode, after a dramatic dinner out with the Baders, Margaret regards a moment of unsolicited familiarity from her maid Katie as a terrible affront. What has happened in between? She received a stack of photos and dossiers from the Pinkerton detective agency, and got the news that a woman named “Peggy Rowan” (who may actually be Margaret) died 12 years ago. We clearly haven’t heard the last of this, and I trust that this story will deepen as it goes, but at the moment, it’s primarily interesting for what it reveals about who Margaret has become.
As for The Lucy & Nelson Show… well, it’s every bit as nutzoid as you’d expect. Stuck in an apartment across the alley from a happy, music-filled home, Lucy laments the “fun” she used to have with Nucky, which she only gets these days when Eddie Cantor stops by. And even those visits turns sour when Van Alden comes home and catches Lucy reading a script that Cantor left for her. Van Alden regards the idea of actors speaking lines as some kind of alien, possibly Satanic behavior. (His only experience with the theater came when he was taken by an aunt to a Christmas pageant in 1894, after which his parents broke off all relations with said aunt.)
My problem with the Lucy/Nelson parts of this episode isn’t the content, which I liked in the abstract—in particular the conclusion that sees Lucy contemplating suicide before receiving a Victrola delivered to her by Van Alden. It’s the way it was played that was a letdown. I just can’t take Paz de la Huerta seriously, at least not when she’s supposed to be a tragic figure, pining to “mean something besides just whoopee.” It’s even odder when she’s paired off with a guy doing an Eddie Cantor impression, or with Michael Shannon in his rat-a-tat Van Alden mode. That said, Shannon as Van Alden is always compelling to watch, especially when he’s away from his sad little love-nest and consulting with Doyle—whom he insists on calling Kozik, since that’s the name on his file—while trying not to be distracted by the bare-assed nude photo hanging behind Doyle’s desk.
But I would’ve traded in every cockeyed Van Alden scene and every insight into Margaret for more of the not-so-cold war between Nucky and The Commodore, which has been juicing this Boardwalk Empire season so far. Like all great competitive rivalries, this one is a story shifting momentum:
The Commodores’s up! His side has been keeping Nucky’s casinos from getting access to the good booze, which means the daily take lately has been a little light. (“It’s light?” Damian cracks when he comes to collect. “It’s a fuckin’ dirigible!”)
Nucky’s up! When The Commodore tries to persuade bootlegger Bill McCoy to halt his shipments to Nucky, McCoy refers to The Commodore as “The enemy of my friend” (“I believe you have that backwards,” Jimmy says threateningly), and chastises The Commodore for fighting dirty just because Nucky outsmarted him in a bargain they’d all agreed to.
The Commodore’s up! Nucky gets a visit from “Torrio’s man,” Al Capone, who hands him a severance envelope and says that his boss won’t be buying booze from Atlantic City any more. Nucky pridefully refuses the money, but asks Capone how Torrio’s handling his competition. Capone smirks: “He’s killin’ em.”
Nucky’s up! While having a conversation with his mother, Jimmy reminds her that she used to call The Commodore “The Lech,” and that if she could forgive him, maybe he should forgive Nucky. Clearly Jimmy is not all-in with his new life as a remorseless man of power. “Sometimes I think I’d be better-suited to a normal life,” he muses.
The Commodore’s up! Nucky calls up the new Attorney General of the U.S., Harry Daugherty, looking for help with his election fraud case, but Daugherty ducks him, grumbling, “Let me unpack my socks at least.”
Nucky’s up! The Sinn Féin representative Owen Sleater, having taken note of Nucky’s problems with liquor distribution, volunteers his talent at “making people stop.” His first assignment: refusing an order being delivered to the casino by Richard Harrow’s crew. That Richard doesn’t seem all that eager for a showdown could be another good sign for Enoch Thompson.
