I’d like to extend a cordial welcome to all you Breaking Bad fans who may have stopped by our little boardwalk resort this week, looking for your regular Sunday night fix of violent-but-sophisticated adult drama. I won’t pretend that Boardwalk Empire is as gripping a show as Breaking Bad. (Hell, what is?) This show is lusher and more diffuse. Boardwalk Empire does explore corruption and the dynamics of power, but it does so less in a pinned-into-a-corner-with-no-escape way, and more in a my-feelings-will-be-hurt-if-I-don’t-get-my-way way. Less urgency, in other words—though no less truthfulness. But heck, do you like explosions? Because man, we’ve got explosions. And men with half-faces.
The parade of half-faces in “What Does The Bee Do?” is led by Boardwalk Empire’s original half-face, Richard Harrow, who stops by the Darmody manse to meet up with Jimmy, and instead spends some time with Angela, gabbing about art. He returns later and allows himself to be sketched—even removing his mask after telling a sad story about how his twin sister Emma took care of him after the war until he fled to Chicago in despair. The scene is hushed and haunting, built on simple imagery: close-ups of Harrow’s eyes (or rather, his one real eye and his one drawn-on eye); medium shots of Harrow sitting still, framed by the Darmodys’ big oceanfront windows; and finally a lovely insert of Harrow holding his mask in his hands, staring down at the tiny piece of tin that now defines him.
The next half-face is The Commodore, who opens this episode as a lucky, lucky man, receiving a private showing of Gillian Darmody’s half-nude “Diana dance.” But then, right around the time that Gillian is stripping off her toga and telling The Commodore to “prepare for the righteous punishment of the gods,” he begins to shake and seize. It’s apoplexy—a stroke. By the end of the episode, The Commodore’s face is half-paralyzed, and he can only grunt out the words “Cock!” and “Fuck!” So Gillian smacks him hard on the half of the face that can feel, after reminding him of the details of how he got her drunk on wine and “seduced” her when she a girl.
And the half-face bringing up the rear is Agent Clarkson, who’s begun to have some doubts about whether his boss Van Alden is as squeaky-clean as he presents himself. Clarkson knows for a fact that Van Alden’s been visiting with known bootlegger Mickey Doyle, and yet Doyle has remained un-busted as of yet. So Clarkson drags a fellow agent up to Doyle’s place but has the misfortune to arrive shortly after Nucky’s new enforcer Owen Sleater has planted a bomb. Boom goes the dynamite. Off goes half of Clarkson’s face.
What is the meaning of this recurring motif? It may have something to do with how the characters on this show present different faces depending on the party with whom they’re doing business—which seems to be constantly in flux.
In “What Does The Bee Do?,” for example, the liquor wars of Atlantic City seem to be opening up a new front in Philadelphia, where Jimmy Darmody has struck a deal with Jewish butcher/mobster Manny Horvitz (played by the always-awesome William Forsythe) to accept shipment of the many crates of whiskey that are piling up in the wake of Nucky’s buying-freeze, while Nucky has struck a deal with Arnold Rothstein to allow him to bring his own crates of whiskey in via the Philly ports controlled by Rothstein’s associate Waxey Gordon. There’s all kinds of potential for conflict here in the weeks to come, given Jimmy’s overtures to Rothstein a few weeks ago, and also given Lansky and Luciano’s attempt to cut a side deal with Jimmy to move heroin, as well as the existing animosity between Manny and Waxey.
As for this week, all the Philadelphia maneuvering prompts my two favorite scenes, both involving Rothstein. In the first, Rothstein’s wife tsk-tsks over him eating so much apple-bread to soothe his tender stomach and produce “sound elimination.” Then Rothstein takes a call from Nucky but not before he practices saying “Mr. Thompson” a few times to get the tone right. Rothstein is such a smooth operator; it’s interesting to see him as a little more fragile and concerned with his self-image. It all adds a layer of meaning to the second Rothstein scene, which is positioned more from the perspective of Lansky and Luciano. They’re already fretting over whether they’re coming off as too small-time, and then they see master-gambler Rothstein standing in their poker parlor and they panic a little. (“Bring him in before he breaks the house!”) Rothstein fills them in on his deal with Nucky and Waxey and tells his associates that they’ll be providing the muscle for these deliveries. He then reminds the boys that they owe him for smoothing things over with Masseria, adding that he’s just come from a meeting with Joe, where, “We were served a native dish of tripe, which I can not abide.” But he ate it anyway, just as he expects Meyer and Lucky to eat it. Here’s hoping there’s enough apple-bread for everyone.
