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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Boardwalk Empire: “Ourselves Alone”

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After reading multiple reviews and comments last week (here and elsewhere) about how Boardwalk Empire is a classy but empty show, it was nice to be reminded with “Ourselves Alone” why I enjoyed the first season so much. Last season, I’d watch an episode on the screener DVDs that HBO sends out, and then I’d often see all or part of the episode again, either while watching the telecast version with my wife or while flipping through channels. And I was always struck by how well the Boardwalk Empire writing/directing/acting/technical team can construct sequences that play like gripping little short films, pleasurable to watch and re-watch, even when they’re divorced from the rest of the episode.

“Ourselves Alone” has two of those sequences, and my only real complaint about them is that they were cut up and sprinkled throughout the episode, when they might’ve played even better if they’d been allowed to run intact.

Of course, that would’ve been too much to ask in the case of “Jimmy Darmody’s New York Adventure,” which spans multiple locations and covers the better part of an entire day. I’m sure the writers, led by the credited Howard Korder, were trying to maintain some rough chronological continuity by cutting back and forth between the episode’s strongest sequences. (Then again, who said the show’s structure always has to be conventional?) Still, I loved just about everything in Jimmy’s series of meetings with Arnold Rothstein and associates, especially the flavorful dialogue, exemplified by the way the Rothstein imparts an almost mythological quality to Jimmy’s rise to power with lines like, “A year ago, you were a brigand in the woods.”

Rothstein leans on his version of Jimmy’s origin story as the main reason why he’s skeptical about conducting business with the young man. That’s why Jimmy ends up at a poker game run by Meyer Lansky, who’s every bit the gentleman and the player that Rothstein is, only in far grubbier surroundings. Lansky suggests that if Jimmy’s organization can supply him with liquor, then his organization can provide Jimmy with heroin, which they feel could be a lucrative commodity in the Atlantic City market. It’s fascinating to watch Jimmy through all these meetings, as he holds his tongue and tries to figure out who might be angling against him. Even when he’s playing poker, he’s watching the squabbles going on in Lansky’s office. And Jimmy’s awareness serves him well after the game, when two mugs try to rob him of his winnings, and he slashes them with his blade. Jimmy may ultimately be overmatched in the world of politics and business, but he’s still really, really good at violence.

The other episode-within-the-episode in “Ourselves Alone” sees Chalky White sitting in stir. Chalky’s stint in the local jail begins in a manner befitting a civic leader. He consults with Nucky, who shares a cell with him after his own arrest, and he receives a visit from his wife, who passes along a copy of David Copperfield from their son Lester. But then Nucky leaves and another white prisoner arrives, forcing Chalky to get transferred to another cell, with the rest of the negroes. The problem? In that new cell is a cocky, angry, hulking man named Dunn Purnsley (played by Erik LaRay Harvey), who mocks Chalky for his “high yella” wife and “zip coon” clothes. (He also needles Chalky’s choice of literature, revealing that, in fact, Chalky can’t read.) Chalky tries to suffer all these insults with quiet dignity, but when Purnsley pushes him too far, Chalky takes a little roll call of the other men in the cell, each of whom stands up and thanks him for favors he’s done for them, before they hold Purnsley back and kick his ass.

It’s moments like these—Jimmy in Rothstein’s office, Jimmy at the poker game, Chalky in a cell with Purnsley—that make Boardwalk Empire a much better show than its detractors allow. This is a historical epic that aims to examine the roots of the American character, yes, but Boardwalk Empire is also a series of small-scale character sketches, revealing the subtle ways that people wield power.


That’s evident in the main plot of “Ourselves Alone,” too, which has to do with Nucky’s precarious position, post-arrest. While the state rips apart his office looking for evidence of election fraud, Nucky holes up in his actual, rarely used treasurer’s office, trying to figure out who might be “Confidential Witness #1” and “Confidential Witness #2” in the case against him. He calls in his most trusted associates, and takes note of who shows up and who’s late. And then he takes a gut-wrenching call from his bitter brother Eli, who taunts him by asking, “How’s it feel sittin’ at your fancy desk, by yourself?”

