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Boardwalk Empire: “Gimcrack & Bunkum”

Illustration for article titled iBoardwalk Empire/i: “Gimcrack  Bunkum”
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So… bloody enough for you?

One of the recurring criticisms of Boardwalk Empire is that there’s just not enough visceral action for a show that’s ostensibly about criminals. But as I’ve suggested a few times this season, this is more a show about maneuvering and deal-making and securing a position in the marketplace, which means it’s really a show about the lengths men will go to not to kill, or even not to say what’s on their minds. The Sopranos was much the same actually, and met with similar complaints from time to time that there wasn’t enough whacking. Me, I like watching people weigh their options and make plans, rather than always pulling for a gun. (I just spent most of this past Friday catching up with the current season of Sons Of Anarchy in a seven-episode marathon, and while I mostly enjoyed the show’s return to crazy-pulp-land, the corpses have been stacking up so fast this season that it strains credulity and makes it harder to buy that SAMCRO can continue its day-to-day operations.) Murder often defuses drama. It’s much more tense when characters have to find ways to live alongside the people who are making their lives miserable.


All of that said, there was something satisfying about seeing Boardwalk Empire’s characters just straight-out fuck shit up in tonight’s “Gimcrack & Bunkum.” Nucky and Eli knock the crap out of each other. Eli beats a business associate to death with a wrench. Jimmy and Richard scalp a cocky old bastard who had the temerity to rap Jimmy in the face with his cane at a meeting. It’s is a heck of a way for these boys to celebrate Memorial Day: by creating more dead folks to solemnly remember.

Of course, it’s not like there isn’t plenty of talk before the blades and blunt instruments fly. In fact, “Gimcrack & Bunkum” opens with two speeches. First up is Nucky, delivering some very practiced Memorial Day patter at a dedication ceremony, honoring the absent Commodore for being “this city’s doting father” (there’s that parenthood theme again) and pointedly staring at Jimmy as he praises him and all the veterans for their “sacrifice… service… and loyalty.” Then Nucky surprises Jimmy by asking him to take the stage and say a few words. It’s a direct challenge by Nucky: Does Jimmy really have what it takes to play this game in all its facets? Nucky’s presumption, whispered to Jimmy as he steps to the podium, is that Jimmy doesn’t even “know the rules.”

But surprise! Jimmy musters up some stirring words about bravery and fighting for his country—which disgusts Nucky, who knows that the only reason Jimmy enlisted was because was bombing out at Princeton. (Angela Darmody, too, wonders how much of the speech Jimmy actually meant.) Still, Jimmy feels confident that he’s passed a test… until he and Eli have a sit-down with The Loyal Order Of Racist Coots, and find out that their new business partners have become concerned by the apparent disappearance of The Commodore, as well as by the destruction of Mickey Doyle’s warehouse, which has cost them all $70,000 worth of booze. The scene between Jimmy and the Coots has a lot of zazz, as the old-timers ping comments and insults off of each other and off of the hapless younger folks now in charge of the liquor distribution operation. Neither Eli nor Jimmy was ever officially put in power, and spending years as the muscle for masterminds hasn’t prepared them for this moment. Ultimately, Nucky is right: Jimmy doesn’t know the rules.

That’s why Jimmy suffers the indignity of getting schooled by a withered old prick named Mr. Parkhurst, who boasts about slaughtering Sioux in his calvary days, joking that the savages “thought they could stop bullets with magic.” When Jimmy takes an impertinent tone, Parkhurst knocks the boy on the head, hard, to teach him a lesson. Jimmy mumbles, “You just taught me plenty,” and then drafts Richard to help him murder the old man that night in a way he’s deemed appropriately poetic.


Eli, meanwhile, responds to his Coot-sponsored humiliation by running back to his brother, begging for help. Almost as much as the eruptions of violence in “Gimcrack & Bunkum,” I appreciated the eruptions of straight-talk, which were just as jarring in their way. When Nucky comes home and finds out that Eli’s waiting for him in the conservatory, he tenses up, while Margaret wonders where their new enforcer Owen Sleater has gone. Initially, Eli and Nucky fall into their usual pattern of posturing, with Eli griping that Nucky is “no conversation, just orders,” and Nucky saying that they’re done talking “unless you have something to say besides ‘God distributes his gifts unequally.’”

