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Boardwalk Empire Recap: Enter the Whipping Boy

If you checked the #BoardwalkEmpire hashtag on Twitter immediately following this week's episode, you'd have found two prevalent sentiments: This sixth installment was the best one yet, and "wtf with that ending!?!???" The ending we'll get to in a moment, but as to the first part: Yes, definitely, despite the episode's distinct lack of Chalky White.

After a few relatively bloodshed-free weeks (save a clipped finger here and slashed face there), we had a Coppola-worthy set piece, as Jimmy, Al, and Torrio sit down with Sheridan to hash out control of Greektown. Jimmy crosses his legs, and his pant leg rises to reveal the nasty looking brass-knuckle knife he'd been playing five-finger filet with earlier. At this point, it seems we might finally see Jimmy go full on PTSD-psycho, cutting off everyone's ears and wearing them out the door as a necklace. But Sheridan's men spot the blade and Sheridan takes it. Even as he's giving Jimmy a warning shave, you sense this won't end well for Sheridan. You're just not sure exactly how.

Then, as everyone exits, one of the Torrio's prostitutes — we saw her earlier, consoling Jimmy over Pearl — pops up as the hat-check girl, returning pistols and sawed-offs along with fedoras and overcoats. And in a decisive and brutal lobby massacre, Jimmy and Al resolve the Sheridan problem once and for all. (Sheridan's goon Liam, the face-slasher, seemed notably absent here; perhaps he'll get some future, more personal attention from Jimmy.)

The episode started with horseplay and shenanigans. Remember the heist Mickey Doyle described to his Italian backers? We see it played out here, as one of Nucky's lackeys gets sapped. In the kind of clever segue this series is making a trademark, birds swirl in the air, then cut to: Lucy in bed with Nucky. "Was that nice, Daddy?" she purrs. She then literally claws him like a tiger. What seems at first like overly aggressive love-play is actually feline possessiveness: She's marking her territory, knowing Margaret will see the scratches.

Meanwhile, when the Grande Dame of Temperance asks Mrs. Schroeder if the arrangement she's been offered by Nucky is "Financial? Domestic? Sexual?" Margaret simply answers, "Yes." On the one hand, his offer will deliver her and her kids into a comfortable lifestyle; on the other, she'll become a pampered "concubine." For the first time, we're seeing Margaret not as the plucky, sharp-tongued former servant turned emancipation fighter, but as a woman torn between disastrous choices, weighing what her new life will afford her and what it will cost.

She does, however, get the best of a showdown with the overmatched Lucy at the lingerie shop. Lucy forces her to undress then snarls, "You're sagging." Then she spreads her legs and tells Margaret that Nucky will always come home, so to speak. Margaret coolly relays the tale of a raggedy man and his bantam rooster. "What's the point?" asks Lucy impatiently. "Maybe your cunny isn't quite the draw you think it is," replies Margaret. And there we have the first bumper-sticker-ready catchphrase of the season.

One of the great pleasures of this series thus far is how the character's motivations are expertly clouded, even from themselves: Is Nucky wooing Margaret out of love or controlling cunning? Similarly, when Lucky Luciano beds Gillian (she puts the "lead in his pencil," he tells her), is he trying to get to Jimmy or being distracted from the hunt? When Lucky tells Rothstein he's getting intimate with Jimmy's wife, Rothstein says, "It's his mother," and we're left to wonder whether this thwarts Lucky's intentions or serves them even better. And when Lucky derides her later as a "gash," is he revealing his true feelings or obscuring them? Certainly Nucky's swift, unobscured reaction will feed speculation that he and Gillian were once involved, and maybe even had a son together.

Speaking of whom: Jimmy sits down for dinner at Capone's house, and when Capone's wife says Jimmy's a grown man who can decide what he wants to eat, Al snaps, "He'll take what I give him." You have to suspect this isn't the last time this dynamic will play out between these two. Torrio praises Jimmy for the plot to snuff Sheridan, and Capone, the rebuked child, knocks Jimmy down a peg in front of the crew. Jimmy counters by questioning Capone's war-time service. Later, they make nice, sort of, over raw, salted steaks. In all, this was a standout episode for Stephen Graham, who paints us a portrait of Capone as a vicious killer, insecure lieutenant, and heartbroken dad.

Oh, wait — did we mention Van Alden? If you have an Emmy vote and a DVR, we refer you to Michael Shannon at roughly 31:30 of this episode. Watch his reaction as he interrogates Margaret's bitter former neighbor, and it finally sinks in that Margaret has taken warm refuge under Nucky's wing and in his bed. Van Alden registers a beautiful, complex mess of a reaction, rich with disappointment, anger, and shame.

And as to that ending: Well, it certainly left a mark. Van Alden pores over Margaret's immigration file. He tenderly touches her picture, then seems to wince when he sees she's only 16 years old in it. He places the photo gingerly by the bed stand, then whips his own bare back with a buckled leather strap, adding new scars to old ones from previous lashings. He's self-flagellating in the grand old Catholic tradition, but, like everything else this week, it's not that simple. Is he punishing himself for sexual feelings or enhancing those feelings in a masochistic fervor? Either way, this episode-ending image is as indelible as the scars he leaves behind.

Photo: Abbot Genser/HBO