All of this builds to one of those finely crafted Boardwalk Empire scenes, where the writing, the staging and the performances all come together into something something so enjoyable to watch that it makes it worth it to endure Paz de la Huerta. Nucky, having decided to behave as though nothing has changed, arrives at Babbette’s with Margaret and the Baders, only to find Jimmy and The Commodore already there, having dinner with (and not-so-subtly paying off) the Governor. So here we are, in the middle of a different kind of turf war. Babette red-facedly mutters “I wasn’t expecting you” to Nucky, hinting that he may want to dine elsewhere. But Nucky holds his ground and watches from afar while The Commodore and the governor laugh it up, and eat the last lobster in the restaurant. Unable to take it any longer, Nucky walks up to their table and upends the lobster platter, saying, “You’ve had your last meal in this place.” Jimmy tries to duck this whole scene, but The Commodore demands that his son look Nucky in the eye while Nucky reminds his former protege just what a louse he’s aligned himself with, and makes a promise to ruin them all.
Nucky leaves this confrontation feeling like he’s back on top. But is he? What I find most fascinating about this struggle between Nucky and The Commodore is that it’s not the conventional gangland jockeying. As “Jimmy Irish” explains to Capone, this is a political coup. His skills as a soldier aren’t what’s required here. The Commodore would like to humiliate Nucky, but Jimmy just wishes Nucky would quietly step out of the way, stick to his business interests and let someone else run things. But nobody involved in this situation is thinking entirely practically. They’ve got psychological issues—daddy issues, really—that are driving them.
If there’s one theme that’s emerged as perhaps the prevailing one for this season, it’s parentage. Even in the B- and C-plots of this episode, characters are either investigating their families or starting new ones (freaky, freaky new ones). And there are a number of smaller details in “A Dangerous Maid” related to the theme. Capone passes through Atlantic City on the way to the funeral of his father—a barber who worked himself into an early grave, like a mug—and when Capone visits with Jimmy, he feels a pang when he sees his friend talking to a son who can hear and respond to him, unlike Capone’s boy. When Eli Thompson comes home from a day doing The Commodore’s business, his children greet him like a hero, but his senile father says that Eli “has no goddamn idea what he’s doin’,” and that Nucky’s the brains of the family. And then of course there’s Jimmy, who gets through the whole crazy night at Babette’s, and then is asked, “How was dinner with your father?” His answer: “Which one?”
- As Boardwalk Empire followers might’ve guessed by now, A Dangerous Maid is a real play: the first full length musical by a couple of nobodies named George and Ira Gershwin.
- Nice to know that a CGI pregnancy won’t prevent Paz de la Huerta from getting buck naked.
- Love the faintly disgusted look on Nucky’s face when Capone tells him, “My office is in a cathouse.”
- Richard is appalled when Capone suggests that he use his sniper skills to take care of Jimmy’s Nucky problem. (Or to put it in Capone’s words: “Just have Frankenstein drill a hole in his noggin.”) The moment gets even more awkward when Jimmy leaves the two alone and Richard haltingly asks how Odette is doing. Capone waves him off. “She’s a hoor. That’s how she is.”
- It looks like the relationship between Nucky and Margaret is going to be a stabilizing, humanizing one for this show. After last season, where a mix of passion and necessity bound them loosely together, this season they seem more like a real, loving couple—which is something Boardwalk Empire could use. It creates a real sense of stakes, as well as giving us the sense that the characters are capable of caring about more than their power-plays and psychological damage. It also leads to sweet scenes like the one in this episode where Margaret helps Nucky with his cufflinks, and then listens to him tell her that he wants to take her to Paris once this whole squabble with The Commodore and the federal government dies down.
- Damian really does need to do better at picking up on people’s signals. Not to be critical.
- When Harry Daugherty tells Nucky that the White House is filthy, Nucky cracks, “Just wait ‘til Warren’s done with it.” Daugherty will end up being a major part of that filth, of course. He’ll be forced to resign in a few years for taking payoff money from bootleggers.
- Only a brief interlude in New York this week, but a fine scene nonetheless, as Rothstein orders Lansky and Lucky into a meeting with Joe Masseria, who owns the territory where Lansky’s been running his poker game. It turns out it was Masseria’s nephews that Jimmy killed last week when they tried to mug him. As payback, Lansky and Lucky have to pay Masseria two grand, plus a 10% tax on the game, in addition to the half of the take they already give to Rothstein. Ever since I read the novel The Godfather in high school (years before I saw the movie), I’ve been a sucker for the negotiations that go into criminal enterprises, so I dug this whole bit.
- Masseria to Lucky, in Italian: “What are you doing with these Christ-killers?”
- What has Jimmy learned about politics so far? “Nothing’s free.”