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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Housekeeping

Unlike Margaret Schroeder, we've never read Henry James's The Ivory Tower, but here are the first few lines of the Wikipedia entry: "The novel … centers on the riches earned by a pair of dying millionaires and ex-partners … and their possibly corrupting effect on the people around them." Riches? Corrupting effects? The influence of a dying class? Yes, that sounds like it may have some thematic resonance in this episode — and this series.

After the splatterfest of the premiere, in which at least two noggins were violently aerated, the second episode settles down to some housekeeping: filling in blanks, connecting dots, and shading in portraits, particularly the one sketched of Nucky Thompson. We open on a grand cathedral in Chicago, under fat snowflakes falling from a sooty sky. It's the funeral of Big Jim Colosimo, and a few brave reporters elbow through toward Johnny Torrio and his new BFF, Al Capone, to posit their theory that Torrio ordered the hit. Capone gruffly rebuffs this hypothesis. Later, he gruffly rebuffs the skull of one nosy reporter, using the toe and sole of his boot. The reporter had asked for a statement, so when someone shouts at Capone, "What are you doing?" Capone answers, "I'm making a statement!"

The last shot of the funeral scene is a wreath sent by the ever-thoughtful Nucky. That's our Nucky: no gesture ignored, no nicety overlooked, no chance to curry favor left unexploited. We then join him in his office, where he sits, getting a shoe-shine, peacock-resplendent in a tangerine shirt and checkered suit. Nucky clearly savors the finer things, which makes him the exact opposite of puritanical Agent Van Alden, who drops in for one of those scenes where a cop asks a crook a bunch of questions he already knows the answers to.

Van Alden then reports back to his superior, who points out he's supposed to be tracking Rothstein. "Nucky Thompson is the bigger fish," Van Alden says, and he's exactly wrong. We learn this when, later, we find Rothstein playing billiards, a set piece that nicely tees up an elegant bit of psychosis. Rothstein describes to an underling how he once caused a man to choke to death on a cue ball for his own amusement. And if he'll do that, "imagine what I'll do to you if you don't tell me who ordered you to kill Colosimo." Sadly, and thankfully, we too will have to imagine what he'd have done, as the underling immediately spills. Michael Stuhlbarg has had, to this point, about ten minutes of screen time as Rothstein, yet we're already rooting for a spinoff.

Back on the boardwalk, Jimmy Darmody buys an expensive necklace with his hooch-heist money, which we assume he'll give to his wife. Not so fast! The wife gets a lesser bauble and a vacuum sweeper, as Jimmy's bought the necklace for a mistress who dances in a high-toned burlesque show. Not so fast! She's no mistress! She's his mother, played by Gretchen Mol. He's fulfilling a promise to replace a necklace she once had to sell to feed her family — which is all the more ironic when later, rustling up money for Nucky, Jimmy has to sneak into her dressing room and steal the necklace back.

But this episode is really all about the Nucky: from Van Alden's rundown of Nucky's operation to Nucky's complex relationship to race. His political operation relies on his canny alliance with, and apparent genuine respect for, the city's "darkies." He visibly squirms as the Commodore (who may actually, literally be Satan) humiliates his black maid in an effort to prove that women don't deserve the vote. Yet Nucky also dismissed Hans Schroeder, the hooch-heist patsy, as a vicious Hun. (And a few seconds later we cut to a KKK member, openly recruiting on the boardwalk, another vibrant reminder of the racial tenor of the times.) We've already learned that Nucky is a well-read gentleman ("Read a fucking book," he snarled last week), but not exactly a scholar. ("I guess he was a poet," he says of George Sand. "He was a she," says Margaret.) And he's not above a humiliating power play of his own. When Jimmy forks over the $3,000 Nucky had demanded, Nucky thoughtlessly and spitefully bets it all away on one roulette spin. "The world turns," he says to Jimmy, by way of a lesson, and a slap in the face.

The episode ends with a nod to classic silent-film cliffhangers: Two young lovers (well, not really young, nor really lovers) in a car scream as a figure of horror waddles out of the woods. It looks like Nucky and Jimmy's small disagreement about how many people actually died in the hooch-heist massacre might not be so insignificant after all.

Already, in episode two, everyone in Boardwalk Empire has their hands on someone else's throat, and they're all starting to slowly squeeze. Rothstein on Nucky; Nucky on Jimmy; and Sheriff Elias on any poor sap who stumbles in his way. The only incorruptible here seems to be the virtuous Van Alden, whom we see at a spartan desk, writing the least romantic love letter of all time to his wife ("Please see to it that you run the faucets twice a day"). Then he pulls out a Bible and — wait? What? — that's no Bible! It's a hair ribbon he stole from Margaret Schroeder, which he starts aggressively sniffing. So is Van Alden in love with Margaret? A two-faced perv? Congenitally creepy? All of the above?

As with many players in the show, the straitlaced, God-fearing G-Man is, at first, a familiar archetype. Yet we can now rest easy that Michael Shannon, and the show's writers, are planning to take Van Alden into the kind of dark waters into which Elliott Ness never waded. In a standard scenario, Van Alden would be Boardwalk Empire's hero. But this is no standard scenario. Can you really see yourself rooting for Van Alden for long, if at all?

Photo: Abbot Genser/HBO