OCTOBER 4, 2010
The difference between the pilot episode of “Boardwalk Empire” and the next two episodes is the difference between movies and TV. That's not a slam on the second and third episodes. The pilot, directed by Martin Scorsese, was brazenly cinematic. Compensating (or maybe overcompensating) for having to carry the burden of exposition, it worked hard to avoid boring viewers and to plant as many narrative seeds as possible. “The Ivory Tower” and its follow-up, “Broadway Limited,” go in the other direction. They’re deliberate, or, if you don’t like the pace, “slow.” Where the pilot episode rarely let a scene run longer than a minute, the second and third episodes allow the audience to luxuriate in individual encounters—to sit in rooms with people and watch them talk.
This is one advantage that TV has over movies: its capacity to explore personalities in detail. We know so much more about Atlantic City treasurer Nucky Thompson than we did at the end of the pilot—as well as the widow Margaret Schroeder, and federal agent Nelson Van Alden, among many others. We’ve also been introduced to some new (and presumably recurring) characters. One promising figure is the portrait studio owner whom Jimmy Darmody fears might have dallied with his wife while he was overseas fighting the Germans. (She claims those sexy pictures were for Jimmy, and I tend to believe her). Another is the African-American gangster Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams, a.k.a. Omar from "The Wire"), who seems to be another Nucky in the making. (I love that Chalky tries to turn every moment of every conversation—perhaps every moment in his life!—to financial advantage. It’s flat-out fun to watch, although Nucky's bewilderment over Chalky's favorite twelve-letter word felt like a modern writer showing us his linguistic homework.)
“The Ivory Tower” and “Broadway Limited” were written by series creator Terence Winter and Margaret Nagle respectively, and both helmed by frequent "Sopranos" director Tim Van Patten. At no point in either did a character step into the foreground; instead the show filled out the show’s rich canvas of characters. We spent time with Nucky, Margaret and Nelson and Jimmy, as well as scenes with Chalky or the young Al Capone, who’s back in Chicago following the assassination and burial of Big Jim Colosimo and administering beatdowns to reporters. My shortlist of standout scenes includes the moment at the end of tonight’s episode where Chalky uses the lynching of his right-hand man as a pretext to get a better percentage from Nucky and the long, horrifically comic sequence showing Nelson’s torture/interrogation/murder of the sole survivor of the robbery that occurred in the pilot. (This guy’s truly weird, a cross between Eliot Ness, Popeye Doyle, and Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). There was also the truly strange moment when it’s revealed that the showgirl Gillian (Gretchen Mol) isn’t Jimmy’s former girlfriend, but his mother (cue Tom Lehrer’s song "Oedipus Rex").
But the very best scene in either episode was one of the slowest and quietest. Near the beginning of episode two, Nelson shows up at Margaret’s house to question her about her late, abusive husband. At the end of the scene there is a lovely moment when Nelson, who first came on like a walking sphincter in a fedora, produces a hair ribbon that Margaret had been looking for, turns it over in his hands and holds it up to his face. The first minute of their encounter is nearly silent. Margaret moves around her apartment while the agent stares at her, developing a crush. (It seems as though Nelson, like Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential, has a bit of a Galahad complex.) I’ve rarely seen the mysteries of attraction demonstrated more vividly. Such moments—where one character looks at another and simply thinks about what he’s feeling—are rare in feature films today. Nelson doesn't really know Margaret when he shows up on her doorstep. By the time he leaves, he’s got one of her ribbons in his pocket.
Now on to a list of general likes and dislikes. I like the many lyrical moments: Jimmy leafing through the portrait album, trying to discern the meaning behind his wife and son's contented expressions; the overhead shot of Chalky staring up in horror at a lynched man; Nucky's face registering the metaphoric significance of the mud tracked into his otherwise pristine hotel lobby. I also like the development of what seems to be a fascinating triangle (implied, not literal—yet) between Nucky, Nelson and Margaret. Nucky and Nelson are on opposites sides of the law, a melodramatic conflict that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1940s Warner Bros. potboiler. What does Nucky see in Margaret? His late wife? Nucky is a very peculiar gangster—more sensitive and self-aware than we’re used to seeing. I suspect that his preference for stupid women suggests that he has previously chosen to keep company with women who don’t remind him of his wife.
