This week’s episode was a master class in expertly crafted conversation, where the only violence (save for a couple of roundhouses) was accomplished through verbal cunning. No one said what they meant, or dared voice what they desire, right up to the last five minutes, when poor, drunk Eli took a swing at his brother, and Nucky took Margaret (finally) into his embrace.
We start with Margaret, in bed, awakened by a beer truck, then making breakfast, her quotidian world quickly juxtaposed with Nucky’s glamorous life at the Ritz. He grouses about Saint Patrick’s Day: the annual festival of “crying, arguing, and public drunkenness.” Margaret appears to offer him soda bread; after their dance at his birthday, she has every expectation she’ll be warmly received, not coldly rebuked. But oddly, Nucky brushes her off.
In Chicago, Jimmy nurses Pearl, her face bandaged to hide a Frankenstein scar. They still talk of California — note how Jimmy squeezes her a glass of imported O.J. — but any escape to palm trees and sunshine is limited to the laudanum bottle. “Everyone wants what they’re not allowed to have,” says Nucky in a following scene, counting bootlegger’s money, and that’s the theme this week: not allowed to have, or forbidden to have, or want what was simply ripped from them forever by the point of a gangster’s blade.
Margaret, having dust-binned the soda bread, heads to the Temperance League and rats out Nucky’s beer warehouse. She and Lady Temperance set out for a sit-down, and in a smart scene, we get to see Nucky at work. A representative of the little people hired to dance as leprechauns comes to ask for a raise. Nucky’s tactic: divide and conquer, playing the rep’s greed off against the interests of his fellow midgets. Rather than paying all eight of them ten dollars, Nucky offers the de facto foreman twelve, with seven each for the other leprechauns and twelve back into Nucky’s pocket.
But if Nucky proves a master negotiator, Margaret’s his equal at manipulation: “Did you enjoy the soda bread?” she asks, knowing full well she dumped it in the trash. Nucky returns the volley later: “My birthday party must have been difficult for you,” he says flatly, when informed she is shocked — shocked! — by the bootlegger’s beer warehoused behind her house.
Johnny Torrio’s the only one who speaks forthrightly, pronouncing, “She gotta go” of the now-scarred Pearl. She’s a useless commodity: “If she was a filly, we’d shoot her.” And she’s certainly not headed to Hollywood — she’s not even allowed to go downstairs, though she does, later, doped to the gills, in a wrenching scene in which Capone snarls, “Get her out of here.” She whispers to Jimmy, “Who’s going to love me now?”
After Nucky rebukes Margaret a second time — failing to close down the beer warehouse — she marches to see Van Alden at the post office, where he’s busy ineffectually sticking pins into a map. Nucky won’t do anything, and Van Alden can’t. “I’ve been lectured a great deal today by men who speak boldly and do nothing,” Margaret says. Van Alden presses her for a name. She gives up the ward boss, Neary. “He works for Mr. Thompson,” she says — and sets in motion at least a glancing blow.
At the Celtic dinner — a beautifully cinematic scene that reminds us again of this series’ insane production values — Nucky cedes the podium to Eli, who promptly riles up the crowd with a boilerplate anti-England speech. Nucky steps in to defuse the riot. In Chicago, a different speech, much more tender, is unfurling: Jimmy’s half-mythologized tale of his mother seducing a wealthy suitor on Egg Island, under a bullet-riddled Stars and Stripes. It’s part nostalgic, part heartbreaking — all women in this era, on some level, are forced to do what they can to survive. (To that end, we later see Jimmy’s mother and his abandoned wife bickering over raising the son that likely isn’t his — and the wife, later, retreating to the studio of her photographer paramour.)
Now, raise your hand if you thought this tender moment between Jimmy and Pearl would end with Jimmy tenderly snuffing her out? Instead, she pulls the trigger when he steps out (to scrub the sunshine from his pants). This is the second time the show’s had a chance to complicate Jimmy’s character and flinched — first, when his mistress turned out to be his mom, and now as Pearl conveniently removes herself from his equation. We were a little disappointed by this resolution, but maybe others found it tragic. It was sad enough to send Jimmy straight into the arms of an opium bowl.
And Van Alden comes bursting through the doors of the Celtic dinner, dropping some loud-mouth lawyer with a cross to the jaw. This is his first triumph (symbolic as it may be) but, of course, it’s Margaret’s revenge. In response, Nucky bangs on her door late at night and … well, the two finally consummate their simmering attraction. All their maneuvering led them to each other.
One question: Why did Nucky rebuke her to begin with? We’ve seen the theory floated (and it makes sense) that he didn’t want to sully her in his dirty world. Once she proved she could fight dirty, too, he could no longer resist her. In an earlier scene, Rothstein’s lawyer explains how Rothstein should react to an article accusing him (rightly, it seems) of conspiring to fix the World Series. When you get mud on your pants, you don’t rub it in, you let it set, then brush it off, the lawyer explains. Or, in this world, wear it proudly.