While Rothstein gets my MVP award for “What Does The Bee Do?,” there’s a lot of other hardware to pass around. The Richard Harrow scenes are aces too, and the episode is well-stocked with memorable images, from the maze of booze that Jimmy and Doyle roam through in the opening scene to, yes, Gillian’s fleshy Diana impersonation.
After all the snarky comment last season about gratuitous nudity, Boardwalk Empire has been relatively chaste so far this season, so it was good to see a little return to decadence, both in Gillian’s heart-stopping seduction routine and in the wild scene at Ed Bader’s birthday, which could aptly be dubbed Tits At The Ritz. Topless prostitutes imported from Philadelphia—again with Philly!—gently whip and straddle a blindfolded Bader, and in the process give Nucky’s lawyer an idea. Since Nucky had used these same girls to help secure votes in Bader’s election, that makes his election fraud case a federal one, which means he might be able to take advantage of his White House connections after all. Or, as he says to Margaret with a big, hilarious grin: “I violated the Mann Act!”
Margaret is less amused by Nucky’s loophole, though she’s too busy with her own household concerns to get too huffy. “What Does The Bee Do?” back-burners the story of Margaret’s search for her family and gets back to one that I find more compelling so far: her sense of herself in relation to her poor Irish staff. When Nucky gives her money to pass along to the help as a bonus, Margaret is dismayed, because she was thinking they might need to cut the maids’ pay. She’s even more dismayed when she gives the staff their extra two bucks and they look disappointed, because Mr. Thompson came home drunk one night and promised them all an actual, permanent raise. Margaret, talking to herself as much as her ladies, scoffs, “It’s a special kind of fool who relies on the promise of a drunkard.” But later, she asks Nucky for $100 for clothes for the children and then socks that money away. Is she planning to use that money to pad out the pay envelopes? Or is she just heeding Nucky’s comment defending the maids’ petty larceny, when he insists that “everyone steals?”
No one this week, though, has an identity crisis quite like Chalky White’s. He’d like to be content with his current level of power in the city—getting better working conditions for his fellow members of the black community, and leaning on those members who cause trouble for nice old ladies and the like—but a number of his unofficial constituents are up in arms over the rise in Klan activity, and don’t think it’s enough for Chalky to take as much as he takes and only give back “a summer clambake and a Christmas turkey.” And when Chalky takes this problem to Nucky, Nucky can’t understand why someone as well-off as Chalky wouldn’t just be “a good boy” and accept his lot.
It all comes to head for Chalky when his wife invites his daughter’s boyfriend Samuel over for dinner, and while Chalky wants hoppin’ john, his wife serves a fancy duck. Samuel tries to smooth things over by saying of hoppin’ john, “I have always enjoyed that type of food, sir,” but that only makes Chalky feel like more of a freak inside of his own well-cultured family. (“Pretty clear who the field-nigger is,” he growls.)
Like I said, even though people do get blown up sometimes on Boardwalk Empire, the stakes are generally fairly low on this show. It’s not like Nucky or Chalky or Rothstein will keel over dead if they’re not running their own affairs. It’s more about their sense of who they are and what level of diminishment they’re willing to accept. It’s really very simple, what this show’s about: “What does father do?… What does mother do?… What do children do?”
- I can’t decide whether the stylized nature of Boardwalk Empire disguises some wooden acting at times or encourages it. Gretchen Mol has some wonderful moments in this episode as Gillian, and at other times, her line readings come off as sort of high-school play-ish.
- Possible anachronism alert! When Manny tells Jimmy that he has freezers full of men who’ve crossed him, Jimmy cracks, “I just got Creamsicles in mine.” I did some checking to see how long Creamicles have been around, and while I couldn’t confirm anything, it looks as though popsicles weren’t commercially available until 1923. They existed before then but weren’t packaged and sold in stores. It’s possible that Creamsicles were available in Atlantic City from boardwalk vendors, but it’s unlikely that Jimmy would’ve been able to buy a bunch to take home, which means it’s unlikely that this joke would’ve occurred to him. (But again… can’t confirm any of that.)
- Hey, it’s the champ! Jack Dempsey! I doubt we’ve seen the last of him either, since Nucky extends an invitation for him to train in Atlantic City.
- Van Alden gets righteously angry over the “Van Asshole” graffiti in the bathroom. Good thing he didn’t get to the one that starts, “Here I sit, broken-hearted….”
- Nucky will not be breakfasting. Or dinnering.
- I’m sure you heard the news that Boardwalk Empire’s already been renewed for a third season. After an episode like this, that’s good to know.