Nucky’s at about his lowest ebb when he arrives home for his scheduled dinner with Joe McGarrigle (played by Ted Rooney), a representative of the Irish political party/independence movement Sinn Féin, who’s in town looking for a handout. McGarrigle’s advance man Slater (played by Charlie Cox) is a charming rake who recites naughty poems to Nucky and Margaret’s tittering maids, but McGarrigle himself proves to be yet another humorless idealist, like Agent Van Alden, and like The Commodore, and like Eli. Over dinner, McGarrigle speechifies about moral turpitude and why he doesn’t eat animals with cloven hooves, and why he won’t take a second drink after dinner. (Though he relents on the latter after he’s completed his business with Nucky.)


The title of this episode refers to Margaret’s mistranslation of “Sinn Féin,” but also refers to how people forge alliances, and draw up lines of opposition. “Ourselves Alone” moves from office to office—including the makeshift office of Chalky’s cell—showing how different leaders work with their people. A lot of aphorisms get tossed around too: “Nobody takes power; someone else has to give it to them,” and “Don’t let the past get in the way of the future.” (But which one’s Nucky? The past or the future?) It’s telling though that the lines that apply to so many of these characters—Jimmy and Nucky especially—are recited from David Copperfield, as the camera holds on Chalky White’s grim face. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” At a certain point, people in charge have to stop delegating and start working for themselves.

Stray observations:

  • Chalky telling Nucky that he knows what “precarious” means gave me a glimmer of hope that he was faking not knowing how to read, to deceive Purnsley. But alas.
  • While Chalky stews in his cell, Nucky gets bailed out, and suggests to Chalky that he get his own “Jew lawyer.” Later, when asked about the quality of his representation, Chalky says, “He a Hebrew gentleman.”
  • Like I said, I loved the dialogue in the Rothstein scene, as when Jimmy asks Rothstein if he has children and Rothstein says that he’s heard that kids “often say unexpected and amusing things.”
  • In that same scene, Jimmy says that Nucky’s like a father to him, and when Lucky says that he’s barely said hello to his own father in five years, Jimmy snaps, “Sorry to hear it.” No love lost between these two. That’s why when Lucky invites Jimmy to Lansky’s poker game, Jimmy’s wary, sure that he’s going to be ambushed. Finally, Jimmy drops the posturing and says, “Just give me the straight dope.” Thus an unwary alliance is born.
  • Anyone have an opinion on why Lansky associate Benny yelps like a monkey and cries like a baby? Crazy or strategic?
  • After Margaret wakes up to the news that Nucky’s been arrested—despite her maids’ best efforts to hide the paper from her—she borrows an outfit from the help, pads it out to make it look like she’s pregnant, then lies her way past the state’s attorney and into Nucky’s office/suite at The Ritz, so she can sneak out Nucky’s hidden ledger. Despite her fancy duds, Margaret still thinks of herself as a crafty Irish working girl—though her servants believe otherwise—and as Nucky’s ally, at a time when Nucky is short on same.
  • Boardwalk Empire continues its way of marking the passage of time through holidays and ritual, as Margaret is treated to a homemade Valentine from her kids.
  • Nucky The Jokester returns when he’s talking with the press, though when the reporters don’t laugh, he pivots and says that the biggest joke is Trenton. Slick segue.
  • The Commodore, with his hair all shoe-polished up, is assembling a team to take down Nucky, with Eli and Jimmy as his muscle, and with the freaky, white-haired “men who made this city” (including the mutton-chopped, Latin-spouting Dominic Chianese) backing his play. They may not be imposing, but they are creepy.
  • Taxidermy imagery in BE for the second week running. Do you want to be the bear, or do you want to be holding a shotgun?