We haven’t seen any flashbacks with the late Mrs. Thompson, but that portrait resembles a schoolteacher or a social reformer, at the very least a woman with a keen mind. (That’s Molly Parker, former costar of “Deadwood,” in the portrait—and there’s obviously no point casting a name actress in a still photo, if you know what I’m getting at.) One thing’s for sure, there’s no way she could have been anything like Nucky’s current girlfriend, Lucy (an already irritating character made insufferable by actress Paz de la Huerta, whose dreadful performance amounts to an inept impression of Susan Alexander Kane, and whose boob and nose jobs are, to put it mildly, not subtle). Margaret is clearly more Nucky’s type. The song Eddie Cantor sings at one of Nucky’s parties may provide some insight into Nucky’s current romantic preference: the dumb ones know how to make love. At this point in Nucky's life, that's all he wants, and perhaps that's all he can handle.
Margaret and Nelson are nearly as fascinating. Nelson seems to have suffered immense psychic damage. Michael Shannon’s rumbling, Ray Liotta voice should be frightening, but Shannon’s sad eyes leaven the sense of danger. Even when he’s sticking his fist into a man’s guts, he seems more depressed than full of rage. But there’s also something dapper about Nelson, something conventionally masculine and heroic. The second he sees Margaret with her long hair and bruised face, he wants to protect her, and when we see him at home with his wife, it’s clear he has nothing to say to her (whether this the result of his meeting with Margaret remains to be seen). Margaret is a character type we haven’t seen before: a damsel in distress who’s accidentally wound up as a femme fatale. Both Nucky and Nelson are enamored with her even though she hasn’t indicated any romantic interest in either of them. (When Nucky’s sheriff brother shows up at the hospital at the start of “The Ivory Tower” instead of Nucky, she’s disappointed, but I’m not sure whether it’s because she likes Nucky or because he’s done so much to help her, and maybe she doesn’t know, either). When Nucky gets Margaret a job in the hotel’s swanky dress shop, the snooty French owner (an annoying and badly written character), sees her as an upstart who displaced a valued employee, perhaps a hot-to-trot golddigger like Lucy. When Lucy lords it over Margaret in the dressing room, she treats Margaret as a sexual threat. All this attention, all this animosity, and Margaret hasn’t done anything but live in the same world as everyone else. Sometimes trouble just follows a woman.
"Boardwalk Empire" is still finding its footing. The dialogue in these two episodes wasn't polished enough, and I’m not sold on certain plot elements. Nucky’s frame-up of Margaret’s husband, for example, seems so clumsily thought-out that it makes me think less of Nucky – who, according to other characters, is some sort of criminal genius, potentially more dangerous than the New York bosses. The scenes with Capone in Chicago and Lucky Luciano and Arnold Rothstein in New York have felt borderline superfluous (though they were well-acted and had a requisite ugly gangster-movie charge). And while I like the scenes between Gillian and Jimmy, I’m having trouble buying Mol as the mother of Michael Pitt. (They're only around ten years apart in real life.) Jimmy's character seems more muddled than complex, and his flight from his domestic responsibilities struck me as overly abrupt given how much he appears to adore his son. I’m also resenting how the series plays coy with Nucky’s apparent secret fathering of Jimmy. I hope the filmmakers aren't heading for a “Luke, I am your father” moment. Even if they are, they might as well come clean, rather than prolonging this seesaw business in which Nucky talks to Gillian as if the connection is clear, then tells Jimmy that his father made Nucky promise to take care of him, or some such sub-Dickensian silliness. “Boardwalk” may think it needs those sorts of contrivances, but it doesn’t: Sometimes character is enough.