But then Eli breaks down and confesses everything: that The Commodore has been incapacitated by stroke, that Gillian is a madwoman, that Jimmy’s in over his head, and that he doesn’t have the resources or connections or acumen to step into the power-void himself. Nucky takes a beat and then offers to help, but says that first, “I need you to get on your knees, bend down to the ground and kiss my shoes, you fuckin’ piece of shit.” The brothers commence to waling on each other, smashing up all the potted plants in the immediate vicinity, until Margaret comes in with an unloaded shotgun and chases Eli off. The whole scene is a honey, featuring long-simmering conflict, sudden reversals, and the sight of grown men grappling in an elegant, well-lit room, seen from close-up and from a medium-long shot (so that we can see exactly what they’re wrecking). After Eli leaves and Nucky chastises Margaret for not loading the gun, Margaret asks, “Is this to be our life?”


Hey it could be worse, Margaret. You could be Eli, cast out of his brother’s sunny mansion and relegated to a dank garage, where he’s drinking and working on a project with his son when his nervous business partner George arrives. George isn’t sure they should have this conversation in these surroundings, given that Eli’s kids could be around. (“I don’t store ‘em in the garage,” Eli grunts impatiently.) George also isn’t sure Eli should be standing up and stumbling toward him after George asks about The Commodore. Finally Eli, in frustration, swings a wrench at his visitor and rips his throat open by accident. After a moment’s hesitation, Eli pushes the man down and finishes the job, with a slight smile on his face as he swings his wrench repeatedly.

The contrasts and comparisons between the Eli/Nucky and Eli/George scenes are subtle but well-staged: the lightness of the conservatory versus the darkness of the garage, the harmless wrestling versus the homicide, Margaret stopping the fight versus Eli’s son coming back a minute after his dad has killed a man. But what stands out most to me is Eli’s creepy smile, which indicates a sense of satisfaction, almost as though Eli were beating his brother to death, not some fat guy.


In fact, it was pretty much Facial Expression Theater tonight. We had Gillian’s look of resignation and mild embarrassment as she tells her son, “I know all of them, dear,” referring to the Coots. We had Nucky rolling his eyes a little as he slapped on a goofy hat to go golfing with Harry Daugherty. And then there was the exchange of knowing looks as Harry and Nucky’s new attorney complete their consultation on Nucky’s federal case and then say, “We’re free… all evening,” letting Nucky know that they expect to be “entertained.”

But the facial expression that continues to fascinate me most is that of Richard Harrow, whose visage is so contorted that it’s hard to tell whether he’s cheerful or grimacing. Case in point: Richard starts his Memorial Day by paging through his Happy Book (now including his Angela Darmody sketch), then he wraps up a hunk of bread and an apple to take out into the woods, where he apparently intends to shoot himself. Or does he? The sequence where Richard takes off his mask and puts on his WWI medal amid the hush of the forest is genuinely unsettling, because this is the kind of a show where a character could abruptly off himself. (And damn it, I’d miss Richard.) But then a dog ambles up to Richard mid-suicide—as Richard is laying back on a rock with his rifle in his mouth—and picks up Richard’s mask in its teeth. And suddenly, Richard cares again whether he lives or dies (For those keeping score, this is one of three scenes of violence in “Gimcrack & Bunkum” that get interrupted.)


Richard follows the dog—just like in Wii Fit!—and ends up in a hunting camp, where two buddies sit around a fire. The easy give-and-take between the two men—who joke about eating “tree rats” and toss around jibes like “you’re an easily bamboozled individual”—seems to give Richard a better understanding of why he feels so empty. He lacks companionship. He puts his mask back on—with visible dog-bite-marks under the “eye”—and goes to see Jimmy, asking his boss, “Would you fight for me?” Jimmy insists that he would. But is Jimmy sincere? Or after his Memorial Day speech, is he finally learning that to be a successful leader, you just need to tell people what they want to hear?

Stray observations:

  • Examining his flab in the locker room, Harry Daugherty cracks, “Talk about the waist in Washington!” A regular Mark Russell, this guy.
  • I liked the understated joke of Daugherty explaining that his office will drop Nucky’s case because they’re “swamped with Volstead,” right before he refills his whiskey glass.
  • Oh, there you are, Owen. You’ve been busy banging Katy all day.
  • That shot of Eli digging a grave in the grass by headlamp was awfully pretty.
  • “You killed Mary Pickford?”

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